Religion and Spirituality

When I first embarked on my career as an executive coach, I was approached by the bishop of a regional Anglican diocese to work with an executive that had responsibility for leading one of their welfare arms.

It is an unfortunate fact of executive coaching that quite a few of your assignments result from poorly equipped managers who want you to solve their personnel management problems. Now I don’t usually subscribe to the notion that it is my job to “fix” people. My job as an executive coach is to help people become more competent human beings. Most times that provides a benefit (and generally a considerable one) to the employer but sometimes it does not.

The fellow I had been assigned to coach had himself been trained as a priest. I suspected that his main problem in the organisation was that he challenged some of the thinking of the church hierarchy.

After a few sessions with him, I attended a church function and the bishop took me aside and asked my opinion of the manager I had been assigned to coach.

I said to the bishop that I had found him a profoundly spiritual person. The fellow was well read in the spiritual traditions and had told me the most influential book he had ever read was A Course in Miracles.

The bishop then said to me in a somewhat sneering tone, “If you think he is deeply spiritual then it must be a different spirituality to the one I am familiar with.”

At the time I didn’t know how to respond. But when I thought about it later it seemed to me that the bishop was in one sense right. The bishop had equated spirituality with the acceptance of the dogma of the church. The fellow I was coaching was pursuing his spiritual development. As I will elaborate later he was on a spiritual journey whereas the bishop had come to spiritual dead end.

I think there is a lot of truth in this quote by Yuval Noah Harari from his book Homo Deus:

The assertion that religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large scale cooperation may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider.

Our spirituality is our attempt to make sense of our existence. It seeks to find an answer to such questions as:

Who am I?

What is the meaning of existence?

How should I live my life?

For many people, adopting a religion enables them to assume the answers to these questions that others have derived. They willingly accept, or at least pay lip service to, the standard dogma that accompanies the religion they adopt. And mostly they exercise no choice but merely accept the dominant religion of their family, society or nation. They generally have no real awareness of other belief systems. They treat other religions with disdain because to give them any credence would erode the certainty of belief they earnestly need. Most followers of a religion believe that their religion alone is true. And it is essential that they maintain that belief, because in many religions our existential fears are played upon and adherents are led to believe that following the strictures of their particular religion gives them a privileged passport to an afterlife.

Christianity provides an interesting array of beliefs, ranging from fundamentalism to some very modern liberal interpretations of Christianity. Christianity has benefitted by the reformation which caused a fundamental revision to the traditional Catholic Church that served to create Protestantism, but the reformed church soon lapsed into stultifying dogma like its predecessor. But at least in Christianity scholars have been prepared to examine church history and beliefs in a critical way. Islam on the other hand has steadfastly resisted such critical introspection. Consequently, by blatantly using the brutal tools of heresy and apostasy, Islam is stuck in the sixth century belief system of the Prophet, Muhammad.

But my prime concern is that many who have decided to settle on a religious belief abandon the spiritual journey and instead of expanding their spiritual experience spend their time and energy in trying to defend the beliefs of their particular religious preference.

I have explained in previous essays Mankind’s inability to ever fully comprehend the universe. It is inevitable that we will forever be confronted in this life with mystery. We can never have a fully rational understanding of our existence and Mankind’s relation to the universe. Consequently our spiritual journey seems to me more about gaining an intuitive understanding of these mysteries rather than trying solve the problem by reason alone. Moreover, to me it is necessary to experience the wonder personally and have more strategies than the sole tool of reason to approach it. As we have seen many times, we have to balance Logos and Mythos.

Gnosticism was one of the so-called “mystery religions” that urged us to go beyond traditional knowledge and understand the value of metaphor and parable in approaching these mysteries. The Gnostic Gospel of Matthias explains:

Wondering at the things that are before you is the first step to the deeper knowledge.

The philosopher and respected authority on spirituality, Timothy Freke writes:

Being willing to wonder is a prerequisite for awakening because in the breathtaking mystery of life, if we don’t feel curious we simply aren’t very conscious. When being alive doesn’t fill us with wonder, we’re already half dead.

The Gnostic “knowing” referred to above is not conventional knowledge. It is not derived from our cognitive function. It is not about “knowing” the truth but by “experiencing” the truth. As such it is an intensely personal process. Whilst others might guide us along the path to this experiencing, any such revelation is experienced only in our own personal consciousness. And because the truth can never be completely revealed to us, this journey, when the searcher is dedicated, will be a lifelong one.

Taoism, which I pursued at some length in my previous essay, hinted at how the truth might only be approached indirectly. The Tao Te Ching opens with this statement:

The Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao;

The name that can be named is not the unchanging name.

It is a great conundrum that by naming things we lose their essence. We cannot replace experience with description.

As the inimitable Anthony De Mello said (recounted in Awareness)

Ideas actually fragment the vision, intuition, or experience of reality as a whole. This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us. Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless.

One such idea that has dominated religion, often impeding our search for spirituality, is the concept of God or gods. According to the book of Genesis:

God created man in his own image.

The God of the Old Testament however was a very human god. He walked with Adam in the evenings in the Garden of Eden. He displayed very human qualities like jealousy, wrath and vengefulness.

It is not surprising then that Aristotle countered the Genesis portrayal declaring:

… create gods after their own image.

