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Scott Perlo

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Spirituality and Religion Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Posted: 02/18/2011 8:30 pm

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column exploring the lack of participation of men in American religion. Much to my surprise, I received two kinds of comments again and again about the article.

The first category of commentator was pleased by the news that men were less religious, for, as they so verbosely wrote, religion is foolishness and men were to be praised for abandoning it in such numbers. To these people, I cheerfully blow a raspberry in your direction. Go pester Glenn Beck.

But a second category of responses is deeply intriguing. Those suggested that I had confused spirituality and religion: that, had I considered spiritual engagement rather than religious affiliation, I would not have found such discrepancy between the spiritual sex (women) and the Neanderthals (us guys). The religious human and the spiritual one, they claim, are different animals.*

Are religion and spirituality separate species? To the minds of most Americans, I think the answer is clearly yes. Even in as short a career as mine, I've heard the sentence, "Rabbi, I'm spiritual, not religious," hundreds of times.

This idea can also have a more aggressive cant. For many, religion is the primary obstacle to spirituality, if not its true enemy.

The widespread celebration of spirituality coupled with suspicion of religion is part of our American heritage. As a friend reminded me, the Transcendentalists themselves enshrined this idea. From Emerson's address at Harvard Divinity School:

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

As I recall, Emerson was not invited back. The separation between religion and spirituality has a hallowed history here.

I struggled for years even to understand this divide. I certainly didn't enter the rabbinate because I wanted to be "religious, not spiritual." Rather, I was drawn to a life of Torah and mitzvot (observance) through deep affinity with the spirit, and by a present desire to be close to God. I came into this work because I felt the Holy One's fire. That the two should be separate seemed nonsensical.

But, as with most things about which we experience complete certainty, I now think that I was wrong, and that there are two qualitatively different experiences so described.

First, spirituality, which takes its character from individuality. Spirituality lives in an individual's direct, personal connection to God. Its foundation is hitlahavut -- passion. It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spiritual experiences are rarely defined because defining them would take one out of the experiencing of the moment, something anathema to the spiritual mind. Spirituality makes us feel alive.

But what people overlook is that spirituality is also self-centered. Because it is so personal, it tends to ignore bonds between people, and does not know that God's voice becomes textured when spread over community and time. Though it is smart, it is not wise: it rarely involves a relationship more than a generation old. Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.

Religion, on the other hand, is as thick as it gets. It incorporates generations of learning and has grown wise and thoughtful. Religion is patient in a measure that spans lifetimes, and knows the depth of things. Its foundations are hesed -- care and tzedek -- justice. It has plumbed both our mortality and our divinity, and speaks to us of our greatness and our smallness in the same breath. Religion helps us understand life.

Religion is often so thick, however, that it smothers spontaneity and individuality. It struggles to see people as different from one another (a relatively recent psychological discovery, as an aside). It does not thrill with its quickness, for it is not quick, and prefers rhythm over syncopation, harmony over innovation.

The two are indeed different.

They are not, however, somehow mutually exclusive.

One of Judaism's holiest, most brilliant teachers, Moses Maimonides, taught us the virtue of the golden mean: that the apex of life is to be found in the middle of extremes. (Maimonides, The Eight Chapters, Ch.4) That spirituality and religiosity comprise the same spectrum cannot be denied: else, how could they at times appear as opposites?

It is equally as reasonable to doubt the motives of spirituality as to do the same for religion. An individual can be just as pathological as a group can be oppressive. Extreme spirituality is as dangerous as extreme religion. They both can also be equally sublime.

Remember that each of us has two sides to our hearts. Central to human greatness is our capacity to carry two ideas in tension. Enough with the idea that religion and spirituality are exclusive: it is a fallacy; we know it not to be so. Let us fill ourselves with both.


*It's worth looking at that Pew study again -- even a cursory examination will show that men participate less, regardless of whether we're talking spirituality or religion.

 
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