Spirituality and Religion—Some Definitions

January 1, 2013 § 8 Comments

Some time ago, I was a Friendly Adult Presence at a high school Friends conference sponsored by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Many—most, I would say—of these young people made a clear distinction between spiritual life and religion and they definitely identified as spiritual and rejected religion. It made me sad and happy at the same time: happy that they had quite rich spiritual lives, sad that religion didn’t work for them, which meant that their meetings probably didn’t work for them.

An increasing number of adults feel the same way, even some members and attenders of our meetings: they understand and embrace spirituality, but religion (by which they mean organized religion) seems unnecessary to them, if not foreign, or, at the worst, even dangerous. Some are able to be Friends because they see Quakerism as the least organized of organized religions. They’ve joined the “Society of Friends” and are happy to tacitly leave “Religious” out of their identity, their worldview, and their practice.

Likewise, many of our meetings are so unclear or nervous about their religiosity that they too act like a Society of Friends. Meeting for worship is a gathering of meditators. Meeting for business is conducted as a process for consensus decision-making without reference to or regard for the Holy Spirit. Religious education at all levels is a program of comparative religion that treats Quakerism as just one of many options, if it receives attention at all. The purpose of the meeting is to serve as a warm, safe community. This is not true everywhere, of course, and not all the time, but I think it’s true in many meetings (at least in the Liberal branch) and often enough.

This experience with the high schoolers focused my thinking about the difference between spirituality and religion and what these folks might be missing, or assuming, about religion. I ended up trying to clarify for myself definitions of both spiritual and religious experience. Here are my definitions.

I define spiritual experience as experience that is transcendental and transformative. It is experience that transcends usual experience, and that transforms you in positive ways.

It transcends one’s understanding, one’s ability to describe or explain it. It transcends one’s senses and one can only make sense of it intuitively, emotionally, not rationally, and even then, something about the experience remains mysterious. Spiritual experience goes deeper than one’s usual consciousness.

And it is real. You know it is real because you are not the same afterwards. You are somehow healed, or more whole, more wholly yourself, awake to things you were not aware of before, stronger, deeper, better, more alive to opening and possibility.

Along these lines, spiritual practice is whatever an individual does to prepare for, nurture, and follow through on spiritual experience

Religion I define as the spiritual practice of a community. Religion is whatever a community does to connect with, or reconnect with, the Mystery Reality behind its shared transcendent experience. For communities can have collective spiritual experience, experience that the whole community shares and that transforms it in some real way. Examples include the Exodus, Pentecost, the convincement of the Seekers by George Fox at Firbank Fell, and the gathered meeting for worship.

Religious experience, then, is spiritual experience that takes place in the context of a religious tradition. This can happen in two ways.

First, religious experience can come from practicing one’s religion, from engaging in the spiritual practices of one’s community. Examples include

  • delivering—or hearing—deep, genuine vocal ministry;
  • feeling led by a prompting of the Spirit into some other form of ministry; or
  • sharing in a gathered meeting

Second, we can come to understand our spiritual experience in the terms that our religious tradition has given us, even if it did not take place in our given religious context. Arguably, this is what happened to Paul when he was converted on the road to Damascus—he wasn’t a practicing Christian when he had that experience, but he came to understand what had happened to him in Christian terms. It became a Christian experience.

Many Friends, myself included, have had this second kind of religious experience, though we don’t always think of it this way. As convinced Friends, we have come to Quakerism already formed by deep spiritual experiences that took place outside of the Quaker or Christian tradition. Naturally, we do not want to give up these experiences or influences or practices when we join. I simply could not have done that myself. But liberal Quakerism is open and flexible enough to take me in on my own terms.

Since then, I have come to understand many of these prior experiences in Quaker terms. I have folded these influences and practices into my Quaker practice. I now practice a religion that allows if not embraces my distinctive spiritual experience. And most of my subsequent spiritual experiences have, in fact, been Quaker religious experiences—they resulted from my practice of Quakerism and I understand them in Quaker terms.

For the religion of Quakerism has its own distinctive religious practice and it fosters its own unique brand of religious experience. As a religion, what kinds of religious experience do we offer our members? And what do we offer our members as our own spiritual practice? Here I am talking about both individual religious practice and the practices of the community as a whole.

