Post by Jeff Koch [See Contributors]
Over the last 10 years, I’ve spent a good amount of time internet dating. It really is the perfect medium for writers to meet and scope out potential dates and partners, as the primary means of information exchange is the written word. I’m an ardent supporter of the process, and often encourage my friends to do it. Most sites will allow you to see basic physical and social information (height, eye/hair color, job, location, etc), a rundown of likes and dislikes, an open-ended about me section, and usually the answer to quirky questions meant to bring out the writer’s personality. If people use it honestly and sincerely, it can really work.
But there’s always been one question and subsequent answer (that shows up on most sites) that has always troubled me. When asked to share religion, lots of people (and most people my age) respond with spiritual but not religious. At first blush, it seems quite obvious what this answer is trying to convey about oneself: “Look, I’m a thoughtful, intelligent person that thinks and cares about ‘deep’ things, but I don’t go to church and I’m not a crazy right-wing religious nut”. But the underlying sentiment is much more complicated and even a tad sinister—the two ideas seem to have been torn asunder from each other. Spirituality is no longer seen as domain of religion, and in fact is seen as something entirely separate. And conversely, religion is oftentimes no longer seen as a place of spiritual exploration and understanding.
One of the problems I have with this is that the word spiritual and all of its possible meanings and connotations is so open-ended, broad, and ambiguous, that it can really lose all meaning. At this point it just becomes short hand, not much different than the word cool. It can also be used as a lazy short cut, a way to achieve a certain level of depth without having to do any actual work, because what does spirituality really require besides thinking? And no one can ever question if one thinks or not. I’m certainly not saying that spiritual people are lazy or clueless; I’m merely suggesting that anybody anywhere can say that they are spiritual without having that assertion questioned in any way, because there is no litmus test for spirituality.
So then how would we define spiritual? The dictionary says this . Notice that several entries mention religion. But the main thing I take away from the definition is that spiritual consists of an interest in the soul, the non-physical, and how we understand ourselves and the things that we can only feel implicitly. It doesn’t necessarily imply a certain belief in anything, but an attempt to define those beliefs for one’s self. Ultimately, it is how we choose to relate to ourselves and both the physical and non-physical world around us.
Talking about religion (and especially Christianity, the predominant religion in America, and the religion I will be using in this essay) is a much trickier endeavor. Just the word religion is so socially and politically charged these days, that it’s hard to discuss it rationally and it’s even harder to agree on exactly what it means or what it is. I’m not here to preach, and I’m not here to have a heated political discussion. I only hope that we can come to some sort of basic understanding about what religion is, at the very least, trying to be.
I was spoiled with religion. My father is a Lutheran Minister; he’s also a kind, open, loving man. I grew up in a religious household that was also kind, open, and loving. I then went to University and studied religion from one of the sharpest and brightest minds in the field of Religious Studies. All the while, I was allowed the freedom to explore it and understand it on my own terms. So I understand that I come at religion from a different place than most.
But what is religion really trying to do? Why do people seek it out? Ultimately, I think that religion does two things: One, it helps us understand and define our Universe and our place in it. Second, it guides us in our interactions with ourselves and the world. Or, God and The Golden Rule.
This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t this really what spiritual people are doing, too, trying to understand the world within and the world without and figuring out how to relate to both worlds? But many spiritual people don’t believe in God. True, but they believe in something that they can’t see and can’t fully understand. They believe in an existence of a non-physical world and power or energy, something that binds us all. Religious people call it God. Spiritual people might not. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to understand the same thing.
And isn’t the Golden Rule (do unto others as you’d have done unto yourself) really just a way of figuring out how to relate to others vis-à-vis yourself? Spirituality is concerned with the self and figuring out how to understand and relate to it. Religion is concerned with taking that understanding and applying it to the rest of the world. Taking both to their logical ends comes up with the same conclusion: Be a good person.
Ultimately, I think we are talking about 2 sides of the same coin here. One can certainly be spiritual without being religious, and vice versa, but they are not mutually exclusive. As long as a person is curious, open-minded, and honest, both can offer fulfillment and benefit. I would encourage spiritual people to not dismiss religion out of hand, and to explore the teachings and the insights it might have to offer in your personal quest for understanding. And I would encourage religious people to never lose sight of the personal journey of spiritual growth that is inherent in all religions. In the end, whether we are spiritual, religious, or both, we are all looking for the same thing: a way to understand our mysterious world and to live in it harmoniously with ourselves and others.