10/12/2011 11:17 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

Religious, Not Just Spiritual

Lately it seems that everywhere I look I stumble across another article detailing how Americans are rushing in droves away from religion and instead defining themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

Truly, although I am myself a religious person, I greatly admire the SBNR folks because I see their dedication to the search for meaning as an evidence of the longing for transcendence implanted in the human heart by an all-loving Creator. It brings to mind a story found in my religion, the Baha'i faith, about the significance of spiritual search. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, writes of the fabled and mystically symbolic lover, Majnun, who searches tirelessly for his beloved, Layli:

It is related that one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, "What doest thou?" He said, "I seek for Layli." They cried, "Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!" He said, "I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her."

Baha'u'llah further comments, tellingly, that "this betokeneth intense ardor in searching." In fact, the right and obligation of individuals to engage in an unfettered search for truth is one of the cardinal principles of His Faith. So naturally I'm very sympathetic to the efforts of others who seek meaning and ultimate reality. No journey could be more significant.

The respect that is due to those engaged in this process demands, I think, a thoughtful response from those of us who belong in the "religious" category. Therefore, in a spirit of comradeship (because I too have been, and at times still am, a Majnun sifting the dust) I'd like to offer an unabashed rationale for the religious life, per se.

But first, a note on the pronoun I'm using for God. The Baha'i concept of God asserts that His greatness cannot be contained by His creation, that He is neither male nor female, and far excels the human world. The use of the masculine pronoun to reference Him is a convention and a convenience, not a description.

For me the lure of religiosity arises from belief in God. I believe in a God who is the creator of the universe and all that it contains, who established and operates through natural laws, and loves all that He has created. This great, unknowable Creator has not, in the Baha'i view, left humanity to struggle along without assistance or guidance. God is not watching us "from a distance" as we bumble around, laying waste to His perfect work. He is close to us, with us, actively intervening in human history, guiding us to our destined future. Religion offers not only a close personal relationship with God, but a sense of common purpose with Him, the hope that somehow our efforts to promote human well-being are in line with His plan. There is a path out of the mess we are in; we need to refer to His guidance to walk it.

I see this as a key difference between religiosity and spirituality. Spirituality can lead to a relationship with God, but religiosity demands the fulfillment of obligations to God. Why is that desirable? Because committing to God changes who we are; we can no longer be what we are automatically, or even what we aspire to; we are obliged to push ourselves beyond that and to find our true selves, the "soul who is pleasing unto God".

And though it may be tempting to think that we are just fine operating with only individual conscience as our guide, there is plenty of evidence to refute this idea, especially when it comes to our relationships with the rest of humanity. Social relationships are complex and challenging and each person has wishes and agendas that conflict with those of countless others. Through religion, we know our duty is to align our thoughts and actions with God's plan, not our own.

Many of those who reject religiosity do so for this very reason. They see the destructive power of religion, the ceaseless wars, the lives lost, the civilizations stamped out in the name of God and His plan, and they want no part of it. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'u'llah's son and appointed successor, likewise stated, "If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone". What crime could be greater than to appropriate what is God's, the human heart, and corrupt it by inciting it to hatred and destruction of His creatures?

Of course, 'Abdu'l-Baha's words are conditional. He says, "if." We can make the effort to discover those expressions of religious belief that do not fall into this destructive category. This opens for us new possibilities: not only of satisfying our heart's yearning by responding to the call of God, but also of working with others to build a new society -- for it is religion that, through the obligations it imposes on us, gives us the virtues, the necessary tools, to work and live with others. In fact, one of the chief functions of religion, in its constructive form, is to regulate and harmonize human relations. Surely in our day and age this is still relevant and necessary.

Interestingly, fulfillment of our social obligations enables us to partake of a wonderful and challenging gift -- to help "build anew the whole world". We cannot take part by withdrawing from religion. Religion IS the method of God, played out over human history.

Logically, then, if we can accept the theoretical possibility that religion can build and heal the world, we must ask ourselves how we choose, how we recognize God's purpose, how we know that any religion is good and true.

Once an individual has come to this question, the world is her oyster! Each religion has an abundance of material to be "sifted." Let us each become like Majnun and search with intense ardor for our Beloved.