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Essential Unity

Are spirituality and religion two sides of the same coin?


Much has already been written about the relationship (or aversion) between so-called spirituality and religion. The two words are bandied about as though we all understand and agree on how we are using them, and thus the debates become oversimplified and frankly, in many cases, quite smug. So I’m adding my voice to the conversation in hopes of doing what I seem to enjoy most: muddying the waters of what appears at first to be a straightforward argument.


There is now a standard option on most online dating websites, where instead of affiliating yourself with a particular faith group (or none at all), you can now self-define as “spiritual but not religious.” It’s quite a popular identity to adopt, not only in the dating sphere, but in casual conversation where religious topics surface, and predictably divide a room. But this phrase is too easily understood as, “I wouldn’t write off the existence of some higher power (or divinity within myself), but I don’t want anything to do with all that I find distasteful about organised religion.”


I have been a member of the Lutheran Church for all of my living years, and an ordained minister for the past sixteen years. Over that time I have struggled with how I identify myself, how I relate to the tradition of my birth, whether or not I should dedicate at least part of my working life to serving within it, or whether I might be ready to abandon it altogether. Even though I’m not employed in active ministry at the moment, I have been throughout most of the last two decades, and I have remained a regular participant within my worshipping community.


I say all of this because I feel I can sufficiently speak for so-called “religious” people from the perspective of one who genuinely struggles with tradition, orthodoxy and belief, but who also sees the beauty in the rituals, language, music and liturgy of the denomination into which I was born. Do I approve of the bloodshed, discrimination, marginalisation and other infamous attributes which the Church (meaning all historical Christian traditions) has displayed over the centuries? Of course not. But on the other hand, I know very few (if any) practicing Christians who do. To imply that continuing to identify with my tradition is a tacit endorsement of this sometimes brutal legacy is nonsensical. And yet this is a frequent rationale for distancing oneself from anything calling itself “religion.”


The word itself derives from Latin (religio), meaning to join or bind, in the way that ligaments join bones and cartilage in the body. Some read this as a requirement to bind oneself to a fixed and predetermined set of beliefs, and they resist it as any rational person would dislike having their mind made up for them. But religion can also be understood as a community of faith whose members are joined to one another in bonds of love, mutual support, common rituals and shared service. More often than not, these latter qualities have characterized the faith communities with whom I have affiliated myself, and among whom I have found encouragement, belonging, and many moments of profound divine experience.


Enter spirituality. Defined as “relating to the spirit or soul,” and historically having been used almost interchangeably with “religious,” this word seems to have evolved into a contemporary distinction which separates itself from so-called “organised” religion, and in most uses, sets itself above such imperfect things.


What I find somewhat amusing is how often those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” when questioned about their beliefs, will point to rituals from the Native Americans, Buddhists, pagans or another such groups — all of which could be considered actual “religions” in themselves. It seems that only certain faith traditions, namely the three largest (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) are apparently considered too “organised” to be spiritual.


Having said all of this, I do not mean to imply in any way that I’ve only had soul stirring experiences in the context of my faith tradition. Quite the opposite. I am an animal and nature lover, a yogi and meditator, a poet and philosopher, a musician and creative artist, and in each of these contexts have been undeniably inspired and brought closer to the one I understand as the Creator of the universe. I recognise that others may consider these to be more genuine “spiritual” experiences than those to be found within the walls of a church. But I see no essential difference.


In fact, I would feel bankrupt in some way to have never known the power of ancient liturgies (which still use the same words as the earliest Christian worship), holy rituals, or sacred choral music, which are to me the best which religion has to offer, and deeply spiritual elements of my tradition. By the same token, I would never claim that the church holds exclusive ownership of the spiritual realm, as perhaps the church of the Middle Ages might have.


To be simultaneously spiritual and religious is not, to my mind, contradictory. Nor would I be fully satisfied experiencing one completely without the other. My desire is that this conversation can be open enough for us to express the fullness of our beliefs, doubts, joys, triumphs and failings without the need to oversimplify, dismiss or mock another who doesn’t identify in the same way as we do. I have heard too much smugness from religious people and professed atheists alike who are convinced of their own rightness. And I am weary of so-called “spirituality” being lifted up as some sort of transcendent exercise which has nothing to do with the Church of today.


I have heard that the greatest (and perhaps only) sin is that of considering oneself truly separate from anyone else. If we hold this as true, then there is no room for “us” and “them.” There is only everyone — each person included — regardless of how we may experience our faith (or lack of it), ourselves, and our relationship with the divine (however we understand it) and those around us. Is it too much to hope that we might interact over spiritual matters from this understanding of essential unity, rather than needing to always define ourselves over and against that with which we do not identify?


I suppose that, essentially, is the question of the ages.


Credit: Adam Hanke (via the author)


Wendy Sherer

About the Writer

Wendy grew up in the United States and has called the UK home since 2011. She earned an MA in broadcast journalism and is currently studying for a PhD, both at the University of Westminster.


Wendy lives in West London with her cat, Athena, and presents a weekly show on Radio Harrow.


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