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Spirituality & Religion

In today's Western world, there can be a marked separation between spirituality and religion. Public opinion now privileges 'spirituality' above 'religion,' with the latter being regarded with a good deal of suspicion. 'Spirituality', as the term is used today, refers to the personal pursuit of the sacred. 'Religion', however, carries the unfortunate connotations of moralism, piety and hypocrisy. This has been exasperated by recent unearthed widespread sexual abuse in Christianity, and terrorist religious extremism which is linked in the popular mind with violence, terror and war-mongering fundamentalism.

Historically, spirituality referred to the living core of religion and the capacity to engage with religion in a deeply personal way. It concerned those who experienced religion from the inside, exploring a personal relationship with God. But in the public arena today, spirituality need have nothing to do with formal religion and rather concerns all forms of activity that concern a search for meaning. Secularisation and individualisation are the keys to the ascendancy of this understanding of spirituality. Spirituality is no longer the province of churches or theologians, but regarded as an essential aspect of human personality, shared by everyone regardless of their membership of institutions. So, in an historical sense, the term spirituality has undergone a reversal: it once referred to those who were very religious, and now it refers to those who are not very religious. The spiritual has been wrenched out of traditions and made an aspect of human character and society. Spirituality has now been awarded the task of doing what was once noble in religion, that is, connecting us to the sacred and circumscribing for us the purpose of our existence.

In a recent conference of World Community for Christian Meditation, David Tacey (an Australian academic known for his work in psychology and spirituality) raised the following points about the relation of religion and spirituality in our current world:

  • Religion, historically, has relied on tradition and authority to promote belief and support in faith in God. Today these are being rejected in favour of personal experience. Religion of the future needs to recognise this and find a way to respond to those seeking spiritual depth, moving from the thinking head to the experiencing heart. Karl Rahner (a 20th C. Catholic theologian) once said: 'The theological problem today is the art of drawing religion out of an individual, not pumping it into him or her. The art is to help people become what they really are.'

  • We are becoming more spiritual because something is missing in western society today. And, although many wish to sever spirituality from religion, the fact remains it is tied up with it. Spirituality is the inward, intimate, personal connection with the sacred, and religion is the attempt to organise the spiritual impulse and provide it with a tradition, history, language and community. When religion is functioning well, the spiritual impulse is contained within it. But when religion has begun to wane or lose its effectiveness, the spiritual impulse separates from religion.

  • Although much of the western world now appears to be secular, at the individual, personal level the spiritual search continues, and when not addressed can lead to, for example, addictions, depression and mental disorders, in an attempt to fill the resultant emptiness.

  • Spirituality today is a quest to connect us to wholes rather than perfection, binding people today with all creation where the idea of wholeness cannot be confined to the human sphere or psychotherapy, but needs to be seen as a modality and quality of the universe. We understand the wisdom of imperfection. As Richard Rohr has said, 'The search for a supposed perfection is the most common enemy of simple goodness. God just wants us to be humanly good, not perfect. Good people can always accept, and even love, imperfection.'

So, are spirituality and religion so easy to divide? It certainly is not popular to point to the on-going connection between spirituality and religion. However, the word 'spirit' inside the word ‘spirituality’ is a religious term. Although many try to dissociate spirituality from religion, and make it synonymous with well-being, health or happiness, the term continues to have religious connotations. ‘Spirit’ may not refer to the holy spirit, but it does point to an unseen, life-supporting power that has links with religion.

The word 'religion' comes from the Latin religio meaning ‘to reconnect’ or ‘bind back to’. It refers to the innate impulse in human beings to connect to the source from which life springs. When young people today are asked to define their spirituality, they tend to reply: ‘spirituality is connectedness’, and they can often list about four kinds of connectedness: connection to the soul or inner self, to nature and environment, to people and cultures, and connection to a cosmic principle or Spirit. In saying this, they seem unaware that religion means connectedness, even though they denounce religion in the same breath.

Although spiritual practices once flourished in religions, over the last few hundred years, in Western Christianity in particular, theology has become an intellectual and heady enterprise and the relationship of dogma to the inner experience of the individual has broken down. Today's seeker is after spiritual experience, and so often, therefore, turns to Eastern contemplative paths that have maintained spiritual practices that empower the individual to explore his or her own inner depths. Western religion needs to re-discover and re-claim its heritage of contemplative prayer and practices, so often the very tools sought and nurtured through the ancient work of spiritual direction.

Today’s spiritual landscape presents a keen desire for the sacred. Yet, in western religion, this quest for inner experience, and the interior path, can be seen as distasteful and in opposition to the denial of the self that only knows the self as ego not True Self in God. We need a more positive image of human interiority that doesn't reduce it to narcissism. Thomas Merton often faced this criticism, and in response he said the ‘mystical experience of God is not and can never be a narcissistic dialogue of the ego with itself’.

If spirituality is desire for the sacred, then religion is the memory which holds the priceless wisdom about what the sacred is and how it can be achieved. Religion provides us with cultural memory, a common language, a sense of community and a heritage. And it is within religions that the mystical paths provide resources and ways of contemplative practice and understanding of this spiritual experience.

So, mysticism (that strand through religions which carries experiential knowledge of spiritual things) is the untapped resource that can again reconnect (religio) with traditional wisdom. If spirituality is the pursuit of the sacred, then mysticism is able to teach us how to receive the sacred, rather than just go in search of it. As Karl Rahner the C. 20th Catholic theologian said:'The future Christian will be a mystic or he [or she] will not exist at all,' that is, they will be someone who experiences this sense of connection to God.

In my work in spiritual direction, I see people who are following a particular faith tradition and those who are not, but all are seeking to connect to the Source from which life springs. And particularly in Christian circles, I do notice there is an increasingly strong desire to re-discover contemplative means of prayer and meditation that enable this sense of interior connection to the divine.

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