The Zen Priest Considers the Secrets of the Religious and the Spiritual

The Zen Priest Considers the Secrets of the Religious and the Spiritual April 16, 2021




I’ve been thinking about religion and spirituality. And what those words might mean for us.

In my view Merriam-Webster is the great American dictionary. It’s first definition for religion, 1(a) interestingly, describes the state of a person under vows, like a nun.  1(b), probably is what most of us think of as religion, “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” 1(b) is however, divided into its own two parts. That first about the cult of a divinity, while 1(b)(2) describes a “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.” Definition 2 goes “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” I suspect that’s the functional definition for any religious institution.

The magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, as is its wont, meanders through vowed communities and individuals, offers the “Christian church,” and finally, at definition 4 says religion is “A particular system of faith and worship.”

Buried within these definitions is an assumption of an institution. Those today who say they’re spiritual but not religious are mostly pointing to institutions that they are rejecting.

Spiritual unlinked from the various oppressions and cruelties that religious communities through the course of history are burdened with.

In some ways spiritual is a less messy term. Merriam-Webster’s first definition is “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit. In the online version it hotlines to “Spirit,” which has as a first definition “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.” The etymology takes us to breath. What I would call a primary metaphor, akin to such fundamental human experiences as walking, sleeping, hearing, seeing. Metaphors are a basic way we understand things, where we find or express meaning noting how something is like another thing. Fundamental metaphors may not be archetypes in a Jungian or Platonic sense but they are our most basic points of reference. For us as humans this process has multiple purposes. One I find terribly important is how metaphors help to liberate us from a bare literalism, opening doors of perception, and paths to meaning.

Here we’re invited into something truly important. Maybe the most important. Here we’re exploring meaning and purpose. Or, at least invited in that direction.

It is dangerous to have private definitions for words. Humpty Dumpty tells us how “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean…” To which Alice offers the great rebuke, “The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.” When a word gets stretched too far, say how we find the word God sitting in our company, we end up with a conundrum. There are so many meanings to god, by way of dictionaries, by way of history, by way of our own experiences and encounters, that we end up with a hole in the language.

Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. But, it makes casual conversations difficult.

That said, I think it is possible to compress the common usages for religion, especially in light of our current distinction between religion and spirituality, and come up with a working definition.

Religion is that part of a culture and a person focused on meaning and purpose.

Personally I find it really important to unravel what I find to be the two most important aspects of our popular spiritual but not religious distinction.

The institutions of religion are about many things. But, one that is inescapable is crowd control. Religions define who is in and who is out. For a culture this is important. But, to call it problematic is to gravely understate the matter. In our own time the way religions use archaic purity codes to condemn non-normative sexualities is a powerful example of how easily this can be evil. At the same time human beings exist only within a cultural context. We might rise out of the narratives of our specific culture, become citizens of the world, but to get there we need formation, and formation always comes within specificities of one sort or another. So, we need culture, but culture is also limiting.

The distinction between who we are as individuals and who we are as members of a culture are, well, messy.

Separating out spiritual from religious is a noble attempt at finding the good. Although as we look at it in is particularity we can see how often the spiritual but not religious person gets mired in all sorts of narcissistic ideations, confusing baubles for meaning.

First noticing this my little joke was to tell people I was religious but not spiritual. But, mostly a joke.

The reality is that our individuality and our particularities within society are both essential. However much we may want to turn our back on our individual cultures, and the reasons for that feeling are always solid, we cannot. If we’re lucky we may begin to see beyond, at least a little. For me the gate was finding the failures of my birthright religion and finding a better way in the substances of Buddhism. And for my Buddhism, being an outsider has gifted me with noticing some of the problematic aspects of the dharma.

But, as a friend just shared with me in a note, humility is the key.

Meaning. Purpose. More words.

The longing of our human hearts. In the face of the mess of life and death, of violence, and want, of excesses of so many sorts, of meaninglessness. Where is meaning? What is purpose?

Who am I?

What am I?

Questions. And within religions several possible paths toward answers. Or, at least face to face meetings with some very dangerous and very powerful and very, well very very beingness. Some strange intimacy.

The secrets of religion and the spiritual.



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