I am occasionally reminded that a lot of people build up a strict dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Not just a dichotomy — an emnity. Spirituality is the charming, innocent Rapunzel in her tower; religion is the wicked witch holding her captive. Spirituality sees the holy and the beautiful in everything; religion chains up the holy, insists on its own rules, acts largely for its own selfish gain.
The dichotomy reminds me of the one between science and religion, where the conflict between the two branches is rather obviously entirely fictitious: what we call ‘science’ is the science of the physical, while what we call ‘religion’ is the science of the spiritual. Of course, conflicts can arise as to which science a particular topic belongs to (the obvious example is fundamentalists who prefer a world-origin story based on a literal reading of the Bible to scientific evidence). But on the whole these belong to different domains.
Adding ‘spirituality’ as a further dichotomy pushes religion a little bit towards the earth. Now it represents groups of people, rules and hierarchies. Politicized spirituality. Materialized spirituality.
Incarnate spirituality? This is what the Catholic Church — my own religion — professes. The Word (the spirit) became flesh (incarnate) in the person of Jesus Christ, and now the Church acts as the Body of Christ. The material presence of God in the world.
I have to admit: when I hear someone say that they’re ‘spiritual but not religious’ my instinct is to roll my eyes. It feels wishy-washy, non-committal…lazy. Like someone who wants to paint their house but not any particular color.
Obviously, it’s not my business how someone decides to paint their own home. And there are perfectly logical reasons not to commit to a particular religion. Using Catholicism as an example, you might have objections to certain moral teachings, you might have concerns about how the Church is run as an institution, you might not be all that certain about the whole Jesus thing (it’s a hard pill to swallow), you might find Mass unbearably boring (the waiver on the Sunday obligation is really one of the best things to come out of the pandemic). Should that mean that you’re now obliged to give up belief in God or belief in something beyond the physical world in order to be a consistent person? Of course not. And why should possessing spiritual beliefs or faith mean that you’re obliged to enroll in a social system and live your life according to an official creed?
So I do. I get it. And I suppose it wouldn’t bother me if this designation didn’t often feel like a step taken back, in judgement. Possibly I’m projecting. But it can seem like a statement: ‘my spirituality is purer, truer, better than religion’.
And…of course it is. A spiritual impulse is very pure. It’s logos, unincarnate (copyrighting this name for my acoustic indie band). It’s good and it’s true, and it’s untested.
Organized religions aren’t perfect. The Catholic Church has blood on its hands, largely because the Catholic Church has been really big and really powerful for a long time. And people fuck up, more obviously when there’s a lot of them and more dangerously when they have power. If I sin while living a generically spiritual life, that sin is assigned just to me and the spirituality remains unscathed, because it’s a part of my life that doesn’t touch the real world and possibly remains uncommunicated to others. If I sin (and this doesn’t necessarily just mean a slip-up but perhaps wrongful beliefs, intentional wrongdoing) while living a ‘Christian’ life, that sin is assigned to the account of Christianity: it becomes ironic or hypocritical, it stains the religion…
The same purely spiritual element is still left unscathed. A life lived within a specific religious tradition doesn’t mean a less spiritual life. But within a religion, the purely spiritual descends from the heavens and we enter into an active relationship with it. And, as in the original Incarnation, it is abused, dirtied, wronged, humiliated, sullied, beaten, murdered. It doesn’t remain intact, or perfect. But it does remain. It is tried, and we test ourselves against it. We bring it into communication with other elements, other human beings. We see what happens when it comes into the light.
That doesn’t mean that organized religion is necessarily good. Or that Catholicism or Christianity brings more good than harm or possesses what is good and true in this life (obviously, I think it does, it’s just a topic for a different article).
But it does mean that the relationship between spirituality and religion is not like that between Rapunzel and the wicked witch who wants to lock her in a tower. Instead, religion is the prince looking up at the beauty in her high tower, climbing up to reach her, and bringing her down into the real world. And from there, new adventures…