Religion vs. Spirituality? Either/Or or Both/And?

Religion vs Spirituality

If you’re at all connected to spirituality-focused people on social media, you’ve run across the memes. “Religion is believing in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.” Or “Religion is dogmatic, focuses on judgment and punishment, is exclusive. Spirituality focuses on experience, is reward based, is inclusive” Basically, religion is rules and death. Spirituality is personal experience and life.

Those are all cute and simplistic. And kinda missing the point.

It’s not about one versus the other. It’s not an either/or situation. As humans, we need both. Both/and. At the risk of adding one more simplistic paradigm, I’d say “Spirituality is who we are. Religion is what we do.” Being and doing. As humans, we’re constantly involved in both. They are complementary, not opposites.

Years ago, I shared an open office space at a publishing company where conversations would sometimes draw in a bunch of us. One day we happened to be talking about the role of religion and being a good person. I was the token Christian among a group of Jewish friends, some religious, some not. At some point in the conversation, Ben, the sales manager who worked at the desk next to mine, commented that he considered himself a deeply spiritual person — at which both my friend, an observant Jewish woman, and I both broke out laughing. We’d seen how he interacted with everyone in the office. He was often obnoxious and rude, loud, and given to irritability and moments of red-faced anger. We’d all heard him on the phone, dealing with accounts, how he talked to people. Without even thinking about it, my friend and I both instinctively knew that this was not the behavior of a “deeply spiritual person.”

Yeah, maybe we were being jerks for spontaneously judging him, but the scene demonstrates that most of us have unconscious assumptions that one’s spirituality should be demonstrated in one’s lifestyle. The two are intertwined, not isolated.

Today’s lectionary reading includes a section on the 10 Commandments from the book of Exodus. And having just seen (multiple times) another of those Religion vs. Spirituality memes this morning circulating on Facebook, I was struck by how these 10 Commandments address both. Both/and.

The first 4 deal with humanity’s interaction with God, and the remaining 6 deal with humanity’s interaction with each other. Spirituality and religion.

People throughout history have looked for handy summaries of these two complementary aspects of life: inner devotional and outer ethical. In Jesus’s time, rabbis often offered handy formulas to condense all the many religious laws/instructions into pocket-sized nuggets. That’s how we get the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Or the one offered by Rabbi Hillel: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.)

So when a religious leader came to Jesus and asked what the most important commandment — rule of living — was, Jesus gave him our now famous Two Greatest Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus saw — as did many of the insightful religious leaders of his day and ours — that it is not a separation of religion versus spirituality. The good life encompasses both. Love God (spirituality) and love others (religion).

So, religion is not just “rules” and “judgment” and “exclusivity.” Or other people’s experiences. It’s about how we live in real life. How we act and what we do. Your spirituality must have a religious component. It must be reflected in how you live and act in public — or else it’s just fantasy.

Have a peaceful Sunday.


refs: Exodus 20; Matthew 22:34-40
Image by Aaron Cabrera from Pixabay, cc.