Are Religion and Spirituality the Same?

    October 2010            
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Opinion & Society


Religion and Spirituality

By Larry Fine

Are they the same?

It is amazing that so many people feel that being religious and being spiritual is the same. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but they are two different concepts that seem to get mushed together in most peoples minds. Below I would like to add my observations on the matter and I concede that my definition may be different from that of the definition given by the dictionary.

Religion, I understand, is a set of beliefs generally about G-d. In our religion - Judaism - it includes actions, i.e. commandments and thoughts, required and forbidden. A person is considered 'religious' when he/she adheres to such beliefs. (For sake of our discussion I acknowledge that there are more than one established set of belief in Judaism as well defined in the various branches of our people which revolve around the belief in the existence of one G-d.) A 'religious' person therefore is one who scrupulously adheres to the tenets of his faith. (Here I exclude from this discussion compulsive people who happen to use religion as an extension of their obsessiveness.)

Spirituality, on the other hand, is something which reflects those feelings or thoughts that connect one with the spiritual side of life - as opposed to the material aspects of this world. The spiritual experience being something that is experienced from the non-material, or in our case, the G-dly realm. A person who is spiritual is one who has had a spiritual experience an experience with G-d (with in or with out the confines of religion). Here the emphasis is on the experience and not the knowledge, learned or otherwise acquired.

In concept we might expect to see religious people being spiritual and indeed it is the expectation of many. However it is my proposal that religion is the external manifestation of a spiritual being or experience, whereas the spiritual is the inner feeling that should accompany the religious person. A person performing a religious action should be experiencing a spiritual feeling; hence the religious aspect is the exterior to the inner spiritual experience.

To make my point clearer, let us take a person who is a prophet, like Moses or Samuel. Their essential being was to be connected with G-d. They communicated directly to Him not just in prayer but rather in a direct personal communicative manner as one speaks with his boss. Their essential being reflected that inner spiritual experience in a way that we can not describe from our own personal knowledge (since we generally lack a similar internal experience) but we can describe their personal spiritual experience from their external manifestation that caused a change in their personality and lifestyle as a direct result of that experience. We can note and relate to others the manner in which the spiritual experience has changed their being as they relate to the physical world by noting the changes in their personality from before their spiritual experience comparing to afterwards. We should note a change in regard to their relationships with other people and in the way they live their lives. We would expect a person who had a spiritual experience of some high degree to act differently after the experience than from before. If a spiritual experience does not cause a change in a person, then what good did the connection of the divine do?

To the extent of the intensity and/or frequency of the spiritual experience so will the person's relationship to the physical side of the world change. As an example, I would expect a person who had a 'close experiential relationship' with G-d to be less dependent or desirous of the physical side of life. We find that the prophets were not particularly materialistic people. Rather their desires were to become even more spiritualistic.

Unfortunately most people today are very much connected with the material side of life than ever before. This is to such an extent that unless G-d comes and literally hits them on the head they would never think of being spiritual. On the other hand, those people who are seeking to be spiritual reject the apparent confines of regulated and codified religion as being anti-spiritual. In many ways they are correct, but it is my contention that we need both as I shall explain.

We need to be spiritual; we need to develop a close relationship with G-d and we need to realize that we have been placed in a world that is entirely material and physical. In such an environment we must live and function; we can not avoid it even if we were to go to a live in a cave in a remote area. Material needs are a prime concern of man.

Although the spiritual is the desirable choice between the physical and the spiritual, the spiritual closeness of the prophets is not possible to attain, therefore it is necessary to adhere to the tenets of our religion because (and although religion is externals of spirituality, none the less,) we need to maintain a frame work that keeps us in line with the manner in which G-d desired us to live our lives. This protects us so that we may on occasion have a spiritual experience.

May we be granted the wisdom to attain the spiritual heights that we are allowed and the understanding to realize that it is not a sustainable goal, but rather a gift from G-d.


from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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