Now it is invariably such an unsophisticated notion of God that Richard Dawkins and others have used to debunk Christianity (or all the “religions of the book” ie Judaism and Islam as well).

It is true that the Old Testament God was like an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent version of a tribal chieftain. And of course such a god was needed to try and reconcile with the many physical phenomena that were beyond the ken of our primitive ancestors.

But as science extended our knowledge of the physical universe, the need for such a god diminished. Whilst many naïve believers continued to believe in the “old man in the sky” version, for many others the concept of God became a lot more sophisticated. Divinity began to be explained more abstractly to fit into a growing scientific worldview. Such a notion of God became harder for many to relate to.

In the early twentieth century, German-American philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, defined God in a more spiritual way as “the ground of being”. Although some fellow theologians approved, he was also met with dismay, incomprehension and the occasional charge of atheism.

His definition of God refuted the Aristotelean criticism and challenged us to think that God was more than a supernatural being but perhaps more of a mystical phenomenon underpinning life and consciousness.

He could have rightly replied that his critics suffered from an innately narrow vision. Being human, their concept of God was restricted to a notion that the deity was merely a more elevated and powerful version of a man, a shallow and concrete vision that had emanated from the folk histories of our ancestors.

So then, you might rightly ask what distinguishes spirituality from religion? And can one be both religious and spiritual?

I suspect that the principal motivation of religious believers is firstly to be able to gain a feeling of certainty to anchor their lives. They want to feel accepted by those who have similar beliefs, and to also reconcile themselves with death. They then feel able to get on with their lives without being distracted by difficult moral and philosophical questions. Often, as a result, the acceptance of a religion results in people abandoning their spiritual quest.

But spirituality to me seems to be a journey about expanding our consciousness. This drive is fuelled by mysticism.

Yet a lot of religion is dominated by materialism. Thus for many believers Jesus has to be a historical figure. The communion wafer has to be the body of Christ. It all has to be taken literally. We forget that words are pointers to reality. We forget the immense truths indirectly available to us by parables and metaphors.

There is no doubt that scientific determinism has delivered great benefits to modern society. But it is only one way of knowing.

If we go back to Taoism for example, it recognises two ways of knowing. Those two forms of knowing are conventional knowledge and natural knowledge – that is a knowledge of the universe as it is conventionally named and defined as opposed to a knowledge of the way (Tao) the universe is in its actuality.

As Alan Watts wrote in The Ways of Zen,

For us, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other conventional system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication.

The conventional knowledge comes to us through the separation of the observer and the observed, whereas natural knowledge occurs in the non-dual state. Spirituality is informed by natural knowledge.

Being religious doesn’t preclude us from such knowledge. And indeed Christian theology is well-acquainted with the division between conventional and natural knowledge (although most Christians would not be). The Russian political and Christian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev had this to say:

We cannot dispense with symbolism in language and thought, but we can do without it in the primary consciousness. In describing spiritual and mystical experiences men will always have recourse to spatial symbols such as height and depth, to symbols of this or another world (first mode of knowing). But in real spiritual experience these symbols disappear. The primal creative act is realistic and not symbolic (second mode of knowing); it is free from conceptual elaboration.

And the German Christian philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart had similar insights. Ken Wilber in The Spectrum of Consciousness wrote of Meister Eckhart;

He called the symbolic-map knowledge, “twilight knowledge” in which creation is perceived by clearly distinguished ideas, while the second or non-dual mode he called “daybreak knowledge”.

In Mahayana Buddhism the symbolic mode and the non-dual mode of knowing are termed vijnana and prajna respectively.

D T Suzuki was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism. He elaborated on these two forms of knowledge as follows:

Prajna goes beyond vijnana in our world of the senses and intellect, which is characterised by dualism in the sense that there is one that sees and there is the other that is seen – the two standing in opposition. In prajna this differentiation doesn’t take place, what is seen and the one who sees are identical; the seer and the seen is the seer.

I trust you will forgive me for this excursion into the debate about human consciousness that highlights the importance to spirituality of non-dual knowledge. But my own conclusion is that this “daybreak knowledge”, this prajna is what opens the doors to spirituality.

So let us return to the issues of religion and spirituality.  Of course you can be both religious and spiritual but only if you don’t allow the dogma of your religion to submerge or negate this other way of knowing. If you were a Gnostic, for example, you could not help but to be spiritual because your religion itself is dependent on such natural knowledge. But it is easy for many who are conventionally religious to rely on the words and the symbols of their religion to the extent that wonder is lost and conventional knowledge is allowed to dominate their beliefs.

On the other hand there are many who are not conventionally religious who acknowledge the importance of prajna and who are consequently deeply spiritual.

2 Replies to “Religion and Spirituality”

  1. A erudite Catholic priest said to me many years ago, many people opt to discard religion but they make the mistake of thinking they must also discard spirituality.

    I think we humans are hardwired for spirituality and religion is merely a manifestation of that. Spirituality does not require religion but religion does require spirituality to be the best that it can be.

    1. Well said, Roslyn. We are hardwired for spirituality and unfortunately many of us have no concept that spirituality might be approached by any path other than religion!

      Many thanks for your comment.

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