Religion Is the Least Interesting and Most Common Expression of Spirituality

Written By: Charles - Jan• 15•08

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              First Quarter of the Cold Moon

A friend from California called me to ask, “What is the difference between religion and spirituality?”  This is an often asked question.  In part its puzzle represents what I believe is a category mistake.  There’s an assumption implicit in the question that religion and spirituality represent aspects or spheres of the same thing.  They don’t, at least as I understand the terms. 

Religion, for me, identifies the institutional, external vehicle necessary for the transmission of religious beliefs, teachings, history and insititutional form.  In the instance of the Roman Catholic Church, a familiar example, then, religion is everything from the institutional forms like the parish, the episcopacy, the Vatican, monasteries and convents to the magesterium (teachings) to statues and artworks and liturgy.  It may also include the inner life of an individual when that inner life attempts to conform itself to those forms and teachings.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is always an inner journey, but never one in which the goal is forcing that journey down a certain path.  Spirituality is about the freedom of the human spirit to search where it will for nourishment.  It may be that some of that path will include methods conceived by others:  contemplative prayer, zazein meditation, dream work,  psychoactive drugs or ecstatic dancing for example.  The end, though, cannot be forseen for the spirit is the essence, the heart, the soul of freedom and its seeking can never be constrained.  This is why spirituality is often seen as inimical to religion; it refuses boundaries and escapes from dogma like air leaving a punctured tire or a deflating balloon. 

In this understanding it is possible that religion and spirituality have nothing to do with each other, though I think the reality is otherwise, but the reverse of what most people imagine.  Spirituality, as I said, is often seen as an aspect or sphere of religion, when, in fact, religion is the least interesting and most common expression of a vital spirituality.  In this I follow Max Weber who referred to religion as institutionalized charisma.  The Christian church in all its expressions, according to Weber, represents the institutional accretions that grew up around the extraordinary work and teaching of the man Jesus.  According to Weber, the further and further we get from the original charismatic individual or group, the less and less vital and more and more bureaucratic a religion becomes.

 Let me know what you think.

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