Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Author and the Actress: Spirituality and Religion

It's been an interesting week as far as matters of faith go. On the one hand, author Anne Rice made a public break with Christianity and on the other, Julia Roberts revealed that she and her family are practicing Hindus. The author appears to be rejecting religion, taking the increasingly popular "spiritual but not religious" route, while the actress appears to be embracing religion. But what exactly did Anne Rice reject and Julia Roberts embrace? What is religion anyway and is it different than spirituality? What does it really mean to be "spiritual but not religious"?

I have some thoughts of course, but before I share them I'd like to hear what you think. What is religion, what is spirituality and are they different or the same? Can a person be spiritual but not religious? Can a person be religious but not spiritual?


  1. Richard Reid5:00 PM

    Good, reasonable people withdraw from religion with the rationale that religious organization impedes and desiccates the spirit. Perhaps they see in religions an overweening preoccupation with laws, ordinances, and structure, and a neglect of prayer, contemplation, positive inner transformation. "Spiritual but not religious," is a judgment that spirit and law are allegedly incompatible.
    Yet order is inherent in all things. Why should religion be exempt? Why should one's being spiritual be something chaotic and amorphous? Religious law and religious spirit have no intrinsic contradiction. The order of a religious faith can certainly be an expression of Heaven's will to create order in this realm just as the will of Heaven pervades in the world of nature.
    For some religious law is a "surrogate replacing the Holy Spirit" (Rudolf Sohm). These take "The spirit bloweth where it listeth" (John 3:8) as central to the message of religion.
    To be sure there are others who reject "organized religion" as a circumvention of moral law. Pan-sexual hedonism offers a morality of individual selection.
    Still others are aghast at the bloody strife within one religion and between religions. For them religion has become a farce, a disease that cannot cure. Consequently, they reject it as toxic.
    Often people embrace a religion as one of a smorgasbord of choices as if religions were like different brands on the supermarket shelf. That choice makes sense if one views each religion as hermetically sealed and distinct from others.
    Fifty years ago I embraced the Baha'i Faith. I recognized and accepted the proclamation of Baha'u'llah to be the Promised Redeemer of all the great systems of religious belief. What was so striking about Baha'i teaching was its pure acceptance of its sister religions and their sacred scriptures. Equally dramatic was Baha'u'llah's insistence that people be respectful and reverent to other religions, because they all derived from the same Lord God, and that their founder-prophets, saviors, redeemers were inspired by this same God, that these faiths were all revelations of the will of Heaven, attuned to the culture and needs of their historic appearance among people.
    I am still humbled by this divine logic and remain thankful to be part of it after so many years.

  2. Reid, thanks for getting the conversation started.

  3. Justice St Rain asked a similar question on Facebook recently. You may need to friend him for the link to work:

  4. Having read Shoghi Effendi, I have to mention that there's a third party to this question: the people practicing the religion. Christians are not Christianity, Hindus not Hinduism, Baha'is are not the Baha'i Faith. Most people rejecting religion are really rejecting the religionists.

    -- Jeff

  5. Thank you for your persistence, Phillipe, in raising such timely, and timeless, issues for discussion in your blogspace! Here are some of my thoughts.

    True religion would, by definition, be created by God, established--as history has shown--by those unique Individuals, the Universal Educators, the likes of Moses, Bud...dha, Krishna, Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and Baha'u'llah. On the subject of religion, 'Abdu'l-Bahá says:

    "The teachings of God are the source of illumination to the people of the world. Religion is ever constructive not destructive."

    If religion, then, constitutes God's Teachings, what is "spirituality" but a human invention motivated by personal desire and interest? As to the Divine Teachers, He says,

    "All...have served the world of humanity. All have summoned souls to peace and accord. All have proclaimed the virtues of humanity. All have guided souls to the attainment of perfections."

    What of spirituality? Does it necessarily call a person to serve humanity? Does it "summon" souls to peace and accord? "Proclaim" the virtues of humanity? "Guide" souls to perfection? Not as far as I know.

