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Spirituality and religion

2 April 2009

From time to time I read statements to the effect that people are interested in spirituality rather than religion, or they say that they are spiritual but not religious.

I’m never sure what they mean when they say such things, but recently Cori posted something on her blog that made me think I ought to try to clarify my unclarity: Cori’s Blog: Parting ways with Emerging:

I’ve been interested to follow the conversation on Steve Hayes and Cobus van Wyngaard’s blogs around the emerging conversation in South Africa. Something Steve wrote here, and more specifically what Matt Stone said in a comment to this post made me realise where I may part ways with the emerging conversation. Steve wrote that one of the streams of the emerging conversation was ‘those looking for spirituality rather than religion’. Matt’s comment to this was: ‘And those looking for ’spirituality’ versus religion tend to bow out of Christianity altogether or go for some sort of split-level syncretism. That’s not to say we’re not interested in mysticism, many are, but we wouldn’t see that as making up a distinct stream.’

Cori goes on to say that since she became involved in Ignatian spirituality she felt less part of the emerging conversation and that it had less to say to her.

My problem is that I find words like “spirituality” and “religion” slippery and difficult to grasp. They are used by people in many different ways, and I often use them myself, though I find myself trying to avoid using the term “spirituality” as far as possible.

The concept of “religion” is very much bound up with modernity. In his book Peter Harrison (1990:39) says:

The modern expression ‘the religions’ found its way into English vocabulary at about the same time as ‘religion’. The earliest occurrence is Hooker’s Laws of Eccelsiastical Politie (1593), where we find the following usage: ‘The Church of Rome, they say… did almost out of all religions take whatsoever had any fair and gorgeous show.’ With the publication, twenty years later, of the first edition of Edward Brerewood’s Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions through the Chief Parts of the World, the plural expression entered common usage. In his preface, Brerwood {sic} explains that there are ‘four sorts of Sects of Religion’ – Christianity, Mahometanism, Judaism and paganism, making it clear that these ‘religions’ are species of the generic ‘religion’. This fourfold classification of religion was to hold till the end of the century.

Thus “religions” came to be seen as part of a wider generic phenomenon “religion”. This is useful as far as it goes, and at times it is useful to speak in those terms, but that is not the only way of speaking about them. In the 20th century the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the need for “religionless Christianity”. Over the years this notion has been disseminated and diffused until it has become a cliche, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship”, to be trotted out on all sorts of appropriate and inappropriate occasions.

The problem with the Enlightenment understanding of the term is that it made it possible to distinguish religion as a phenomenon different from non-religious phenomenon, and thus to distinguish between the s “sacred” and the “secular”, the former being the province of “religion”, and the latter not.

This made it possible to see “religion” as a “private” affair, having nothing to do with public life.

“Spirituality” has much the same effect. It originated in the Western Middle Ages, when bishops were often secular rulers, and feudal vassals of kings and dukes. So when a man became a bishop he was consecrated by other bishops, and then was invested with the temporalities and spiritualities of his office. The “temporalities” were the secular aspects of the office, while the “spiritualities” were the “sacred” aspects of the office.

“Temporal”, and “secular” have related meanings. “Temporal” means related to time rather than eternity, what is fleeting and passing rather than what is eternal. And “secular” means related to this age rather than to the age to come.

So both “religion” and “spirituality” are rooted in the idea of a separation  of the “sacred” from the “secular”, and of a gulf between them.

The way many people speak of “spirituality” also gives the impression that they think of it as somehow “spooky”, or at other times as a kind of style of being religious. A Roman Catholic academic friend once wrote to me of a fellow Roman Catholic, who was very much involved in the charismatic movement that he was “put off by his somewhat jaunty spirituality”.

The Orthodox Church also seems to have an attraction for certain kinds of Western Christians who are interested in “spirituality”, and very often they are among those who speak of it as if it were something “spooky”

Father Alexander Schmemann was wary of such people, and often wrote of the dangers of “religion” and “spirituality”. For example:

The church is not a religious establishment, but the
presence in the world of a saved world. But so often the church is entangled in problems that in faith are nonexistent and harmful. ‘Spirituality,’ ‘churchiness’ — dangerous and ambiguous concepts. So often many people whom I know as seekers of spirituality were narrow-minded, intolerant and dull, joyless, quite often accusing others of not being spiritual enough. They were often the center of their conscience, not Christ, not the Gospel, not God. In their presence, one does not bloom; just the opposite, one crouches. Pride, egocentricity, self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness; but then, what is the use of spirituality? One will say to me that this is not genuine spirituality, that it is pseudo-spirituality. But where is true spirituality to be found? — Maybe in the desert or in lonely monastic cells. Yet the spirituality found in the church somehow frightens me. There is nothing worse than professional religiosity. All this fingering of a rosary in the midst of church gossip, the whole style of sighs and lowered eyes, seems too often terribly fake (Schmemann 2000:32).

for more on this topic see Religion and spirituality.


Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-38530-X, Dewey: 291.0942.

Schmemann, Alexander. 2000. The journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. ISBN: 0-88141-200-7 Dewey: 281.9092

12 Comments leave one →
  1. whispersinthetreetops permalink
    2 April 2009 8:26 am

    Wow sounds like pretty educated stuff and here is simple me just loving God whilst also loving myself and having at my centre not God and not me but a relationship between the two of us where God is the ultimate authority of the universe yet he allows me to be the ultimate authority of me.