Individual Quaker religious practice. The individual religious practice peculiar to Quakerism is the faith and practice of Quaker ministry

  • the belief based on experience that every person is capable of direct communion with God* and that God can—that God will—call each of us into service in the world; and
  • the practice that prepares us to hear and recognize the call to service and to answer it with faithfulness.

(* Now that I’ve mentioned “God”, I need to establish another definition. I’ll get to that in a moment.)

The practice of Quaker ministry is a practice of simplicity, listening, and faithfulness. Simplicity—removing the noise, false signals, and obstacles that prevent you from hearing the call and from living a life that allows you to respond when the call comes. Attentiveness—trying always to be open to the guidance of the Light within us. Faithfulness—living our life and making our choices as an answer to that of God within us. And by “that of God” I mean the activity of the Spirit within us, however we define that.

Corporate Quaker religious practice focuses on the meeting for worship, of course, but it also includes the meeting’s role in nurturing individual religious life.

The practice of silent waiting upon the Spirit in meeting for worship is, like the practice of Quaker ministry, a practice of radical simplicity. In the unprogrammed meeting for worship, we seek to strip away all barriers to collective communion with God by eliminating any mediating forms of worship, until God’s spirit breaks in to unite the meeting in the joy of God’s wisdom and presence. The result, the goal—the essential corporate Quaker religious experience—is the gathered meeting.

But in the Quaker religion the meeting also has a role in nurturing individual religious life, mainly, again, through the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. In this respect, the meeting’s role is one of cultivating the gifts of the spirit possessed by its members and in providing its ministers with discernment, support, and oversight. By Quaker ministers I mean Friends who seek always to hear and to do what their Inner Guide asks of them.

What about God?

So far, I have talked about religion without talking about God. For many people (and many Friends) this is the thing that turns them away from religion and towards spirituality. “Religions” have “gods” and “spiritualities” don’t, necessarily, and many of us have not experienced what religions usually call “God”—a supreme being who pays attention to life on earth, who cares about human history, and who cares about our individual lives, in particular. And generally, God is a “who” in a religion, not a “what”—God is capable of relationship.

I am writing another essay that looks more thoroughly at “God” in this context, but that essay is already very long and it keeps getting longer with its many branches. This problem is further complicated by Quakerism’s history as a Christian religion—you have to talk about Christ, too. So that discussion will have to wait.

In the meantime, though, I think I still owe my readers at least my definition of “God”. My definition—my whole “theology”, if you will—is experience-based, rather than deriving from the Bible or a tradition or any inherited legacy of religious thinking.

God—a working definition

I use “God” as a placeholder for the Reality Mystery behind our spiritual or religious experience, whatever that experience is. I say “Reality” because our spiritual or religious experiences are real—they transform us; they bear fruit. They may be completely interior and subjective, but we know they are real because they bring changes that we, and often others, can recognize as real.

And yet our spiritual and religious experiences are a Mystery. They transcend our understanding. Often they transcend our senses. And they transcend usual consciousness. Behind the Reality of our experiences we can sense something deeper that we cannot fully articulate or comprehend. At best we can only glimpse in part where the experience comes from, or why it came, or what it will do to us, or what it means. Its fullness remains a mystery, even after it seems to have stopped unfolding. Some spiritual and religious experience never stops unfolding. I’ve said all this before.

So here it is: for me, “God” is whatever lies behind, or beneath, or inside this experience of unfolding transformation brought on by spiritual or religious experience.

I could elaborate, and many people do. For many people, the Mystery does unfold a bit. They know who their God is. They know where their experience comes from. For myself, I can see through the window of my own experiences some distance into a metaphysical landscape that I can describe and in which “God” does have names. Names, plural—different experiences that have taken place in different contexts, that have come a little bit clearer in different ways, and that engage me in relationships with some “who”s.

But even so, some Mystery remains. God works in mysterious ways. Which is to say that we never fully understand our spiritual or religious experience. This is one of the things about religion that drives secular scientists nuts.

But whatever our experience is, whatever our spiritual or religious tradition, these two dimensions remain in common: we know it is real and yet it remains mysterious. So I try to return always to these core definitions based on the commonalities of our experience.

I love elaborating on what my experience—and our shared experience—means. In fact, I love speculating about them, venturing into the territory known to early Friends as “notions”. But that’s because it’s fun, it’s intellectually exciting for me. But it’s not necessary, and it isn’t even very useful a lot of the time. And it can lead to trouble.