    Religion is described as a "bond" whose purpose is to unify mankind and create love and agreement. This contrasts sharply with the characteristics given by Shoghi Effendi of what he describes as today's "decadent society", among whose traits are:

    "...the unquenchable thirst for, and the feverish pursuit, after earthly vanities, riches and pleasures;... the lapse into luxurious indulgence; the irresponsible attitude towards marriage and the consequent rising tide of divorce; the degeneracy of art and music, the infection of literature, and the corruption of the press..."

    Could "spirituality" function as an antidote to such (or similar) evils as these? Could religion?
    The question will return us to 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words on the matter:

    "The real bond of integrity is religious in character, for religion indicates the oneness of the world of humanity. Religion serves the world of morality. Religion purifies the hearts. Religion impels men to achieve praiseworthy deeds. Religion becomes the cause of love in human hearts, for religion is a divine foundation, the foundation ever conducive to life... Religion is ever constructive not destructive."


  6. I don't believe Anne Rice is even really taking the "spiritual but not religious" route. Most of the people I know who take that route are disagreeing with certain tenants of religion as well as religious institutions and deciding to go for "pick and choose" spirituality. Anne on the other hand has said she has "left Christianity for Christ" perhaps this is a third category of belief wherein one keeps to the religious beliefs while disassociating with the organized religion and other believers?

  7. Jeff, interesting distinction between religion and "religionists".

    Valerie, I guess it depends on how a person understands the "spiritual but not religious" concept.

  8. Here's a story of the kind of thing a religion can do that a spirituality cannot:

    Following the events of World War I, where Richard St. Barbe Baker had served in France, St. Barbe went to Cambridge University and earned a degree in Forestry at Caius College. He then went to Kenya in 1920 to serve under the Colonial Office as Assistant Conservator of Forests. There he saw the wide scale deforestation going on. St. Barbe also intervened in a case of a colonial officer against a Kikuyu worker - taking a blow aimed at the worker which would eventually alienate him from the service. He developed a plan for re-forestation where food crops were planted between rows of young native trees. Because of lack of funds St. Barbe consulted with the Kenyans themselves, approaching the Kikuyu Chiefs and Elders, and together they arranged for three thousand tribal warriors to come to his camp and with the assistance of the Chiefs fifty were selected to be the first Men of the Trees. They promised before Ngai, the High God, that they would protect the native forest, plant ten native trees each year, and take care of trees everywhere. Immediately then leaving Kenya St. Barbe offered a paper at a Congress of Living Religions in the (British) Commonwealth about the Bantu religion following which he was introduced to the Bahá'í Faith because of "his genuine interest in another's religion struck a sympathetic chord with the Bahá'í principles."

  9. Richard Reid3:28 PM

    Regarding the election of being "spiritual but not religious," I found this quotation in "The World Order of Baha'u'llah":

    "It should be remembered by every follower of the Cause that the system of Bahá’í administration is not an innovation imposed arbitrarily upon the Bahá’ís of the world since the Master’s passing, but derives its authority from the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests in some of its essential features upon the explicit provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It thus unifies and correlates the principles separately laid down by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and is indissolubly bound with the essential verities of the Faith. To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause, a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts, and the extinction of the Faith itself." (page 5)

    Free-lance spirituality as a rejection of religious doctrines and creeds having no substantiation in scripture may indeed have a point. Even so, spirituality as an a la carte menu of preferences is the essential outcome of relative and non-universal western standards which themselves are the results of historical and evolutionary antecedents leading back to the Englightenment. And for all the intellectual freedom opened by the values of the Englightenment, it has also led in the West to the loss of belief in transcendence, a loss of God, and comcomitantly, has led to widespread acceptance of humanity's reduction to machine without responsibility or guilt.

    The faith of Baha'u'llah sees humanity as "the supreme Talisman" and regards the spirit, form, and organization of the Baha'i Faith, not as a mere burden but as a single entity and structure for human salvation, His law not a dry list of commands, but as the "choice wine."

  10. This is another thing you can't do with just spirituality:

    The Baha'i International Community has received reports indicating that seven Iranian Baha'i leaders have each received jail sentences of 20 years.…

    The two women and five men have been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since they were arrested in 2008 - six of them on 14 May and one of them two months earlier.

  11. Here's an interesting article about spiritual vs. religious:
    The author indicates that "spiritual but not religious" can lead to spiritual self-indulgence whereas religion is "a system for bringing goodness into the world".