    He likes it that way I believe because then anything I do that he would like me to is a gift not some automatic obedience. I am not about to give up christianity for spirituality because I believe they are one in the same.

    I don’t know if religiosity and spirituality are the same I suspect that they are however if you will pardon me for unfairly categorising people I would expect an accountant to be religious and an artist to be spiritual but their both christians and will somehow need to learn to get on.

  2. 2 April 2009 10:50 am

    This was very helpful to me. I agree with you that the separation between religion and spirituality is problematic in the same way as the division between secular and sacred. And I also get tired of hearing the whole Christianity is ‘not a religion but a relationship’ thing.

    So now I have to think what I meant when I said I was moving from religion to spirituality which wasn’t intended to mean a sacred/secular divide or the move towards something ‘spooky’ and vague! I’ll work on it and perhaps blog about it later.

    Thanks again, though, for these helpful thoughts!

    • 3 April 2009 6:55 am


      A lot of it is semantic, and depends on how you use the words. I sometimes speak of “interreligious dialogue”, and find that interesting and a good thing. At other times I find the concept of “religion” too vague and slippery. So it can be useful to try to describe things without using those two words.

      I find the emerging church movement interesting because of what they see as the problems Christians face in the world as it is today. I find most of the solutions they propose far less interesting, though.

  3. Gert Marincowitz permalink
    6 April 2009 10:49 am

    Steve, some questions (asking for more clarity, even though I have some idea on your thinking on this subject):

    What would you identify as the problems facing Christians in the world today?
    What solutions to these problems do you think the emerging church movement is proposing?
    What solutions are you proposing?

    • 6 April 2009 11:37 pm


      That’s a hugely broad subject — do you think you could narrow it down a little? The problems facing Christians in the world today seem to be much the same as those facing anyone else — trying to live on a planet with dwindling resources; war, poverty, injustice, oppression, disease. And a lot of people who know more about these things than me have proposed solutions, but the world doesn’t want to hear.

  4. Gert Marincowitz permalink
    7 April 2009 3:12 pm

    There seems to be technical solutions such as carbon footprints, Tobin taxes, etc. Two emerging church men, Graeme Codrington and Brian McClaren, have identified problems such as you have mentioned and discussed with each other possible solutions, e.g. Codrington’s “Hannah’s Rules” (the “ethical consumer” boycotting companies that pollute environment and employ slave/child labour).

    You instead seem to focus more on the role of the church (and particular monasteries) in providing a “sacred” identity to people (e.g. the different nations of the former Yugoslavia; Russians), which could replace the war-inducing secular identity defined along nationalist/class lines.

    But now I am suggesting a secular/sacred divide that we are trying to avoid here?!

    • 7 April 2009 9:12 pm

      Well yes. Samuel Huntington suggested that the post-Cold War world would be one marked by a “clash of civilizations” rather than by a clash of ideologies, and so that is certainly one of the problems that Christians (and others) face.

      I’m not sure what solutions the emerging church movement is proposing to that. I think one of the things the emerging church movement has been quite good at is identifying problems that some of those they are reacting against have failed to identify, though I’m not sure that they have managed to come up with solutions.

      But it’s the kind of thing where, if Christians are aware of the problem, they can at least try to be part of the solution, rather than aprt of the problem.

  5. e4unity permalink
    9 April 2009 5:33 pm

    Very thought-provoking as usual, Steve. I love the academic quality of some of your posts. Since you are trained in Missiology which not only relies on the discipline of Biblical theology but other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, would it not be helpful to include the contribution that this discipline provides.
    My own training was very helpful in recognizing that “religion” was one of those large functions of almost every known culture and could be studied in each culture for its inter-relationship (structural) with other dominant functions. When we see our task as the Church being sent into that world and loving that world as the Father so loved it that He sent His Son, we must learn to talk of such things as religion not only from our orientation in Christ but the orientation that we have in common with all our fellow world-citizens. Are we not helped by keeping all our conversations about the mission of the Church in the larger context of world cultures which leads to an awareness of additional vocabulary and meanings?
    John Paul Todd

  6. 9 April 2009 11:14 pm

    I hear a lot of people using “religion” in a perjorative sense, as in, “I’ve had enough with arrogant instutitions and rigid practices and now wish to engage with God and others in a way with is more open and authentic”. So anything perceived as inauthentic is labelled “religion” and anything perceived as more authentic is labelled “spirituality”. Like all perjorative terms, the eye is in the beholder.

    This can be very problematic in interfaith conversations as “spirituality” can become a high ground that must be captured at all costs. Non-Christians denounce Christianity as religion lacking spirituality. Christians reach for Bonhoeffer. Both end up talking past each other.

    In the minds of some, spirituality is associated with the esoteric (another nebulous term), the inner, the hidden. Religion becomes associated with the exoteric, the institutional, the public, the political. The reality is, much of the so-called private stuff is dominated by consumerism these days. Not as easy to differentiate as idealists claim.

    • 10 April 2009 4:02 pm

      Like “religion” and “spirituality” “authentic” has become a weasel word nowadays.

      I know what it means in the case of a primary historical document — basically that it is not a forgery. But when applied to such slippery concepts as “religion” and “spirituality” it become even more slippery than either.

  7. 14 April 2009 3:37 pm



  1. spirituality vs. religion again « Hetoimazo

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