Are You Spiritual? Religious? Both?


"You have suffered and endured,
and raised yourself to the spirit world
by your good deeds."

– Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

That's not a typo in the main title of this blog post. Spirit word, spirit world... What's the difference? This column is about the word "spirit," although the rhetorical pun, or near double entendre, is purposeful; to talk about the word is to talk about the world the word represents. To talk about the word spirit is to talk about the greater concept of spirituality: to talk about the spirit word is to talk about the spirit world.

"Spirituality" has become a popular buzzword in our modern lexicon, as more and more people describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. In a survey by LifeWay Christian Resources in 2010 of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% said they're "really more spiritual than religious."

It used to be that if you weren't religious, then you were an atheist, or maybe an agnostic, but a new category—spirituality—has given people a third, very viable and interesting option.

So what does it mean to be spiritual?

That is a question at the forefront of modern society. Interestingly enough, even my dictionary doesn't get it right. The dictionary I use defines spiritual as:

1: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things
2: of or relating to religion or religious belief: the tribe's spiritual leader.

But that definition leaves out the more important, much larger meaning, a meaning I'm certain those 18- to 29-year-olds had in mind, namely a spirit outside the human realm, a spirit much greater and bigger than the human soul. One of my favorite books was written by the Right Reverend Soyen Shaku, the Lord Abbot of Engaku-ji and Kencho-ji, Zen temples in Kamakura, Japan. The book is a collection of his lectures he gave when he visited America in 1905-1906. The original title of this book in the 1906 edition was Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot. It has been reprinted numerous times as Zen for Americans. I think this quote from the book sums up beautifully the reality of a spirit greater than ourselves, a spirit manifest in everything around us:

"Where you feel a noble feeling, where you think a beautiful thought, where you do a self-sacrificing deed, there is the spirit making itself felt in your consciousness. There is but one great spirit and we individuals are its temporal manifestations. We are eternal when we do the will of the great spirit; we are doomed when we protest against it in our egotism and ignorance."

Another great spiritual tradition, one much closer to home, is embodied by the Native American community. My own spiritual teacher, the great American Zen master and writer, Peter Matthiessen, used to say that if his wife hadn't introduced him to two Japanese Zen masters, his spiritual quest would have likely lead him to a Native American teacher.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (there is of course a large Native American population in Ontario, Canada) states that:

"Many followers of Native American spirituality, do not regard their spiritual beliefs and practices as a "religion" in the way in which many Christians do. Their beliefs and practices form a integral and seamless part of their very being."

Which brings me back to my original question: What does it mean to be spiritual? I think Zen, Native Americans, and even Hans Christian Andersen got it right. Spirituality is something you embody every day, with noble feelings, beautiful thoughts and good deeds. You don't need a church or a preacher or books telling you how to think or act—spirituality arises from within as thoughts and feelings, and flows out of us in positive words and actions. When we fight it, our lives and the lives of those around us suffer.

So here's to all those 18- to 29-year-olds who say they are more spiritual than religious. Nothing wrong with being religious; you can be both. But I do think those youngsters are on to something.

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