We think we know the meaning of many words in our everyday speech when in fact we probably don’t. We just think we do. Take the word ‘money’ for instance; who doesn’t know what money is? Most of us in fact, including the experts who argue over it. Some claim it is a natural commodity, others a transferable debt. Yet we use the word as if we all know.
The same could be said for ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. We all think we know what ‘religion’ is, something vague about God perhaps for many in our day. ‘Spirituality’, well something you have when you are not having ‘religion’. In fact at one point not all that long ago, people thought ‘religion’ would disappear altogether, and some like the new-atheists are still praying that it might. But it has made a big come-back, albeit with a very negative twist which encourages a much wider group seeking its demise. ‘Spirituality’, on the other hand, is pretty much a new comer in popular usage, and implies amongst other things, being free to think our own thoughts about the intangibles of life apart from any religious authority.
I actually think we need to be much more informed about both. Religion is the mother of culture and civilization after all. Now I mean Religion not religions. I mean Religion like we might talk about Art and Science, as ways of engaging the world around us. I don’t mean empirical religions as such, or individual sciences and art forms. To help clinch the distinction I will refer to Religion in this generic sense as Religio as opposed to individual empirical religions.
Religio means ‘that which binds us together’. It is those processes within communities and societies that help them hold together against the forces, both within and without, that would see their fragmentation and possible disintegration. It is not fundamentally about God or gods, although given the centrality of authority and power in keeping communities together, it is inevitable that ideas of absolute authority are quickly called in to strengthen Religio’s arm in keeping the peace. Also why in many ancient cultures monarchs were deemed to be a god or more closely related to the divine than ordinary human beings.
The ‘sacred’ is at the heart of Religio in its origin. The ‘sacred’ is a sense we can experience in the giving of life over to death for the good of the community; in other words, sacrifice. If one great thinker is right, the origin of the ‘gods’ is in the institution of sacrifice as a means of catharsis for and unification of the community. It is the original ‘Religio’. Rene Girard has proposed that the power of sacrifice to enable ‘Religio’ was discovered spontaneously by early hominid communities, when in the midst of mob violence, the chaotic energies that were tearing the community apart suddenly got channeled onto one person. The mob murders that person. The chaotic energies are resolved in the act, and peace and unity return to the community. The attitude to the person murdered becomes fundamentally equivocal or contradictory; he is both the cause of the chaos and the bringer of peace. A god is born, and when the community next falls into fragmentation, a sacrifice, a community agreed killing, is offered and unity and peace are restored. Around this centre is then built traditions of ritual and myth which become the heart of the community’s life and culture, and the focus for its art, commerce and science; and those who hold authority in the community are those who are closest to the ‘god’ in sacrifice. Religio and all that flowed from it has its origins in violence, violence that becomes institutionalized and legitimated. Human sacrifice eventually gave way to animal sacrifice which lessened its cathartic power; but nonetheless orthodox Jews long for the re-building of the temple in Jerusalem and the resumption of the sacrifices.
Remnants of this archaic ‘Religio’ are present in our culture today. The most religious day in Australia is Anzac Day, a day that is kept alive in RSL clubs each evening throughout the land when the poker machines are quietened and everyone stands, head bowed as the bugle plays and the great sacrifice of the fallen is remembered. Their death saved us and gave us life; we honour them in sacred silence. It is present also in an institutionalized way in the role of coach in our sporting teams, and leaders in our political teams, and so on. If the team starts losing, if morale falls, if chaos and financial ruin are pending, sacrifice the coach; send him out into the wilderness. The club is renewed and re-faces the future in good heart. It is present also informally in the related phenomenon of ‘scapegoating’, something possible in any collective of human beings when fragmentation occurs and someone must be blamed and sacrificed. It is present in our entertainment also, especially in forms of ‘reality TV’. There is great modern day fascination with the archaic Religio, without anyone much aware of it being so.
Religio is about ‘containment’, the ordering of relationships in community life and the means for setting right what goes wrong so the community can be sustained. There is a link with politics in this. Questions of authority and power in Religio are inevitable. They arise in the sacrifice, and are augmented by ideas of the ‘god’ or ‘gods’ that legitimate that authority and its power and set boundaries and laws to behaviour for the good of the community. Positively, its cult and rituals give the participants, the members of the community, a sense of belonging, a focus of idealization, and a meeting place of personal interaction; as well as a history and story of origins. Sacrifice becomes a means of acquitting personal and communal debt as well, and to express gratitude for life.