So, back I go to the reality and the mystery of real experience.


§ 8 Responses to Spirituality and Religion—Some Definitions

  • the word spiritualty is derived from the word spirit. that itself shows it has nothing to do with relegion.
    keep excellent spirit and enjoy spirituality. the enjoyment you have is beyond the three- work,word,mind.
    you live here but you don’t live here. you see all things but forget everything. you do lot of work but you don’t feel it.
    it’s sheer enjoyment. being with the wonder of life.
    thamk you,
    jayakumar pandala. guru,
    mental alertness to natural alleles( MANA)

  • treegestalt says:

    Bill Samuel has once again goosed my mind in an illuminating way… reminding me of what disturbs me about this article and the whole mileau of Liberal Friendism it grows out of.

    Does the presence of antibelievers dampen the activity of the Spirit within a Meeting? Not as much so, I believe, as if we made an effort to exclude people with that spiritual orientation — but people do psychically influence others in the same environment, whether this be according to physical proximity or shared communications, aside from whatever gets directly transmitted verbally. Phillip Dick had stories about people whose presence worked to nullify “psychic” abilities — and considering how many times “Skeptics” have repeated experiments that had once produced positive results for experimenters inclined to find such effects, but negative results for the Skeptics…. I’m seriously inclined to think this is not (usually) the fault of bad experimental design or the wish to deceive (on either side) but evidence that “faith” & ‘antifaith’ do influence what happens in the “external” world. [& in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is hampered in performing miracles in his home town of Nazareth, ‘due to their lack of faith.’]

    I like my Meeting and the people in it, but I’ve many times felt it worked as a stifling influence on me…

    The problem with the article: You’re trying to define what’s transcendent in terms intelligible to people who lack terms for understanding it otherwise. So far as this helps them find their way to it, good!

    But the results! (for example): “I define spiritual experience as experience that is transcendental and transformative. It is experience that transcends usual experience, and that transforms you in positive ways.” But what defines an experience as “spiritual” is not some external criteria, but the fact that it is experience of something spiritual and real, something unconcerned to fit into human definitions.

    • I think it’s an open question whether the presence of “anti-believers” hinders the work of the Spirit, but I’m inclined to think so myself. The question of “unbelievers” is a little more complex. I suspect, though, that a community has a better chance of communing with Jesus Christ if they all believe in him. That’s gotta be true on the level of the sociology of the thing, anyway. At the spiritual, or metaphysical, level . . .

      I’ve said this before, I think: in a diverse liberal meeting, with lots of people with no identifiable “Spirit” with whom they are trying to commune, mingled among lots of Friends with different “Spirits”—are all these “Spirits” present in the midst? Do they mind elbowing each other while we try to open to them in worship? Does Jesus Christ mind sharing “his” meeting with these other gods?

      He didn’t mind brushing up against Samaritans and lepers. But they were human. What about Buddha? The Goddess? My own little angel?

      Of course, this assumes that Buddha and the Goddess actually exist in the way Christians believe that Jesus Christ exists. Many Christians believe, I suspect, along with Third Isaiah, that these other gods are really just figments. There’s only believers and deluded nonbelievers and the Christian God. Personally, I think they all exist. To deny this is to deny the experience of lots of people. I don’t want people telling me what my experience means, so I offer everyone else the same respect I ask for myself. Ergo, their experience is as real as mine.

      From the Christian perspective,though, I’m an “unbeliever” myself. That is, even my experiences of Jesus have not turned me into a Christian and I have no experience yet of Jesus as Christ that would do that either. And, for me, there’s a difference. Furtherrmore, many of my formative spiritual experiences have aked place outside the Christian tradition. Meanwhile, I do believe I’ve experienced the Christ. But that gets into another set of definitions—which I’ve already begun working up for a future posting.

      But back to the original idea. I do believe that diversity of belief and experience—that is, of inward alignment and expectation—does raise a barrier to gathering in the spirit. It is, I think, one of the basic problems liberal Friends have to face and one of the reasons gathered meetings are so rare among liberal Friends. And I’m part of the problem.

