Spiritual But Not Religious
Today it is often claimed that spirituality and religion are two quite different things with the former deriving from an inner experience of God while the latter is just a matter of externals, of doctrines and dogmas and obedience to authority. Spirituality is the understanding of an essential oneness between Creator and created or even just of life, but with religion there is always a sense of separation between human beings and God. One is free while the other is to do with law and custom. This attitude strikes me as focusing exclusively on the virtues of one and the defects of the other, and more than a little unfair. The truth is rather subtler than such a rigid distinction between the two would imply.
It is true that real spirituality goes way beyond religion of the elementary variety, that of the believer who believes what he is told to by the priests and conventions of his faith, and doesn't make much attempt to see further than that. He is satisfied with accepting outer authority and doesn’t try to internalise the teachings. However real religion goes beyond this too. Some of the most spiritual human beings on the planet have been some of the most religious people too, and, until a century or so ago, hardly anybody would have thought themselves spiritual who was not religious. So I would say it is not religion that is the problem but the mistaking of its outer form for its inner substance. Admittedly that is not uncommon but it is not religion’s fault so much as that of some of its leaders and many of its followers. The fact is we need both religion and spirituality. The one to provide form and structure and discipline and true doctrine, and the other to breathe the breath of life into that form.
It is indisputable that the moment a divine revelation starts to be codified it becomes subject to human interpretation and its essential purity is lost. But this is true of anything which is translated from a higher level to a lower. Does it mean that we should never seek to express an intuitive insight in thought or word? The fact that such an expression descends to a lower level than the original inspiration (giving form to something inevitably restricts it) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it. Only that we should remain aware that any attempt to describe what is beyond description is necessarily limited. And that it can never capture truth (an obvious impossibility), only suggest it. It’s a cliché to say that the map is not the territory, but a map can be a great help when you want to go somewhere.
We live in the world and must bring our spiritual impressions down here if we would share them. Inevitably much will be lost in the transition but if we didn’t do this then how would we communicate anything? More importantly, what forms of guidance would there be for others who cannot yet access the spiritual realm themselves directly? And, let’s face it, that’s most of us. Besides, aren’t the advocates of spirituality rather than religion doing just what they decry in religion every time they give a talk or write anything? They too are making the abstract concrete for the purposes of aiding others.
I don’t deny that religion can, and often does, descend into rules and regulations but that is when it falls into the hands of men without vision, bureaucrats of the soul. It exists primarily, though, as spiritual guidance, a means of reconnecting earthbound and fallen man with his source in God. It does not seek to replace that link unless it has become corrupted (which, of course, it often does). It seeks to restore it.
There is another point worth considering here. Today much that is called spirituality leans towards self-indulgence for if religion can lapse into mere observance of outer rules and regulations so spirituality, or what is called that, can descend into seeking what is pleasing to the self and coincides with existing prejudices. Spirituality may offer a direct connection to the source, in theory, but what if you are not able to make that connection or not able to make a true connection? At least the principal religions are based on divine revelation and they contain an experience and authority that goes beyond that of just one individual, having been honed and refined by many great saints and mystics over the years. They have been thoroughly road-tested. On the other hand spirituality without religion can mean following an individual path with all the possibilities of illusion and error that implies; a path, moreover, without challenge or sacrifice that has as its object the fulfillment of desire. It can just be a search for experience with self-transcendence, if it exists as an aim, a personal goal with its moral aspect ignored, a clear contradiction in terms.
Not long ago I read an interview with an actor who had been through extensive drug use, multiple sexual relations and the rest of a self-indulgent worldly lifestyle but had now supposedly rejected all that, settled down, married and found 'spirituality'. What did he mean by spirituality though? He thought that traditional religion had been meeting a human need but there was too much bigotry in it, too much sexism, too much emphasis on sin and not enough on fulfilling human potential. He thought we were right to reject it on those scores but that our descent into secularism and materialism was not the answer. He now believed in a higher power which we needed to get in touch with in order to find true meaning and fulfillment in our lives.
But was this a real spiritual conversion or was it simply the story of someone who no longer found any pleasure in his old satisfactions so needed to look elsewhere for what he had found there. Was his interest in spirituality inspired by a burgeoning love of God and desire for truth or did he want that higher power on his own terms while staying resolutely faithful to the values of this world which couldn’t be questioned in his eyes. It was apparent that for him spirit had to accommodate itself to this world. The notion that it should be the other way round did not appear to occur to him. Secular values could not be challenged.