Religio does not need ‘God’ or ‘gods’ as such to work its work. The State will do, or an atheistic dictator for instance; just someone or something that claims and is given real if not absolute authority and access to power; sovereignty around which the processes of Religio can revolve. The ancient world knew thousands of ‘gods’, all given sovereignty in their time and place. Very few have come through to the modern world, more in India than anywhere else, alongside Yahweh, Jesus, the Buddha and Allah. The question that haunts the modern world is “Is there any reality behind these ‘gods’ or ‘God’?”. They are created and sustained by Religio, but are they real in any way apart from Religio and the different empirical religions.
‘God’ or ‘gods’ without Religio is a different order of experience and understanding. It implies an individual aware through experience of a Reality that they know intuitively is to be taken seriously, a reality that commands attention in everyday life apart from the ‘God’ or ‘gods’ of the communal liturgy. It is a sense of the Presence of Otherness apart from the experience of our bodily senses, although these senses can become involved in the experience. The more personal that Presence becomes, the more our inner conversation is oriented toward it. The great American psychologist William James defined religion for his purposes in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience as the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. (James 1902:31) His claim that such a word defines religion cannot be justified in the terms I am using; religion without community is not possible. But he is identifying a very important and vital aspect of the human experience, all the more so as we human beings seek for some sense of transcendent reality apart from religion, even accepting that in the end there is no escape from Religio. The word ‘spirituality’ was not a common word, if used at all, at the time James wrote. Religious authorities even now are suspicious of it. But I think James’ definition of religion in fact is an appropriate description of ‘spirituality’. We can indeed stand in relation to whatever we may consider divine apart from religion, and this of course includes the contemplation of ‘Silence’ and solitude. And we can of course take such ‘spirituality’ into the communal rituals of ‘religion’ as well.
Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition many stories abound of men and women encountering the Other apart from religion; Moses at the burning bush, the prophets in the wilderness. It can be argued that the movement Jesus began was all about the experience of and relationship with ‘God without religion’, a transcendent reality to be taken seriously. Jesus began a spiritual movement that quite quickly converted into a religion, with hierarchies of authority and grand rituals mimicking the structure of the universe under an omnipotent God. Jesus the humble carpenter in whom great spiritual powers were at work became the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity, an understanding that cemented ecclesiastical authority, which is essentially political, over an against the sort of spiritual authority Jesus had, which is apolitical but which can threaten political authority if too many people are attracted to it.
It was said that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, and it was the Holy Spirit that the first Christian converts received that enabled their spirituality to become established and develop. In that development they needed to be part of a community until they could stand alone in the Presence, and act supposedly under the influence of the Spirit. There is an important connection between people standing in themselves spiritually apart from religion and the gathered community; between spirituality and religion. Spiritual maturity can take time to be developed and guidance and support is needed in that development.
However, Spirit and the God it is or represents is not the only transcendent ‘reality’ that people claim connection with. There are angelic beings, human beings who have died (and not only great spiritual and religious leaders like Jesus or Mary; but even Grandma or Mum). Then there are Masters of the universe, and so on. The key seems to be the important process of idealization. Those whom we idealize we look up to and take our cues from; these beings are the most likely to be projected into a transcendent dimension and then seemingly related to as personal beings.
So spirituality as such does not necessarily answer the question as to whether or not there is a reality behind ‘gods’ or ‘God’. But it does throw the individual back on themselves and the reality of their own experience. Perhaps the most convincing experience that may establish a transcendent reality apart from Religio and religions are those experiences where there is such power and spontaneity that the person responds immediately and totally without pre-meditation. I knew a man once who was at a kirtan and was suddenly overcome with a sense of Love. It transformed his life. St Paul on the road to Damascus is thrown off his horse by a force and immediately and spontaneously cries our ‘Lord’. Even John Wesley’s feeling ‘strangely warmed’. My spiritual journey in fact began with an experience that was such that I spontaneously cried out ‘God’. For me the centre of my spirituality is this experience, and my understanding that has developed from this is that the Spirit can indeed be real and the Spirit is both Love and total Power. Whether there are angels and Masters of the Universe I do not know. That there is Spirit is the cornerstone of my life. This to me is really real, and I believe that this same Spirit was in Jesus and had its greatest triumph in creation and history in Christ’s death and resurrection, the ultimate clash of authorities in human existence. So I see myself with a spirituality that is based on something that is very real in my experience; but I struggle with Religio, both seeing its necessity but wary of the authority and life it generates, especially when there is no spirituality to go with it, and little Love.
David Oliphant March 2016