Saturday, September 05, 2009

Part 2 of article

This is the second part of an article from the Vancouver Sun, talking about the 'war' between spirituality and religion. The author purports that spirituality is a personal thing while religion relates to the corporate nature of spiritual practice.

While it is difficult to find a balance between the personal and the corporate, Todd puts forth that a "good" religion is one that allows for growth and movements within the personal/corporate sphere. Humanity is constantly changing and growing and hence religion as one main structure of the human expression of Self needs to be able to change and grow with people. I wonder at the persons who do identify themselves as "not religious, but spiritual". Often when this statement is made to me, it is a defense mechanism usually meaning "don't shove your beliefs and judgments on me. That is the last thing that I need." I have always thought that those persons who have an aversion to "organized religion" are reacted to either a bad experience, misconceptions, or both. Often people attend worship services, but aren't educated about the practices that follow. It is not like someone says " we will now sing this song, or pray this prayer for reason 'X', " but rather, after someone has attended for a while, it is understood," this is just how we do this". However, along with the need for structure, it should not be so rigid that it staganates growth of the worshipper, but it should also not be so flexible that there is an "anything goes" thinking. This is the difficulty of defining worship and spiritual practices -- they do change as our understanding changes. But one must consider "what am I doing this for? or who? " and "does this practice help me to grow and challenge my understanding of the world?" If the answer is "I don't know" to the first questions, and "no" to the second... then maybe we need to think about why something isn't working for us or others and to discuss this with someone we trust.


Which is better: Religion or spirituality? Many people, especially on the West Coast of North America, now firmly believe that it's much better to be "spiritual" rather than "religious."

Before offering my answer to the question, however, it's crucial to explain the common definitions going round today of "religion" and "spirituality," plus a few of the widespread complaints against both.

Some of the many, many people today who stress "I'm spiritual, but not religious" feel strongly about defining religion as an absolutistic and dogmatic belief system locked up in an institution.

Their condemnation has some validity, even though they're not correct in portraying ALL religion as doctrinaire.

There can be no doubt that institutional religion frequently regresses to blind obedience and self-righteousness.

That's the assertion, for instance, of Vancouver's world-famous spiritual writer, Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. The people who champion "spirituality" generally use the term to refer to the private and free development of a person's private inner life.

Tolle, for instance, is typical of many in the way he describes spirituality as personal "transformation" to an "awakened" state, detached from one's ego and even from "belief" itself .

The main charges against Tolle's popular form of self-spirituality are that it can become privatistic, leading to self-absorption, narcissism, naivety, anti-intellectualism and an anything-goes moral relativism. Critics say those who follow private spirituality are often unwilling to engage wider society and, in failing to do so, support the social status quo.

Just as there is something to the prevailing attack on "religion," there is also some truth to this critique of "spirituality."

But the mutual bombardments do not at all comprise the whole story of "spirituality" and "religion."

There are more comprehensive ways of looking at both, which will expand the debate far beyond a simplistic argument that one is good and the other is bad.

There are many valid definitions of "spirituality," a term that has only become hot in the past decade.

But I think one of the best and broadest definitions of "spirituality" is that it is "the ways humans have sought to find meaning in the world." However, I have to immediately add that I join the renowned American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, in suggesting that religion, at its deepest level, is about the same process -- forming human meaning.

In today's religion-wary culture, many won't like this overlapping definition of "spirituality" and "religion." But if you accept it, you would have to conclude that, at least in their ideal form, both can be beneficial.

There is another link between the two terms. Even though "spirituality" is now used to refer exclusively to a human's inner life, many private spiritualities, if they prove persuasive to enough people, eventually develop into more structured communal worldviews.

That is what happened with the experiences and teachings of Moses, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed and Baha'u'llah.

It's also what is happening with some best-selling contemporary spiritual teachers, as their thinking becomes more formalized through study groups and inter-connected communities.

In other words, it appears that the thing Western society is really debating these days is the difference in value between private spirituality and community-based spirituality, which is also sometimes known as institutional religion.

Contrary to what many people like to believe, I am not convinced personal spirituality and communal religion are mutually exclusive. They are complementary.

And both need to be approached in a self-critical way.

Any institutional religion that is habitually dogmatic and that fails to nurture a sense of personal spirituality, of personal choice and transformation, is empty.

And any personal spirituality that remains merely private, that doesn't make an effort to directly connect with others, with the real world, with community life, is trivial.

So where does that leave us with the question: Which is better: Spirituality or religion?

The short answer is they are both important.

However, I will go out on an unpopular limb for the longer answer.

I would suggest that institutional religion - when it is truly self-correcting, non-authoritarian and encouraging of authenticity (which it often, admittedly, is not) -- is more complete than private spirituality.

Let me briefly make my case for the value of religion in institutional form:

• Institutional religion, at its best, can be open, evolving and self- reforming -- even while attempting to define and remain true to core values, beliefs and practices.

• A religious institution can incorporate a multitude of personal spiritual practices, including the self-spirituality and nature spirituality that are popular today.

• Religious institutions, ideally, create a sense of community, which often contribute to the well-being of individuals.

• Religious institutions can offer checks and balances on private belief and practice. They can help isolated individuals avoid going off on unhealthy, wrong-headed or dangerous spiritual tangents.

• As a community, a religion can accomplish things that isolated individuals cannot. Institutions can plan and strategize, creating force fields for positive transition, both within individuals and in the wider society.

Ultimately, I like the way that Washington state scholar Patricia O'Connell Killen talks about the value of religions, which she also calls "wisdom traditions."

Unlike private spiritualities, community-based religions can, at their optimum, help people realize they're not the centre of the universe, Killen says. They can also, through their collected knowledge, historical perspective and shared values, be invaluable in helping people face life's inevitable suffering. In doing so, they can renew personal and public hope.

In the end, I don't believe we need to buy into the current nasty war between (personal) spirituality and (community-based) religion.

After all, that creates a false either/or choice.

What we can do instead is foster more interaction between spirituality and religion, since they are simply different aspects of the same thing: Humans' eternal search for meaning.

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