One of the questions I frequently hear from clients, students and other interested parties is regarding the difference between religion and spirituality. The common misconception is that religion and spirituality are one and the same. While our religion may inform our spirituality and our spirituality may form our religion, religion and spirituality are really two unique and distinct experiences.
Spirituality is a universal process enjoyed by each and every person regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. It is through our spiritual journey that we explore and seek for the answers to the universal life questions: Who am I and Why am I here? It is through our spiritual journey that we come to know and experience the fullness of our humanity, along with our divinity. To put it in theistic terms, in the spiritual journey, we come to know the Divine in an intimate and personal way and growing in this knowledge, awe come to more fully know ourselves. In the spiritual journey, we allow ourselves to be open to the infinite ways in which the Divine can be revealed to us through the human experience.
Religion, on the other hand, is how we come to know about God. Unlike spirituality that is universal, religion is influenced and arises out of our societal structures and cultural norms and is only chosen by some. Religion is how we learn about God as interpreted through a perceived external authority and this perceived knowledge is interpreted through practice, belief, doctrine and law. Religion attempts to define the Divine where spirituality is open to the possibility that by its very nature, the Divine cannot be defined, only experienced, and in our spiritual journey, we are open to the infinite vastness of this experience.
In a perfect world, religion and spirituality go hand in hand as our religious beliefs and practices provide a vehicle through which we can live out what we have come to know and understand about the Divine in the context of intentional community. The challenge is to understand that religion by its very nature, seeks to contain these experiences within a well defined structure. Spirituality, on the other hand, seeks to blow open the doors and the windows so as to provide space for expansion and liberation. When faced with the tension between these perceived opposing forces, we are reminded to live in the place of compassion and patience – compassion for our religious structures which have been born out of the limited perceptions of the human condition and patience for our spirituality which initiates freedom in a sometimes unsettling and chaotic way. Patience and compassion…..the virtues we are invited to embrace as we continue to ask the question, “What is the difference between spirituality and religion and how am I called to live this out in my own life?”