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What We Do With Our Unrest

In conversations about religion in Canada these days, one frequently comes across some variation of the phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” The implication often seems to be that “spirituality” represents openness, inclusivity, tolerance, and a host of other virtues, while “religion” is associated with the nasty dogmatism and rigid moralism of institutional church structures. Spirituality = good; religion = bad.  That seems to about cover it, in many estimations.

Of course, things are rarely so simple, however well this kind of a distinction might play in public discourse. In The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser offers something like a definition of “spirituality” that encompasses the best of what is being sought in the deployment of both terms:

Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.

Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality. Thus, when Plato says that we are on fire because our souls come from beyond and that beyond is, through the longing and hope that its fire creates in us, trying to draw us back toward itself, he is laying out the broad outlines for a spirituality. Likewise for Augustine, when he says: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent quote. I know it’s not at all constructive, but my immediate temptation is to copy William Cavanaugh’s comment: “Being against organized religion is like being against organized labour, or hospitals.”

    The best comparison to organized religion is perhaps organized politics. Both are blamed for similar evils, and I suspect one is often a substitute or marker for the other – i.e. the real problem with a religion is the politics of the people in it, or, sometimes, the problem is with all organizations with any ideological commitments at all.

    July 12, 2011
    • Great comment from Cavanagh… I think it’s often worth asking people what they mean when they say that they are “not religious.” I suspect that some people have a fairly vague understanding of the “religion” they are against, picked up from this or that experience or the general sentiment out there. I think I would often reject the “religion” people say they don’t like as well.

      July 12, 2011
  2. Tyler #

    Leaving theological considerations aside, what would you say to someone who has gotten their feet wet and still rejects religion? How many “this or that experience” can one obtain before it seems like religion, no matters its original intention, does more harm than good?

    While there are select individuals who are figures to admire, how many religions preach a doctrine on any given Sunday that fails any consideration outside that hour? Where is the attempt of authentic practice? In my little corner of the Earth I often see ‘religious’ people of a variety of sects promoting the message or aiming to fulfill something from the message. However, they seem to not do it out of desire for genuine care for another, they do so so they can gain religious points whether they are in the eyes of God or the fellow church members.

    With the above considered, the spiritual and religious distinction is an important one because spirituality remains a sanctuary from the religious counterpart, the part that is”all to human.”

    July 12, 2011
    • Well, I would probably say “keep trying.” Sounds simplistic, I know, but while there is no shortage of religious hypocrisy and error and abuse out there, there are healthier, more life-affirming, life-giving options, whose practice does genuinely flow out of love and care for God and one another. Having said that, I know that there is quite likely a critical mass of negative religious experiences that makes it unlikely that one would ever keep trying.

      And of course, it’s impossible to completely leave theological considerations aside. At some point, the truth of the matter has to come into play. Are there truer ways to deal with our unrest than others? Will any old response do? Is it entirely down to whatever “works” for us? Is it only “religion” that is “all too human” or is “spirituality” touched by the same negative human tendencies?

      “Spirituality” may offer sanctuary from religion, but it can just as easily feed unhealthy traits such as individualism (my spirituality) and pragmatism (whatever works for me), not to mention the possibility of the rather confused and confusing ideological relativism that is so prevalent these days. Perhaps one of the differences between “spirituality” and “religion” is that “spirituality” (as it is presently understood) hasn’t been around long enough for us to abuse and misuse and misunderstand it like we have religion :).

      July 13, 2011
      • Tyler #

        ““spirituality” (as it is presently understood) hasn’t been around long enough for us to abuse and misuse and misunderstand it like we have religion”

        Good point.

        “I know that there is quite likely a critical mass of negative religious experiences that makes it unlikely that one would ever keep trying”

        This point reminds me a bit of your post after the Vancouver Riot. If the critical mass is so great, negative examples etc., then maybe the structure of the group needs to be revisited (this is true for many things)?
        So in one sense spirituality is more encompassing than religion, it is a word than can include but is not limited to religion. Religion is rather narrow and defined.

        July 14, 2011
      • Spirituality’s strength may also be its weakness—it may be more encompassing than religion, but it may be too vague and broad (as the commenter below alludes to) to provide the sustainable and concrete hope that is found in religious traditions. It may leave too much up to the individual—rather than providing a narrative of meaning within which to locate ourselves (and wrestle/push against, as in the case of Socrates, Jesus, etc), spirituality often asks/allows us to invent our own.

