A word in favor of spiritual rather than religious

A word in favor of spiritual rather than religious December 1, 2021


Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

Emily Dickinson

People sometimes say they are spiritual but not religious.

I find that phrase can open us into a great mystery.

Not that it must. Often people use the phrase to mean they are only interested in those parts of religions that confirm their opinions. It can reveal a lack of interest in any potentially uncomfortable challenges to long cultivated views. And even keep people in the shallows and away from the deep places. That’s why over the years on occasion I’ve said I’m religious but not spiritual. It too can open toward mystery.

At the same time, there is something in the phrase “spiritual but not religious” that is powerful and compelling. Frankly, much of religion is about little more than crowd control. And this phrase calls that out right at the beginning. Sorting dross and gold is an important project. This little phrase does that.

Now, to put it more generously, but also honestly, much of the work of religion is about the preservation and continuity of cultures. In our Western cultures one can see what that looks like in the pageantry of our country’s patriotism, expressions of civil religion. Rituals and symbols and hymns stirring the heart. Whatever the value in that work, and I believe there is value, it’s not all dross; there has also always been a part of religion that is both more intimate and vastly larger than concerns with any group’s cohesion. There is gold in there. Or, to use another image from a spiritual tradition, there is a pearl of great price among all the other things. And spiritual is perhaps a perfect word for that part of religion that is so valuable, so important.

Spirituality is about the deepest matters of our hearts. So. What does it really mean? What is spiritual?

The etymology of the word shows us some of this, with its root in “breath.” Different cultures and religions draw upon the same image in their differing languages, spiritus, pneuma, prana, chi, the list goes on, all derive from the world’s languages word for breath. And breath perfectly captures the concerns spirituality can address. What is it that gives us life? What is it that if we lack it, we die? What gives us meaning in a world that looks all too meaningless? What heals the broken heart? Yours? Mine?

What that is true and helpful and responds to the cries of many beings?

The call of the spiritual life.

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