Two streams run through the landscape of the soul: the spiritual and the religious. Sometimes these streams converge, and sometimes they separate. It’s common to hear people say they’re spiritual but not religious. Others say they’re religious but not spiritual. Most of us are a bit of both.
To me, spirituality is water, religion is rock. Spirituality is private devotion; religion is public expression. Spirituality is deep; religion is broad. Spirituality focuses on our spirits; it’s in-reach. Religion focuses on rites and creeds and community; it’s outreach. Religion may pave the road, but what goes on in our spirits – spirituality – is what fuels our trek down that road – and even off-road as we explore the Mystery of God.
Since spirituality involves my spirit touching and being touched by God, it’s intimate and organic. It flexes and flows, changes and grows as my relationship with God flexes and flows, changes and grows. Religion is organized and codified. At its best, it’s rooted in spirituality and draws sustenance from the spirit’s immersion in God. But stripped down, religion doesn’t necessarily have to involve God. We can join the organization, chant the creed, adhere to codes of conduct, and engage in service to others, all without believing in God. In fact, it’s possible to die spiritually while going through the motions religiously.
Every religion at its worst has been a roadblock, self-serving, blind, arrogant, destructive, exclusive, and death-dealing, because religions are in the hands of people who are at times self-serving, blind, and destructive. On the other hand, every religion at its best has been an oasis, selfless, visionary, constructive, humble, freeing, and life giving, because religions are in the hands of people who are at times selfless, visionary, and life giving.
Religions are often known for their rites and rituals, the symbolic reminders of our beliefs and/or the beliefs of the religious community we’ve chosen to join. But as the packages that hold the deeper meanings we place in them, rites and rituals can be deeply spiritual as well, our way of saying yes to the mystery of the Divine.
Rites and rituals usually take place in religious gatherings, which can function as a centering point for our souls after a fragmented week and an anchor to hold us steady during the week to come. In the middle of life’s overwhelming busy-ness, religious gatherings can provide time to slow down and settle into a place of calm. In a world where we wade in the shallows of too much information, religious gatherings can provide opportunities to reflect and consider and go deep. They also provide community. A comfort zone. Stability. Sanctuary.
Of course, they can do the opposite if they’re busy-making and add to our information overload. And some gatherings don’t feel like sanctuary at all. As for the comfort zone, if we get too comfortable, we grow numb to both the needs of the world and the gifts the world has to share with us. We probably all know people who got their ‘salvation card,’ their ticket to heaven, and settled in for the train ride. But many religious groups are now shrinking as people discover that God is not sequestered inside the train but freely moves in the world outside the train as well. In fact, outside the train is where many find an accepting community that offers the love, joy, and peace they didn’t find on the train.
One the most important questions to ask about a religious community of any religion or sect or denomination is, “Does being in this community lead to life and gracious love?” I don’t mean do the teachings promise that if you believe such-and-so, you’ll have eternal life; I mean literally, right now, does the community spread life, nurture gracious love, and extend loving kindness both in the individual’s private world and in the world at large?
God is love. Gracious love. Life-giving love. Life-enriching love. In response, a living, growing faith embraces gracious love and life, whether they’re found inside or outside religious walls. Loving kindness and grace are not exclusive property. They can’t be owned. They can’t be walled in. They flow freely. Because they are the signature of God.
I’ll share more thoughts about faith, religion, and God next week. Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday!
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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy morguefile.com.