Religion and Spirituality

I often hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  What is the difference?  Well, I think there are several differences, today I will just begin to consider one — the question of authority.

What is our authority for our beliefs?  How do we know what God (or whatever) wants? What is our guide for our spiritual journey? 

  1. Priests and Shamans. Many religions and cultures have had people who are felt to have a special ability to bridge the gulf between people and the divine.  The authority of the Pope and priests in the Roman Catholic Church play this role, as do Shamans in many traditional cultures.
  2. Messengers. Rather than a priestly caste, some religions find authority in the teachings of specific individuals, usually called prophets or messengers.  Judaism, Islam, Baha’i, and Christianity all recognize prophets as emissaries of God.  Christianity sees Jesus Christ as much more than a prophet.
  3. Patristics and Tradition. Authority may be found in the words of elders, whether the Talmud of Judaism, the “fathers of the church” in early Christianity, Saints in various religions, or the Elders of a family or tribe.  Tradition can be a strong source of spiritual authority.
  4. Scripture. Many Protestants, Muslims, and some others believe that certain ancient books, especially the Bible or the Koran, have special spiritual authority and represent absolute truth.  Other ancient writings, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist Sutras, or the teachings of the Sikh Gurus are seen by some as containing great spiritual truths.
  5. Wisdom teachers. Many people find spiritual truth in the teachings or writings of others who seem to be spiritually wise:  Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, and others from the distant past, Emerson, Bahá’u’lláh’, Yogananda, Gandhi, or Thomas Merton from more recent time, or contemporary teachers such as Marcus Borg, Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra, or the Dalai Lama.
  6. Experience. Mystical spirituality is based on direct personal encounters with the divine.  Buddhists, Yogis, Sufis, Pentecostal Christians, and Quakers all base their spirituality on their direct experience.  It appears that most organized religions were begun by someone who claimed to have had such an experience.

Thus, when people say they are “spiritual” rather than “religious,” I suspect they are claiming Authority #6, personal encounters.  The difficulty with this approach has always been to distinguish between true encounters with the numinous on the one hand and dreams, hallucinations, delusions, lies, and fantasies on the other.  If everyone is seen as being free to act on the basis of personal and private spiritual events, the world could be a dangerous place.

So organized religions, perhaps, come into being to “tame” spirituality; to help us distinguish between “true” experiences of the numinous and “false” experiences caused by the devil, mental illness, drugs, or some other non-holy source.  Concepts such as heresy are created to deal with these presumably “inappropriate” forms of spirituality.  More to come…

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