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"I'm not really religious -- I'm more spiritual"

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Wednesday, April 7th, 2004 — These days I often hear people say, "I'm not really religious -- I'm more spiritual."

This can mean many things, but at the very least it sets up a dichotomy between two ideologies. Whereas in times past religion was assumed to be the vehicle for spirituality, this comment implies that it isn't necessarily so.

It suggests a turning away from religion in favor of other ways of finding meaning and value in life. Right or wrong, religion has fallen into disfavor. And with the approach of Easter, the recent national buzz over Mel Gibson's film and headlines about Catholic Church scandals I have found myself thinking about this subject.

It is a difficult topic. I am grateful to author and teacher Huston Smith for his sensitive handling of this issue at a time when my own allegiance to organized religion was seriously challenged by events in the world -- and by the seeming absence of any spiritual teaching or models in my own religious tradition.

Smith is the son of Protestant missionaries to China, where he spent his boyhood. He studied religions in their native settings all over the world. In his book, "The World's Religions," he heads religious cynics off at the pass saying simply, "The full story of religion is not rose-colored; often it is crude."

He notes that his book is about "religion at its best," then proceeds to write in a way that allows the wisdom and truths of religion to come alive. I was ready to convert first to one and then to the next. Eventually I looked deeper into my own tradition, and rediscovered my home there.

When I hear people say, "I am not really religious -- I am more spiritual," I find myself substituting "spirited" for "spiritual," with the implication that spirituality is lighter on its feet, more alive, more compelling than religion. Spirituality infuses my life; religion does not, at least not with the same intensity. Religion gets weighted down, often taking itself too seriously.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish Theologian, defines spiritual as "the ecstatic force that stirs all our goals. When we perceive it, it is as if our mind were gliding for a while with an eternal current."

We tap into something that temporarily sweeps us away. We are made right with the world. We listen to our own eternal truth.

`Peter Schaffer defined spirituality memorably in his novel, Equus. At the end of the story, a woman admits her despair at feeling utterly disconnected from anything of meaning. She asks her husband where she can turn.

"Worship all that you see, and more will appear," he replies.

Spirituality is finding the sacred in the ordinary: in creative acts, natural beauty, our relationships with others, as well as during times of great joy, deep loss or acute duress. Spiritual masters tell us we can encounter the sacred on a busy street corner or in the gaze of the poor.

If we are surrounded by the sacred, what can religion add to our spiritual journey?

For me, religion adds two critical ingredients: a story and a community.

Sacred narratives act as guideposts that capture the human enterprise of being called and led by the divine. They give us models for living with deep integrity. At their best, these stories show us how to "stay on the path." They can inspire us, and challenge our ordinary ways of thinking.

Misused, the narratives stagnate and fossilize; instead of affirming they exclude and control.

Religions also provide a community, providing support and shared values. Community is a sounding board; it challenges and keeps us humble. Without community, one can become dangerously independent, isolated.

As a community we commemorate and celebrate the sacred narrative, and in doing so, we tap into that "ecstatic force that stirs all our goals."

Religion and spirituality work together. Each at its best provides access to the world of the sacred. At its worst, each risks moving toward excess: religion without spirituality becomes dogmatic and rigid; spirituality without an organizing principle and a community risks being otherworldly and misguided.

Religion may falter, but (as the pre- and post-"Passion" debate shows) it is far from forgotten. And, as Easter's deep symbolism approaches, the sheer volume of this cry for greater spirituality should be a heads up for leaders of religions. For the well-being of the institutions and their members, it's time to wonder why this cry is gaining such momentum.