A common refrain heard today from those reluctant to succumb entirely to secularism and atheism, and intent on keeping a door open to transcendence, but who are still wary of corrupt and calcified religious institutions, is: “I am a spiritual person, but not religious”. When queried on the content of their spirituality – one can hardly make the claim without an approximate frame of conviction – they will reply with some version of the following. 1) I believe in ‘some higher force’ – call it God if you like; 2) we are all somehow one, and I wish to stay in tune with this oneness – call it ‘love’ if you like; 3) I have found ways to commune with the higher force – call it prayer or meditation if you like; 4) all religions are basically the same, and the spirituality I have found constitutes their inner reality; the rest is just window-dressing. In short, they quite reasonably conclude that once you’ve bared the banana, you might as well throw away the peel. This sounds very convincing on the face of it.
We witness a wide spectrum of variations on this today, from the simplest, personal option of steering clear of organized religion and fostering one’s own private spirituality, with open-ended tenets of belief, and some reluctance to discuss its details or preach it from the rooftops (“it’s private”, after all), to publicly trumpeted universalist claims. We hear so often of those who say they have isolated the perennial truth and mystical minimum of it all, and who welcome those of any or no faith to participate in week-end retreats and workshops – or to read the books that vehicle the message – and thus gain their own access to some variety of spiritual experience. All this is usually packaged in techniques borrowed from various traditions (usually Eastern), or made to order by unlikely collaborations between ancient practices and modern neuroscience. The buffet on offer is quite extensive, but the usual inner message is the same: the isolation of the essential and the marginalization and relativization of the secondary. Some gurus may recommend adherence to an outer religious tradition of one sort or the other, but almost always as a mere cultural adjunct (one ‘skillful means’ among others, called upaya in the Buddhist tradition); what is important is that the underlying essence be grasped, and that all religious institutions and forms are seen, in the final analysis, to be ancillary and ultimately dispensable.
Again, all this sounds unobjectionable. But there are problems. First, I will ask if this scheme of things is operative in other areas of life and culture. And if not, why should religion be different? I mean, does this scheme of ‘essence’ and ‘adjunct’ function anywhere else in our experience? Let us start first with the body. What do I absolutely need in order to live? Head and trunk pretty much suffice, and even the head’s eyes and ears are not strictly speaking imperative for survival. Limbs and higher senses can be dispensed with and a living, breathing organism will be left behind. Even those in a coma are still alive. And although such cases exist and we do our best to help them cope and continue to value their human dignity, no one will pretend that it is desirable to, so to speak, ‘get down to essentials’ in our corporal existence. We instinctively know that that which does not belong necessarily to the body’s essence, does belong to its integrity. And we also sense that the latter exists for the sake of the former. Our limbs serve the seat of our vital organs (trunk and head) and not vice versa.
Next, in a somewhat different register, let us consider our bodily needs for food, clothing, shelter, fuel and transportation. The ‘essential’ here would be for material goods to simply circulate among us, providing everyone with what they need, when they need it and in a proportion that would allow others to also share equitably in the wealth. Utopian dreams of whatever stripe – fascist or communist, or even unbridled capitalist – offer wistful gazes at such a Shangri-La. However, adults among us will sigh and admit that history has shown, again and again, that we cannot keep those goods circulating over the long haul without some sort of currency, market system, varieties of shops, banks and even, regretfully, a degree of governmental control. In the political order, too, the ‘essential’ would be for us to live in harmony, arm-in-arm, doors unlocked, resolving all community questions through cheery referenda (with unanimous approval effortlessly forthcoming) – in short, a Pleasantville of insipid smiles. Again, we wrinkle our brow and admit that apart from a very few, short-lived communal experiments, we only get close to peace and prosperity through the agency of some variety of sovereign power, some degree of bureaucracy, and at least a few soldiers and policemen into the bargain. They may not be needed in the earthly paradises we dream of, but all the paradises hitherto rehearsed on earth have swiftly turned into nightmares. Our best shot is to minimize inevitable evils through our clumsy, fallible institutions–updating and reforming them as often as needed.
I think the reader can see where I’m going with this. As our limbs and higher senses emerge from our embryonic organism, serve and protect it, and lead it on its more promising adventures; and as economic institutions emerge from our need for goods and then, in turn, serve that need; and as political institutions emerge from our need for peace and order and then, in turn, serve that need; why would the relationship between spirituality and religion be any different? Both economic and political institutions, being living realities, grow; and what grows, can overgrow, and will need periodic pruning and reform to stay true to its original purpose. The great religions all began with great spirituality, someone’s singular encounter with transcendent reality (I am leaving for another post the question of what part of spiritual reality that might be, and why religions are so different), and this engendered a complex human reaction in the form of wisdom traditions and belief systems for the mind; moral guidelines for the will; and ritual and liturgy for our bodies. The institutions generated by an original spirituality will grow, and, like other institutions, at times overgrow, and also need pruning and reform.
In summary, spirituality is precisely what religion is all about, and religion, at its best, is the natural outgrowth and prolongation of tested spirituality, and serves to protect and guide it. Its institutions can be as bland and boring as financial transactions in economics, and congressional debates in political life, but without them, the goods stop flowing, public order breaks down, and the flame of spirituality soon blows out. Spirituality without religion may occasionally work for the few, but never for all; and even for those few, it will work only for a while, and sooner rather than later will lose its form. Alone, it will never build a civilization. And religion – for all of its excesses and corruptions – has not just been a prerequisite of civilization; it has been its only demonstrable cause.