      So I am setting out to find solutions. Some Christian Friends might say, I suppose, “Well, the solution is easy—find Christ!” And “yoke not yourself to unbelievers,” if you already have. Too glib for me.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    Well, John, you say “They’re in the hands of the Living God once they walk in the door.” The implication is there’s something different inside the door which gives God special access to them. Possible some times and not others. In fact, if it is a Meeting where great antipathy to God and the Living God (Christ), walking in the door may even be a hindrance. A meeting can become a place where people encourage each other not to believe in God.

    Granted, the mystical nature of Friends’ worship can counteract that, but in some cases that mystical nature is denied, explicitly and/or implicitly.

    I have known some Friends who came to faith within a liberal meeting, and some who came to faith in experience outside the meeting while attending a liberal meeting. And I know dozens of these who wound up leaving Friends. I also know many people who identify with Christ who attend liberal meetings. Too often, it seems these people’s faith becomes compromised and weakens if they stay among liberal Friends. It can be really hard for a Friend to find their way in the dissonance between their personal faith and the attitudes of so many in liberal Friends.

    I always urge Friends who come to faith in Jesus Christ to meet regularly with other believers, whether Friends or not. This is, I think, essential, and can be the ground to help their discernment about their role in a meeting where that faith is not commonly shared. Ultimately, what is important is listening to and following God. Whether people are in Quaker meetings, or even whether Quakerism survives, is really not important outside that context.

    • I stand corrected, Bill; they’re in the hands of the Living God even before they walk in the door, not just after they walk in. We all are.

      You’re also right that a religious congregation can be suppressive to faith and spiritual growth — perhaps one whose leaders “say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isaiah 30:10). And yet God may place us there as part of our education, even *assign* us to such a dismal congregation. I’m thinking of the stories of the Lord’s sparing Sodom for the sake of one righteous person in it (Genesis 18:20 ff.), and of Job’s sitting in the ashes with his “miserable comforters.” I think of the “faithless and perverse generation” that Jesus was sent to minister to. We never know what good we might do among a company of fellows we feel a little out of place in. But you’re right, in those cases we do need nourishment from somewhere else. But the Lord knows our needs even before we ourselves do, and sends us the angels, or maybe ravens, that we need — perhaps a supportive spouse, such as I’ve been blessed with, and a whole lot of good books. But nothing substitutes for the frequently-experienced company of the Living Christ!

      But every religious community has its more spiritually mature and its less spiritually mature, some quick learners, some slow and recalcitrant, and I’ve seen that spiritual maturity and educability are not necessarily correlated with “theological correctness,” that is, a Christian world-view just like mine. While I agree with you that “it can be really hard for a Friend to find their way in the dissonance between their personal faith and the attitudes of so many in liberal Friends,” I can also imagine it being hard for a Friend to find their way in the “dissonance between their personal faith and the attitudes” of the *professing Christians* surrounding them, too, if those professing Christians happen to be narrow-minded, mean-spirited, or (on the other hand) insensitive to the individual believer’s real spiritual needs by being, say, back-slappingly over-sociable with a soul that needs silence, or too cool and reserved with a soul that needs welcoming warmth. The best we welcoming Christians can do is pray that we be rightly guided as new guests come to us.

      I myself am profoundly grateful to have a foot in two different meetings — a semi-programmed Christian meeting that I attend at 9:30, and an unprogrammed “liberal” but Christian-friendly one that I attend at 11, where I maintain my membership.

  • Jonathan says:

    As a starting point I am not a member of the SoF, so I comment as an outsider who follows these posts with interest, so my comment should be understood in this context. Also I write as a western expatriate who is a Christian living and working in Singapore where various religions live close to one another. My neighbours are Buddhist, others Muslim or traditional Chinese. The church that I attend is neighbour to an Indian Temple. In this situation knowing what one believes and why is important. For me ‘Religion’ is the cause of much in the way of misunderstandings. As a Christian my ongoing spiritual experience is (as your definition has it) both transcendent and transformational and waiting on God as well as worshipping God part of that. For me the spiritual is not ‘separated out’ of life (although I’ve tried that) but infused into living in a relationship. Mine is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that finds its expression with others who share the same relationship albeit in different ways but all with the Living God.

    I suggest that it is the need for this relationship that is the reason for the rejection of organised religion by both young and old, further that this relationship is the source of God given spirituality which is an expression of the Holy Spirit ‘at work in those who believe’ Religion, with its rituals and dogmas and its reliance on rules and sanctions is deeply unsatisfying especially in a world where ‘Pull’ rather than ‘Push’ is becoming normative. (If this is new to a reader then start with:http://blogs.hbr.org/bigshift/2010/04/a-brief-history-of-the-power-o.html).

