Thursday, September 1, 2016

On Spirituality and Religion

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that really made me think.

"Spiritual people inspire me, religious people frighten me."

How spirituality and religion got so divorced from each other that people would embrace such a saying is a good question.  I have heard before statements such as "I'm a very spiritual person, just not religious."

But I've never heard such a statement that so forcefully represented the dichotomy between spirituality and religion.  I'm left wondering what motivates such a statement.  What is the understanding of spirituality and of religion that gives rise to such a strong sentiment.  In a very patronizing way, I wonder if they truly understand what they are saying.  I think that such a person does not realize that underlying any spirituality is a religious belief, or doctrine, that defines that spiritual experience.  

I would imagine that when a person declares that "spiritual people inspire me, religious people frighten me" what they are probably thinking ties into the object of spirituality or religion.  By that I mean that a "spiritual person" is likely identified as one who has found inner peace and tranquility, a healthy 'soul', if you will, within themselves.  That inner peace is an inspiration to others, and a threat to no one.  

In contrast to that, I would imagine that when such an individual thinks of someone who is religious, they probably are thinking about those who would impose their belief system on others, who are aggressive about promoting "correct doctrine", mandating "righteous behavior", and who show little tolerance to those who differ from them in matters of faith.

One need not think too far to come up with examples of spiritual people and religious people by this definition.  On the spiritual side, I'd suggest that people would gravitate towards individuals such as Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela. At the other extreme, when one thinks about frightening religious people, I would suppose that Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church, would epitomize that. I acknowledge that in making those distinctions I betray my own spiritual and religious bias.  

But my conviction is that even if we grant that Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are great spiritual leaders, their spirituality did not exist in a vacuum.  Each had a profoundly 'religious' belief system that served as a foundation for their spirituality.  Mother Theresa without Catholicism is not Mother Theresa.  

For those of us who are part of a religious community the question that should captivate us in response to such a bumper sticker is how can we, as members of a religious community, grow in our own spirituality and manifest that healthy spirituality to the world around us, so that we might be a source of inspiration, not fear?

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