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.