I grew up in the rural south where Christianity was almost the only religion, and everyone was expected to be part of it. Even those that were not at least gave it lip service. Even in that environment, there was always some group who had found a more enlightened path.
They had some secret, or some discovery, that made their brand of Christianity the best or even the only real one. They had found the secret none of the rest of us knew. That attitude is still pervasive in our culture. Nearly every institution is dismissed as weak and corrupt, and there has to be a new version to replace it.
Maybe I am too much of a traditionalist, but that is sort of the feeling I get when thinking about the new “spirituality” movement, and how it is compared to standard religions. A skeptic of religion might say it is just a means of controlling the masses. A skeptic of the new spirituality might say it’s a way to have God without having God.
That is not to say I am against it. I claim to be more spiritual than religious myself, but I don’t see it as superior or more enlightened. Religion is a vehicle for spirituality. You can make your own vehicle and call it what you want.
To me, spirituality is just another vehicle, and maybe a different “religion.” All religions are based on spirituality. There is the idea of “small r” religion, which is just a habitual practice.
You could be very religious about car maintenance.
Separating the two
It is very hard to separate Christianity from Spirituality. You can easily have both, and it could be argued that you need to have both for either one to do you any good. This would apply to any religion as well.
An article in Psychology Today says being both spiritual and religious can enhance one’s mental health. It says if one is only religious without the spiritual component, it can have the reverse effect. The writer of that article makes a great case but fails to address the weaknesses of having spirituality alone.
The basic difference between the two is one of focus. Christianity (or any other religion) is a structure for spirituality. There is a theology that has been developed over thousands of years that provides the structure.
Spirituality, on the other hand, is more self-focused. There is no structure other than what you create yourself. In religion, you look to God, or other authorities, while in spirituality you look inside yourself.
People who lean toward one or the other think their way is better. This is where separating the two gets tricky. Religion is about the spiritual world, and most religious people would even say they are more spiritual than religious.
In modern times, the word “religion” has taken on a negative meaning, while “spirituality” has taken on a more positive meaning. One downside of religion is that it can become nothing more than a set of rules. It can get stale, and people start focusing on the rules instead of the more spiritual aspects.
It is true that just having a bunch of rituals, traditions, and rules has no real spiritual value. It is questionable if that has any value at all.
The great reformation led by Martin Luther ushered in the “priesthood of the believer.” This meant that the believer was responsible for developing his or her own beliefs as opposed to having the church be the authority. Luther raised the level of scripture and felt that every person was able to read it and interpret it for themselves.
He reintroduced spirituality to Christianity. That was a major change in how Christianity worked. It was a form of the current idea of spirituality as something different than religion.
Before Luther, the church was the arbiter of truth, or the final authority. After Luther, individual Christians could interpret things as they wished, and the result is hundreds if not thousands of versions or denominations.
Spirituality breaks with religion
Modern spirituality does the same thing. The great reformation started by Luther decentralized religion. Modern spirituality takes that a step further.
Luther did decentralize Christianity, but he did not disband the religion. If anything, he made religion more relatable to the ordinary man. The more modern idea of spirituality decentralizes religion once again and takes it to another level.
No doubt church leaders saw Luther’s ideas as heretical and dangerous. Anyone could define God and Christianity in any way they saw fit and there was no authority to tell them they were wrong. Modern spirituality does the same, and some church leaders today say what “the church” said then.
Anyone can define God or spirituality in any way they like. But for most Christians over hundreds of years around the world, the idea of developing your own relationship with God has been the norm. A vast majority of Christians might be wondering what the big deal is. They have been spiritual all along.
But at some point, if you take ideas too far, it is no longer Christian. This is not a new idea. As early as 300 a.d., there were sects of Christianity that eventually became another religion, or something unrecognizable as Christianity.
Modern times and institutions
In modern American culture, every institution is seen as bad. Individualism has triumphed. It is very hard to separate the two in reality, because Christianity has always been a vehicle for spirituality.
Even so, modern-day “spirituality” seems to take a different direction. It can be viewed as an extension of what Martin Luther taught in the 1500s, or a way of having a form of religion without any substance. Is the modern-day idea of spirituality bringing us back to the more spiritual aspects of Christianity, or is it diminishing Christianity along with every other institution that is being diminished in our culture?
Let’s look at the positives and negatives of each.
Christianity (or any religion)
Christianity was a spiritual religion to start with. It came out of Judaism, which was a religion in the purest sense. There were lots of rituals, and morality was based on law.
Obeying the Jewish law makes you a good Jew. Rules became the most important part of the religion and it gave people something objective to measure their own conduct. There are people who would make Christianity like that today.
Christianity began with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Shortly after that, believers received the Holy Spirit, which is called Pentecost. This spirit is what allows believers to have a relationship with God, and the Spirit works inside them to help them do what is good. That is spirituality in its purest form.
