03/03/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

Spiritual and Religious

Without a doubt, it is a new day for spirituality in our world. In the popularity contest of modern life, it is religion which can't get a date for the prom. More and more, people are declaring themselves "spiritual but not religious," and it is both a problem and progress for us.

The problem with being "spiritual but not religious" is that it is a dead-end for the spiritual seeker. Without the positive "tools" of religion, it can only describe a person's point-of-view -- expressing a sense of open wonder and personal conviction about transcendent possibilities and the numinous on the one hand, and a disinterest in, or dissatisfaction with known religious history, structures and dogmas on the other.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not criticizing people who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." Anybody who feels compelled to choose spirituality over religion has, in my opinion, "chosen the better part" -- to quote Jesus from the Gospels [1]. Sometimes it seems like the only appropriate response. The problem arises when we are asked, or we ask ourselves, "How are you 'spiritual but not religious'?" For when we try to answer the question, we either have a difficult time explaining it, or immediately start to name activities we do, or refer to teachings from existing religious traditions that undermine the original statement.

This is because it is actually mistake to separate religion and spirituality, as if the two were opposed to one another. The truth is that they are natural partners and cannot be separated without doing damage to their common goal. In the partnership of spirituality and religion, religion is something that you do or use to further your spiritual exploration, not something in which you must believe. It is a tool that performs a service for us, something we utilize for our own spiritual development. Unfortunately, we sometimes end up getting used by the tool! But that's not the fault of religion. It is up to us to gain an understanding of what it is with which we are dealing, and to know what our position is relative to it. Obviously, if we make an idol out of religion, we become its servant and can expect to be used for its ends. But if religion is the tool that we use to gain access to the sacred, then we are in the right relative position to achieve our ends.

For as long as we can remember, we have been in relationship with this thing we created, called "religion." So long in fact that we sometimes forget who created whom and treat it like an 'All-knowing God' over our lives, slavishly trying to live up to its "Divine Dictates." The irony is that we actually created it in order to help us remember how to connect with the sacred, to help us achieve an experience the ultimate reality. Even the word itself tells us as much; for "religion" ultimately derives from the Latin re-ligare, "to link back" or "re-connect." It is what "links us back" to the source or essence of our being, to all that we would remember about how to connect with that source or essence.

When discussing his unique theory of spiritual renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sometimes borrows the Latin term magisterium from Catholicism to describe a religion's collected body of knowledge or wisdom [2]. But it is also a good way to think about religion in general, as a body of spiritual teachings and lore, rituals and techniques, carried down and growing ever-bigger through the centuries, like a slow-moving glacier moved by its own gravity. That is to say, religion is like our collective memory of spiritual technologies and instruction manuals, the means by which we can "re-connect" with the sacred dimension -- but which is not itself, sacred.

What is sacred is spirit, or spirituality. Spirit is the living essence of the sacred, the divine life. Spiritus, as the Latin suggests, is the divine "breath" in the body of the human being, the planet, the universe and religion too. It is the "active ingredient," the "spark" in all things; but it is impotent without a body to carry its message. And this is the rub for the "spiritual but not religious." While religion without spirituality is, as so many have come to realize, just dead matter; spirituality without religion is a ghost without a body -- it can't do anything in the world. Thus, one's spirituality is limited to a vague sense of something "other," something "beyond," which may bring us hope, but little help. Without the structure of spiritual teaching and practice, i.e., religion, we cannot accomplish the spiritual transformation of our lives for which so many of us long.

Nevertheless, the idea of being "spiritual but not religious" is a critical insight for us today. What we are really saying is that we have a sense that the two -- spirituality and religion -- have become divorced, that the life-spirit has left the body of religion, making it dead for us. When people began to quote Nietzsche in the late 1960s, saying, "God is dead!" [3] What many of them actually meant was that religion was dead for them. But, even if we acknowledge the "death of religion," we are still left with the problem of the ghost without a body, which is where so many of us find ourselves today -- longing for spirituality, but lacking the means of deepening our relationship with it. Although spirituality is indeed "the better part," it is limited in what it can do for us unless we pair it with religion.


This is part two of a three-part series of articles on The Religion of Spirituality. The first part was called, "The End of Religion," and the third part will be entitled, "The Religion of Spirituality."


1. The New Testament, The Gospel of Luke 10:42.

2. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, God Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: An Essay on the 'Contraction' of God in Different Jewish Paradigms, Boulder, CO: Albion-Andalus Books, 2013: 7.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974: 181.