There’s a series of car advertisements on television that highlight the preference of having two things as opposed to having to choose between them. “It’s so much better to have a car with voice-activation and great gas mileage,” one of the characters says. “Without it, it’d be like choosing between sweet or sour chicken.” Then the ad shows the couple in a restaurant being offered sour chicken, with the obvious point that sweet OR sour chicken would not be very good.
If feel a little like that with regard to the conversation, and sometimes debate, about being religious versus being spiritual. I don’t want a nonspiritual religion and I don’t want a nonreligious spiritualty. I want religion and spirituality.
I think I understand the negative connotations around “religion.” Religion is perceived as a human-made system to keep power in the hands of a few—whether that’s a Roman curia or a fundamentalist preacher. Religion robs, oppresses, restricts, demands, and seeks to control. Religion is what some of us were forced to do or believe, and so, “spirituality” is a relief and a freedom.
Our critics are right about some religion. Both through history and in the present, some religion is bad stuff. But not all. The word, “religion” comes from a Latin word, “religare,” which means to tie or to bind. Religion can tie us down or tie us in knots. Or, religion can be a loose cord that tethers us to safety and home, but also gives us room to develop, grow, and flourish spiritually. Religion needs spirituality to keep the fire burning, to keep the spiritual home solid, and to give us the discernment to know when we’re “tied” too loose or too tight. But spirituality also needs religion.
One can come to know a strong spiritual feeling as a result of yoga, but that spirituality is made possible by showing up, practicing, putting the body in particular postures, and maintaining correct breathing. If one finds a particular spirituality in recovery through a twelve-step program, one’s spirituality is a result of working the steps, practicing the principles, being in community, and offering oneself in service. Even the kind of spiritual vibrancy and life experienced on a football field, a soccer field, or a swimming pool comes through deliberate practice, precision, and agreement on basic rules. With a tyrannical instructor, a controlling sponsor, or a bully coach, all of these practices could become negative and overbearing, and kill the spirituality just like bad religion.
Advent begins on December 1 and is a good season to think about differences in religion and spirituality and to deepen our experience of both through practice and prayer. Advent invites us to wait, to delay gratification, to notice the change in light, color, and mood as we long of God’s closeness in new ways. Christmas celebrates the mystery of God’s Incarnation, God’s becoming human to be like us and with us.
I’m not ready to give up on the language of God and religion, but genuinely look for ways to express what I believe in fresh, inviting, welcoming ways. I invite you to join me in refusing to decide between the two, but insisting on the possibility of being both religious AND spiritual.