For so many people nowadays 'spirituality' is a lifestyle choice which they want to add to their other worldly possessions. It's an addition to their self image, adopted for purely personal reasons. Tell them that it means you have to 'take up the cross' and, like the rich young man, they will walk away. Tell them it means you must sacrifice and renounce and they will look at you blankly. They want heaven while staying firmly in this world. They don’t see that the two are mutually exclusive. I know some might say that this is a start but truth is unlikely to grow from such shallow roots. The reality is there can be no spirituality without a full and complete repentance. It needs more than a jaded appetite or a desire for higher consciousness.
I wondered if this person acknowledged the wisdom of the 'archaic' Ten Commandments? Did he see through and renounce the sins of the sexual revolution? Did he accept the reality of evil and see its power in the world? You see, just as some old fashioned Bible thumping enthusiasts could focus too much on sin and not enough on love so the modern 'spiritual but not religious' person can focus too much on love, horizontally understood (i.e. not love of God which is the only real basis for the other kind), and not at all on sin unless that is understood as sins against fashionable worldly values. He sees spirituality as something waiting there for him to take and make him feel happier as he is now and does not understand that it is something that requires a radical transformation on his part and that sin is just a word for what holds one back from that and cuts one off from true spiritual connection (there are lots of false connections). He might be willing to engage in some kind of technique to get what he wants but he doesn't see that techniques belong to this world and can never get you beyond it. They might work on a physical or psychological level. They can never work on a spiritual one. That depends entirely on motive, on what you might call the true heart.
The fact is that modern spirituality of the spiritual but not religious variety has no place for God, not the living God who is a Person, who has a will and a purpose. It might give him a token acknowledgement but he is not absolutely central, and he must be if spirituality is to be real and not dissipate into self-centredness and triviality. We must ask why God is persona non grata in so much spirituality of today, and the answer clearly is that the acceptance of God would mean you had to acknowledge something greater than yourself which was real, not vague like an unidentified higher power. Something to which you had to incline yourself and give yourself up to, holding nothing back. You could not have spirituality as part of your own personality. You would have to sacrifice that personality in order to have spirituality.
Despite what I have just written I myself have never been able to subscribe to any particular religion, and this for two reasons. Firstly, it is undoubtedly the case that all religions are in a state of decline and have been for some time. They are well past their prime, and the original spark that lit them is dying out with the consequence that their ability to inspire and enlighten is vastly diminished. Religions are not eternal and follow the same pattern of birth, development, maturity, old age and death as everything else. So all religions, as they exist today, have lost the connection to the world of spirit they once had. Make no mistake, they did once have this connection but the further they travel in time from their origin the more they become materialised and lose it, though they can be given fresh life now and then by an infusion of saints and true mystics. But the law of entropy still applies. There is always a balance between spirit and matter, life and form, in any true religion and when, as inevitably happens as time goes by, that balance becomes weighted too heavily on the side of form the religion becomes a belief system rather than a pathway to God.
Secondly, I do actually agree with the statement that spirituality is a higher form of religion since spirituality, truly considered and lived, is the reality of which religion is only a presentation in the lower worlds. Religion in this respect is a crutch which we must eventually throw away if we are to walk unaided. The point is though that to throw away our crutches before we can walk unaided is foolishness at best and arrogance at worst, and if you believe you can walk when you can't you are likely to fall flat on your face. With that thought here's something the Masters said on the subject of traditions and conventions that, with a little alteration, seems to me to be appropriate to our present subject. They told me that conventions and traditions have their place in the world, some good, some not so good but still valid at some level, and, whilst most of them would be outgrown in time, they should be understood before they were rejected.
So it is with religion. We need to go beyond it to find truth but it exists to help us get to the point where we can go beyond it. To reject it before we have got to that point risks leaving us floundering in a spirituality of egotism. But, at the same time, to hold onto it after a certain point shows an inability to distinguish between a lantern and its light. Ultimately religion only exists to serve spirituality. But spirituality without religion can all too easily descend into self-indulgence and illusion.