A key point in early Christianity, and one that continues today, is that deeper levels of Christianity are based on spirituality, or faith, and not on obeying a bunch of rules.
The Apostle Paul writes
. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[e]
The very early Christians were Jews. It was even controversy as to whether non-Jews could even be Christians at first. The new religion called Christianity was the spirituality of the day.
Over the next 1500 years, it fell back into legalism and rules created by the church. Luther came along and decentralized it again with his idea of the priesthood of the believer.
It could be argued today that we have once again fallen back into legalism and following rules as a way of being righteous, or good.
The big downside of religion is that it tends to devolve into just following rules, and fades away from the freshness of spirituality. The level of spirituality tends to fade over the centuries, and a new reformation takes place to get it back to where it needs to be. Once religion devolves into rules, it loses some of its spirituality and becomes stale.
Those in charge may try to make the rules even tougher, and try to get people to try harder to obey those rules. The freedom the early Christians had as they lived by faith (spirituality) faded as rules slowly again became the centerpiece.
Christianity offers a relationship with God (which sounds a lot like spirituality) There is the promise of the Holy Spirit (again very spiritual) that helps believers in many ways. There is a history. It is based on something–the death and resurrection of Christ.
This “atonement” allows believers to be at peace with God. Connections with other believers can help you spiritually, and can also help you materially. Religious people often look after each other and help each other when needed.
Over the years, it tends to fade back into following rules. It is easy to substitute a relationship with God with following rules or people. In some cultures, Christianity has become a social construct and is more political than religious or spiritual.
Spirituality is more focused on the individual. The downside of religion focuses on external things, external power structures, and rules. Spirituality sets you free from those things.
Spirituality can be based on anything you want to base it on. It can be religion, or it can be nature, or anything else. There are no external rules you must follow.
Meditation, or being mindful, is a way of having spirituality. There is the idea that we all have a spirit inside us, and getting in touch with yourself through being mindful, is a way of connecting with your inner spirit. Connecting your spirit to anything –whether it be religion or not– is the act of being spiritual.
It is the ultimate freedom and allows you to develop your own spirituality and what works best for you. The downside is a lot like the upside. You can make it up as you go and it can be anything you want it to be.
This can be good, but it has a glaring weakness as well. It offers nothing beyond this life, and it may or may not comfort you in hard times. While it is your own creation, there is nothing it can do for you when you need help.
Not having a structure can set you free, but not having a structure means you are on your own when things go badly. Religion connects you with people. Individualized spirituality separates you from people. It is good and bad in both.
Spirituality sets you free and allows you to develop your own spirit. It allows you to focus on yourself and your own growth that you get to define. It can be connected to religion, or not.
Everything is up to you.
There is no structure. There is no way to know if you are “correct” or not. Lack of relationships with others. Substitutes a spiritual experience for a relationship with God
A more excellent way
An article on the website Christianity.com, says “Religion without the Spirit is moral bookkeeping. Spirituality without religion is self-involved and directionless.” There are excesses and abuse on the extremes of both religion and spirituality.
Those are what get the headlines. It is true that religion holds us to a standard. Are we treating others the way we want to be treated?
Are we being just and honest in our dealings with others? People do not want to be told they are doing wrong, so they object to religion on those grounds. Spirituality is a way of developing your spirit, without having those rules.
You can feel good about yourself, even if you are doing bad things to others and to yourself. On the other hand, religion can become nothing but rules. There are religious people who look down on others because they think they are better at following rules.
Sometimes people in religion think the rules are absolute and forget to use common sense. Lying is “wrong,” however there are cases when lying would be the right thing to do. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day criticized him for doing good things on the Sabbath (the day of rest).
This was a violation of their rules, so in their minds, even doing good things on the Sabbath was wrong, because you were not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus re-introduced spirituality to the people of his day. That is where religion gets toxic when rules are more important than what is good for people.
You can take spirituality to an extreme as well. Spirituality is self-focused, which in itself is not bad, but it can be used as an excuse to ignore the needs of others around you.
Conclusion: Bringing it back home
We see then that both Christianity and spirituality can be good. We also see that both can be abused and even used to harm others. The better way is to combine the two as they were intended to be in the beginning.
Christianity is not really a religion, though it has become one at times and is seen as one. Christ’s death and resurrection set us free from rules, and freedom from religion in the negative sense. The positive side of religion is that it offers some framework for spirituality.
I prefer having both and see no need to separate the two. I believe in historical Christianity, which is a spiritual endeavor from start to finish. I identify as more spiritual than religious, but Christianity is the vehicle that gives my spirituality its structure.
It is up to me to develop my own theology and beliefs, which sounds a lot like spirituality.