    Following Matthew Taylor in a recent RSA Blog; in less complex and more deferential times organisation (religious, business, military or social) was about push (driving out instructions, messages and products) while now it is about ‘pull’ (finding ways of engaging people, fostering collaboration and creating growth).What is emerging are soft hierarchies, hard communities and the need for leadership which is ‘about questions not answers, ‘about reflection not reaction’ and ‘about relationships not structures’. Might it not be that this has more to do with the rejection of organised religion and its practices?

    Definitions may help to clarify ‘What Is and What is Not’ understood but in the end it is the personal experience as discussed in the previous comment by ‘Thy Friend John’ that is the starting point and ongoing basis for Christian relationships and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Being in a relationship makes one vulnerable, religion protects us from this. Forget religion, traditional or otherwise and seek, in silence, in praise and in the act of living that which is Christ in you and both the hope of Glory and the Love of the Living God.

  • treegestalt says:

    Good thoughtful piece, aside from the impropriety of “defining” ‘God’.

    You can say that your experiences are “real” while remaining cagey about whatever causative Reality gives rise to them… but at some point you’re going to be driven to copping to one particular conclusion: that you know better than this. (That is, you may not recognize this yet, but at some point anything but the G-word just puts you through too many implausible evasions.

    True, the people you’re addressing naturally reject “religious” conclusions because they haven’t recognized the experiences (including that of “experiencing anything whatsoever”!) that render scientism an absurd irrelevance.

    If you think of ‘a religion’ as analogous to ‘a treasure map’, well, yeah; it makes sense not to buy a map of some place they’ve never seen & which they’ve been led to consider imaginary… “Spirituality” then would be a matter of exploring the ground themselves. After some of that, it makes more sense to check out available maps to see what best matche up.

  • Steve, I think that this is one of the reasons your blog got more than 7,700 hits in 2012: you’re faithful; you’re truthful; God also gifted you with brilliance and ongoingly gifts you with relevance. This is the beginning of a great essay.

    I’d be optimistic about Liberal Friends, young and old, outgrowing much of their discomfort with the word “religious,” and even with the word “Christian,” given enough time and experience, much as I did — I who was raised an atheist. True, a lot of evil stuff happens, and has happened, in the name of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and as a Christian I have to acknowledge that, and explain how and why I’m different from, say, the bullies or the racists or the narrow minds that call themselves Christians. There’s a lot of bad reputation to be overcome. But don’t underestimate the power of the living Christ to work the salvation of everyone who is of a humble and a contrite heart (Ps. 51:17, Is. 57:15) and who loves (1 John 4:7b). Remember that the living Christ may never ask a good Jew or Muslim or agnostic or Buddhist to declare him/herself a Christian in order to work that salvation (although He may; it’s as He wills). For we’re talking not about names and notions but about Christ the Substance, the living Son of God who fashions us into limbs and organs of His Body and brings us into Unity with God the Source.

    Quakers, God bless them, still hold to the tradition that theirs is a religion of personal experience. Though I’ve had dreams and heard voices bearing “religious” content, and George Fox had an experience that made creation have “a different smell” for him, and the Psalmist bids us “taste and see that the Lord is good,” I’d guess that most of our personal experiences of the Divine are without sensory content, or independent of sensory content: that is, life is going on in a very ordinary way, and suddenly we have a thought, or “get” a coincidence, or experience some overpowering beauty, or feel some inexplicable healing of shame, that makes us *know* that God, or the Great Mystery, or our Higher Power, is communicating with us, and intends to, and knows that we’re “getting” it. It may make us feel like weeping or falling to our knees, but if we tried to explain to someone else what had just happened to us, we couldn’t: if we told of the thoughts or sensory experiences we were having when God stole in, they’d just say “so?”

    Unless they were Quakers or followers of some other experiential religion. This is why I’m optimistic about the Liberal Friends, even the agnostic ones, even the complacent and worldly ones, even the lifelong skeptics. They’re in the hands of the Living God once they walk in the door. God is patient and respects people’s resistances, but has far more endurance, and will to save, than we have will to resist. Even though the transformation may not take place in this life, it’s just a matter of time. Or so I am convinced.

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