        July 15, 2011
    • James #

      Hi Tyler
      I’ve been away for a bit, hence the delayed response- but reading your “gotten their feet wet” comment, it occurred to me that this is an inadequate test of “religion”. Following the reasoning of the Cavanagh quote [which I agree with], critiquing religion by getting one’s feet wet is like critiquing marriage after living together for a season. Marriage is bigger than that both conceptually and experientially.
      BTW it seems to me that Socrates, though he was accused of atheism, was profoundly religious. He was, of course no atheist. Only if one defines “religious” by the rituals and tenets of some specific faith could he be considered non-religious.

      July 21, 2011
  3. Spirituality, like religion, is simply the affirmation of an immaterial cosmic reality. With religion though comes particularity, participation, relationship, community and accountability among other aspects. I suppose one could consider these life occupations as “narrowing” by comparison to the substantive vagueness of being just spiritual.

    Honestly, my pre dispositon towards someone claiming to be “simply spiritual” is that, if nothing else, they are intellectually lazy and adverse to commitment. More likely motivated in promoting vague ideologies that affirm indescriminate choice than having been scarred by a negative religeous experience.

    A spiritual man can claim to value knowledge and at the same time avoid learning and education. Why he can pretty much spend his formative years smoking copious quantaties of cannabis, while periodicly, at his whim, dabbling with the ideas of others (if I remember my 60’s spirituality correctly.) 🙂

    A seriously religeous man has no such luxury. A life long education and application of his tradition is essential, both for himself and for his children.

    A religeous man may be wrong, sometimes even tragically so, but I prefer his commitment to the lukewarm fuzziness of “spirituality”.

    July 14, 2011
  4. Sorry, Tyler, while it might seem otherwise, I in no way intend to push back against you personally. I’m harping about what I percieve to be the free ride we’re giving the term spirituality.

    July 14, 2011
    • Tyler #

      No worries, no offense taken.

      A question I’d raise out of all of this is:

      What would label a figure like Socrates? He pushed against “A life long education and application of his tradition…” in the pursuit of meaning and a more authentic being and was not “intellectually lazy and adverse to commitment.”

      The same could be said for Jesus in a certain sense. He was religious but he also redefined the tradition just as Socrates did. His commitment was not to tradition but to humanity and if tradition helped this cause then it was accepted.

      “With religion though comes particularity, participation, relationship, community and accountability among other aspects.” Is this all religion entails? If so, it differs very little from a book club, a political party, or a Costco membership.

      “A religious man may be wrong, sometimes even tragically so, but I prefer his commitment to the lukewarm fuzziness of “spirituality”.

      Is commitment then what is valued?

      July 14, 2011
  5. Hmm, I would describe Socrates as a philosopher, concerned with the study of knowledge and existence more than I would describe Him as a spiritualist. I harbour no grudge with philosophy. It’s disciplines teach me, to the limited extent I am able to grasp it’s complexities. Philosophy’s logical approach has been invaluable to the religeous experience, saving it from the excesses of fundamentalism.

    The work of Socrates is vastly different from someone who examines crystals, reads tarot cards or plots astrological charts. Or one who just simply opines I am open to the possiblity of an immaterial cosmic force without any further exploration or understanding of such a purview.

    Perhaps what would serve our conversation better is some commonly understood and mutually excepted definition of spirituality. Clearly in my posts, I am not much of a fan of the term, as I understand it in the modern context.

    I’m not particularly comfortable discussing our Lord in this context but will say this. For me Jesus is the fullfillment of religion, the fullfillment of tradition. Our Lord is supremely obedient to the Father (the epitome of a traditionalist metaphor?). It is true that our Lord does push back against errancy within tradition. If I have implied that traditions are to be blindly followed, I withdraw such implication. It is not intended. My point with regard to education was meant to imply a sufficient understanding so as to be able to test traditions theses, but to be fair, I was in no way explicit in this regard.

    Yes I do value commitment over the casual, potentially careless indifference, the term spirituality implies to me. But the hope is that committment leads to better understanding, leading to better outcomes.

    A religeous person who can thoughfully articulate her claims, whether I would agree with them or not, is to be respected and considered. Vague expressions of being spiritual that have required no real education or make no attempt at reconcilliation with history as we understand it, or offer some coherent existential view…meh, not so much.

    July 15, 2011

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