  12. I will say something positive about spirituality vs religion. It sounds like an approximation of the first steps of seeking the truth for one's self:

    "… inasmuch as man can never hope to attain unto the knowledge of the All-Glorious, can never quaff from the stream of divine knowledge and wisdom, can never enter the abode of immortality, nor partake of the cup of divine nearness and favour, unless and until he ceases to regard the words and deeds of mortal men as a standard for the true understanding and recognition of God and His Prophets."

    And so much of religion is all about what has passed for guidance from hands of men. Sometimes they actually do seek to do good but they have crafted it after their own choices.

    But it has been a disappointment to me that purity of spirit can't seem to find another truth without giving up what was understood so completely. Science has managed to advance from paradigm to paradigm without wholesale abandonment of science in between, though no little amount of bickering and unsavory choices among such actors as bring us from one stage of understanding to another. Does it really come down to the fact that scientists generally don't have social or economic prominence and religious leaders often do and defend the social order of the day in the face of injustices? Well I guess Judaism managed to accept a succession of prophets for some time. Muslims in theory accept a broader range of Divine guidance, yet practically they have not done so. And the extremist organizations generally have a toe in millennial expectations, albeit they deny each claiment. For too long most humanity could only arrive at a new religion after having given up religion or a way of life by violence, or degeneracy of society leaving people open to change. But sooner or later working in groups becomes necessary to sustain a change in society. It didn't have to be this way, but it is what we are collectively choosing.

    That being said, we are to have patience and kindness for each person's path of search, and master our impatience and show forth love and care for our fellow seekers of sincerity and truth.

  13. healthjulie7:22 PM

    I find this topic very interesting, so much so that I have considered writing a book about the inseparability of spirituality and religion. I am a person who considers herself both spiritual and religious (I also happen to be a Baha'i) and it saddens my heart when people seem to want to be on one "side" or the other. I recently made this comment on that "On Faith" blog Anne mentioned above:

    "Rabbi David, I really really appreciate your wise insights. I have been waiting to read something like that for awhile, about spirituality and religion. I have actually thought about writing a book about the total unity and inseparability of spirituality and religion.

    I find it unfortunate that some people have turned this issue into a sort of political drama, another reason to be disunified and argue about something. You really covered all of the bases in your comments, making it clear that religion doesn't exist without spirituality and that is its foundation. I consider myself to be a person who is both spiritual and religious and it has been interesting navigating various circles of people, some of whom consider themselves to be largely or exclusively one or the other.

    May we all move towards the unity that our Creator has destined for us."

    When I am in circles of people who are "spiritual but not religious" it becomes quite clear to me that what is missing is the inestimable value of that connection each of our souls crave with the Manifestation of God for which we live in (today being Baha'u'llah). When I am in Baha'i circles where some of the Baha'is sort of look down on "mystical" people as airy-fairy or in the clouds or people who don't "do" anything in the world, I feel equally sad. What is clearly missing from that way of thinking and being is exactly that "mystic feeling" that the beloved Guardian of our Faith speaks of.

    "For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites man with God." (Shoghi Effendi)

    May we all be every way possible.

  14. I think the major difference between those who call themselves "spiritual" and those who say they are "religious" is that a religious person acknowledges that there is a supreme being who intervenes in the world.

  15. Anonymous12:32 AM

    To me religion is the outer covering and spiritual receptivity the core. I respond to the message when I know when it is true, when it lifts me up, when I can connect to a higher purpose for my life.

    The goal seems to be some binding (adhesion) as individuals and as a group to the unseen Divine power for greater purpose and guidance. Creation had a purpose. The created have to respond. Religion is taken from Re....(return).... .Ligare...(to bind.)

    We are part of creation, the created, to develop spiritual qualities that creates the better environment for social progress and advancement of mankind.

    We come from a spiritual place that we will return to more whole full of light.

    The outer core, religion, is to create the better environment for each new generations purpose and progress as a world group outlined by unifying principles.

    The spirituality of the individual souls provide the strength of the adhesion.

    Only Baha'ullah has outline the program all are to follow.

  16. healthjulie1:47 PM

    Anonymous - thank you so much for this last comment. Beautifully stated! I love this idea of the outer and inner core. Awesome!