There is a distinction between spirituality and religion; spirituality is private while religion comes with a history and a set of beliefs and behaviors which has arisen from the gradual distillation of the experiences of many generations of believers in different cultures which are gathered into a shared memory that provides a map and language of the transcendent spiritual world that guides and channels spirituality. There is a tendency to present them in opposition to each other; spirituality is pure and clean while religion has been misused to justify bad behavior and thus is contaminated and even dirty. This opposition loosens the important and even necessary connection between the community of believers and a relationship with God.
Religion presents a package of beliefs and behaviors that need to be taken as a piece, the hard with the easy, the convenient with the inconvenient. Claiming to be spiritual but not religious has the effect of breaking that package apart, pushing aside the parts that are inconvenient or unpleasant. It becomes easier to ignore values and behaviors that are important to the community and to me as well. Religion imposes a discipline which resists the constant erosion of important values by pride or greed or laziness or bad habits or anything that drags me away from my most authentic self.
Religion’s map of the spiritual world leads us forward to our destiny, which in the Christian tradition is to “participate in the life of God”. This map shows us the dead-ends and impassible swamps that need to be avoided. The shared language of this collective memory forms the community that we all depend on for aid. There are many who sense and are seeking the transcendent reality that surrounds us but without a spiritual map, the newcomer’s spiritual travels will be meandering and circuitous. Without a common language, it will be lonely. Following the late, great philosopher Frank Sinatra’s ethos of, “I Did It My Way” works for a few, but for most the likelihood of becoming lost and lonely is high.
Be not mistaken; religions have issues, but the most authentic spirituality embraces the community of believers, putting down deep roots in a tradition which constantly nudges us back when we stray and prods us on to our fullest human flourishing.