Spiritual and Religious: Growing Past the Artificial Divisions ~ Rabbi Alan Lurie

Rabbi Eric Yoffie — for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration — recently wrote an unfortunate blog titled “Religious But Not Spiritual.” In it he wrote,

I hate spirituality, at least as it has come to be used in these contexts. Spirituality is a weasel word, impossible to define or pin down. It can, and does, refer to pretty much anything. The only thing that it seems to mean with certainty is the absence of the disciplined, regular, organized spiritual seeking that is so essential to religious belief and moral behavior.

He concludes by proposing:

Spirituality, by definition, is an occasional impulse, while ritual, liturgy and taught moral behaviors serve to keep me in relationship with God. Spirituality is intensely personal, while only structured community can give me the language, the rites and the ethos that enable me to be in readiness for the sacred.

This blog is unfortunate in several ways. First, for a religious person to use the word “hate” in this context is perplexing at best. If it is to be used at all, “hate” must be reserved solely as a response to an action that deliberately harms another. Second, this blog proposes that religion and spirituality are at odds in some essential and divergent way. Lastly, and most troubling, it proposes that religion can exist outside of spirituality.

I think I understand why Rabbi Yoffie might have felt compelled to write this blog. The motto “I am spiritual but nor religious” is frequently heard by most clergy, and this motto more-often-than-not is presented with the implication that spirituality is somehow superior to religion — that spirituality is the commitment to exploration and personal growth, while religion is the blind adherence to dogma and the end of growth. Yoffie’s blog, I suspect, is in response to this viewpoint, proposing the opposite by positioning spirituality as self-indulgent and lacking in routine practice, while presenting religion as a dedicated community of practice and action.

The conflict between spirituality and religion has become wide (The Huffington Post has different sections for each — the Religion section, focusing primarily on ritual and theology, and the Healthy Living/Spirit section, focusing primarily on meditation and personal growth), and Yoffie’s blog, I fear, seeks to widen the gap. The perceived conflict between religion and spirituality, though, is based on a faulty understanding of both, and is a classic “category mistake” because it compares an adjective to a noun: Spiritual is an attitude, while Religion is an institution.

In order to understand this we must first understand ourselves. We are basically two-part beings: Spirit and Ego. Ego is the software implanted in us to ensure physical survival, scanning the environment for dangers, and devising strategies to avoid pain and death. Spirit is the non-physical, wise, pure, essential aspect of our being that animates our bodies and is in constant connection with the eternal flow of Love and Life (which I call God). Ego seeks safety while Spirit seeks growth and healing. When we touch Spirit we see our True-Self, and we are filled with wonder and gratitude. Spirituality, then, is the orientation toward Spirit, and something is “spiritual” when it results in the experience of a transformative connection beyond of our egos.

Religion, in its essence, is simply the institution that has been established by human beings to collect spiritual teachings and practices in order to strengthen our connection to Spirit. Spirituality is the basis of, and reason for, all religions. In order to codify spiritual practices religions rely on two components: 1) Ritual, which is the exterior form of an activity, and 2) Intention, which is one’s interior attitude while performing the ritual. Of course there are too many “religious” people who ferociously follow the first while completely ignoring the second, just as there are “spiritual” people who simply want to experience an interior feeling while refusing to surrender their egos to the rigor of routine practice and the commitment to act for the benefit of others. While a “religious” person may declare “My religion is the only, one, true way!” a “spiritual” person may proclaim, “I am more highly evolved than you!” These are both ego strategies.

The fact that both can easily get hijacked by ego is not the fault of religion or spirituality, but is a natural human inclination that must be clearly seen and healed with compassion. Ego is not bad, but it cannot be in the driver’s seat if one expects to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. And it certainly can not be in the driver’s seat in the practice of religion and the desire for connection to Spirit.

We do not need to choose between spirituality and religion, any more than we need to choose between aesthetics and art museums. While one may say, “I love aesthetics but hate museums,” such a statement misses the essential point that art museums were established in order to create an environment that fosters the aesthetic experience of beauty and passion. In the exact same way, religions are institutions designed to foster spiritual experiences so that we may live with more purpose, power, love and joy, for the benefit of all. Of course one does not need religion in order to be spiritual, but unless one is graced with a natural connection to Spirit and is in masterful control of ego, some form of routine practice is needed.

There is already far too much demonization between people of different viewpoints, who seem to need to see the other with hate in order to feel stronger about their own position. We don’t need to create any more artificial conflicts, especially on matters of Spirit, because we all share the same make-up. We were all created for a sacred purpose, and are all called to help each other grow.

Alan Lurie has a unique background. He is currently a Managing Director at Grubb & Ellis, a national real estate service firm, following a 25-year career as a licensed architect. He is also an ordained rabbi, teaching, leading prayer services, and writing on issues of faith and religion. This combination of meeting the demands of the business world while attending to the needs of the spirit gives Alan both insight into, and access to, a diverse community. He is also the author of Five Minutes on Mondays: Finding Unexpected, Purpose, Peace and Fulfillment at Work. His wife, Shirona, is a Cantor, singer, and accomplished songwriter. They live in Rye, New York.


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