Does religion = true faith? Does spirituality = connection to Source? Kriste Peoples gets real about drawing lines on the Religion/Spirituality Continuum.
Communion Sunday was a big deal in the church I attended as a child. The beautiful procession of elders—all of them white-gloved and solemn—entered the sanctuary like disciples crossing the desert to meet Jesus for the first time. To my young eyes, the same men and women who taught me bible verses and Sunday school songs had morphed into otherworldly beings well beyond my understanding. They encircled the table draped in crisp linens and, after they prayed over the offering, they passed the body and blood of Christ between each other, eating and drinking Him in silence. I stared at the magic bread and wine as it floated on gleaming silver trays out from the pulpit and among the waiting congregants.
I wasn’t more than six or seven when I began to make sense of the sacred monthly ritual. And once I did, my private discovery would unnerve me for years: Christians were cannibals.
Granted, in the years following, I would come to understand the symbolism of Sunday Communion and the way its frequency and delivery varied across different religions. Catholics, I learned, would never have tolerated the hours-long duration of a Southern Sunday service like ours. And from what I could tell of the Pentecostals across the street, they were just getting started by the time Reverend Powell had raised his soft thick hands in benediction.
Despite the many aspects of religious service that I loved when I was growing up—the sense of community, the rich traditional music and passion—there was as much about those early experiences that left me wanting for an experience that fulfilled the lifelong seeker in me. The fact that the God I was introduced to created everything but was also jealous, spiteful, and moody felt more like a bully or a bad uncle, and it didn’t endear me to Him or His son. Fire and brimstone preaching, televangelists and the centuries-long history of oppression and violence created in the name of the Savior didn’t do much to encourage my faith either.
The noted writer and historian John Henrik Clarke once said that religion was, “the organization of spirituality into something that became the hand maiden of conquerors. Nearly all religions were brought to people and imposed on people by conquerors, and used as the framework to control their minds.” After the first year of college, I withdrew from religion and went in search of a practice that felt substantial. I wanted no parts of a bully God.
I turned from religion and explored spirituality. As far as I was concerned, my search beyond the church would strip away the dogma, strictures and baggage I wanted no parts of and leave me free to commune in whatever way appealed to me. But my ongoing question was, what was the way? I investigated yoga, nature, meditation, qigong and whatever practice seemed to quench my curiosity and thirst in the moment. I asked for an absence of structure and that’s what I got.
Have you heard the one about religion being for people who are scared to go to hell and that spirituality is for people who have already been there? I can’t say I felt like I’d been to hell and back—courtesy of religion—but I wasn’t thrilled with Jesus or meditation, so I gave them both a break.
In recent years, I’ve attempted to parse out a few differences between religion and spirituality. I’m not talking about rigorous analysis here; more like an honest, if not unbiased, look at the paths I’ve taken on my quest.
Observations About Religion & Spirituality
- Unlike spirituality (and notwithstanding the fiercely egalitarian Quakers), religion seems to involve lots of hierarchy. Whether it’s the angels, the clergy, or the trinity and Mary—as my Jersey-based friend Tony likes to say in his thickest city accent—”There are levels.” Spirituality, however, is so wide-open in its practices, hierarchy is as avoidable you want it to be. In a yoga class, on a hike or meditation mat, you get to be the leader of your own inward journey.
- Spirituality embraces an array of teachers and ascended masters. Religion, not so much. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for spiritual teachers to reference the teachings of Muhammad, Confucius and Mother Teresa while illustrating a point about enlightenment. On the whole, spirituality accepts the paths of many on the way to the One. Even as I write this, I’m heartened by the rise in non-denominational churches that preach inclusiveness of diverse beliefs, teachings and cultures.
- Both religion and spirituality offer a sense of community around shared beliefs and traditions. While each approaches the divine differently, each offers shared practices that help elevate an ordinary experience to one that transcends the mere physical. I’ve attended prayer vigils, meditations, as well as nature hikes, and experienced a depth of connection that made me aware of the sacred bonds that are common to us all—independent of any faith, belief or creed.
- Both are self-directed. Sort of. I know lots of people who call themselves religious, but their practice consists of sporadic tithing and attendance at no less than two church services per month. I also have friends whose meditation practice constitutes a daily hour spent in silent communication on the mat or in the mountains with their Divine.
At best, spirituality and religion are gateways to the Infinite, is what I’ve concluded up to this point. They share a recognition of a greater purpose for individuals and humanity, as well as an aspiration to be better people—and not actual cannibals. At worst, they get co-opted by politics, media opportunists, or people with agendas that seek to exploit, manipulate or control seekers. And for however structured they may be, both religion and spirituality depend on practitioners to move the teaching out into the world, to embody the enlightenment however possible.
I’ve tried both routes and I think I’m like lots of people who choose to evaluate their journey for themselves. What ultimately matters more than any distinctions we make is how present we can be to the process at any moment; how authentic we are when we bow.
[image: via Art4TheGlryOfGod by Sharon on flickr]