Monday, 13 January 2014

Spirituality or Religion?

I read an article recently suggesting that spirituality and religion were two quite different, almost mutually exclusive, things with the former deriving from an inner experience of God while the latter was merely a matter of externals, of doctrines and dogmas and obedience to authority. The article maintained that spirituality meant the understanding of an essential oneness between Creator and created but with religion there was always a sense of separation between human beings and God. At one time I would have agreed with this and, up to a point, I still do but the position seems to me now to be rather subtler than such a rigid distinction between the two would imply, and I would say that the writer of this article has done what many people do. That is, he has attempted to substantiate his argument by presenting all the good aspects of the thing he wants to promote and then selected the more negative side of that which he wishes to present in an inferior light.

It is true that real spirituality goes far beyond religion of the elementary variety, that of the believer who believes what he is told to by the priests and conventions of his faith, and doesn't make much attempt to see further than that. He is satisfied with accepting outer authority and doesn’t try to internalise the teachings. However real religion goes beyond this too. Some of the most spiritual human beings on the planet have been some of the most religious people too, and, until a century or so ago, hardly anybody would have thought themselves spiritual who was not religious. So I would say it is not religion that is the problem but the mistaking of its form for its substance. Admittedly that is not uncommon but it is not religion’s fault so much as that of some of its leaders and many of its followers.

It is indisputable that the moment a divine revelation starts to be codified it becomes subject to human interpretation and its essential purity is lost. But this is true of anything which is translated from a higher level to a lower. Does it mean that we should never seek to express an intuitive insight in thought or word? The fact that such an expression descends to a lower level than the original inspiration (giving form to something inevitably restricts it) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it. Only that we should remain aware that any attempt to describe what is beyond description is necessarily limited. And that it can never capture truth (an absurd impossibility), only suggest it. It’s a cliché to say that the map is not the territory, but a map can be a great help when you want to go somewhere.

We live in the world and must bring our spiritual impressions down here if we would share them. Inevitably much will be lost in the transition but if we didn’t do this then how would we communicate anything? More importantly, what forms of guidance would there be for others who cannot yet access the spiritual realm themselves directly? And, let’s face it, that’s most of us. Besides, aren’t the advocates of spirituality rather than religion doing just what they decry in religion every time they give a talk or write anything? They too are making the abstract concrete for the purposes of aiding others.

I don’t deny that religion can, and often does, descend into rules and regulations but that is when it falls into the hands of the power hungry and the ignorant. It exists primarily as spiritual guidance, a means of reconnecting earthbound and fallen man with his source in God. It does not seek to replace that link unless it has become corrupted (which, of course, it often does). It seeks to restore it.

There is another point worth considering here. Today much that is called spirituality leans towards self-indulgence for if religion can lapse into observance of outer rules and regulations so spirituality, or what is called that, can descend into seeking what is personally satisfactory and coincides with pre-existing prejudices. Spirituality may offer a direct connection to the source, in theory, but what if you are not able to make that connection or not able to make a true connection? At least the principal religions are based on divine revelation and they contain an experience and authority that goes beyond that of just one individual, having been honed and refined by many great saints and mystics over the years. They have been thoroughly road-tested. On the other hand spirituality without religion can mean following a path pleasing to the ego, a path without challenge or sacrifice that has as its object the fulfillment of desire. Of course, I am doing here just what I claimed the writer of the article that started me off on this train of thought was doing in pointing out the potential deficiencies of spirituality without religion, but only in the interests of balance and fairplay!

Despite all I have just written I myself have never been able to subscribe to any particular religion, and this for two reasons. Firstly, it it undoubtedly the case that all religions are in a state of decline and have been for some time. They are well past their prime, and the original spark that lit them is dying out with the consequence that their ability to inspire and enlighten is vastly diminished. Religions are not eternal and follow the same pattern of birth, development, maturity, old age and death as everything else. So all religions, as they exist today, have lost the connection to the world of spirit they once had. Make no mistake, they did once have this connection but the further they travel in time from their origin the more they become materialised and lose it. There is a balance between spirit and matter, life and form, in any true religion. When that balance becomes weighted too heavily on the side of form the religion becomes a belief system rather than a pathway to God.

Secondly, I do actually agree with the statement that spirituality is a higher form of religion since spirituality, truly considered and lived, is the reality of which religion is only a presentation in the lower worlds. Religion in this respect is a crutch which we must eventually throw away if we are to walk unaided. The point is though that to throw away our crutches before we can walk unaided is foolishness at best and arrogance at worst, and if you believe you can walk when you can't you are likely to fall flat on your face. With that thought here's something the Masters said on the subject of traditions and conventions that, with a little alteration, seems to me to be appropriate to our present subject. They told me that conventions and traditions have their place in the world, some good, some not so good but still valid at some level, and, whilst most of them would be outgrown in time, they should be understood before they were rejected.

 So it is with religion. We need to go beyond it to find truth but it exists to help us get to the point where we can go beyond it. To reject it before we have got to that point risks leaving us floundering in a spirituality of egotism. But, at the same time, to hold onto it after a certain point shows an inability to distinguish between a lantern and its light. Religion only exists to serve spirituality.

No comments: