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Religion & spirituality:
Seekers find both in their journeys
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

“I’m not a religious person – I’m more what you’d call ‘spiritual.’”

 

“Even though I’m a Methodist, I seem to get a lot more out of Native American spirituality.”

 

“As a Jew, I attend synagogue regularly. But for the last few years I’ve also been practicing Zen Buddhism.”

 

America offers a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual expressions, and we have the freedom to worship – or not worship – as we like. Demographics show that the number of adherents to organized religions is falling, while more and more people are developing their own eclectic spirituality. Yet, while religion and spirituality are different things today, they need not be at odds.

 

The idea of “religion” and “spirituality” as separate, or even opposing, entities is a relatively new construct in human history. Think about it. Can you imagine worshippers of the Pharoah in ancient Egypt pondering the meaning of spirituality in their lives? How about African animists trying to decide what they might pick and choose from their religion? Did Catholics in the first millennium grow dissatisfied with rituals and liturgies and decide to walk down the street to attend a more “contemporary” service?

 

Historically, there wasn’t even a word for “religion.” Religion was simply one’s life – not simply a part of life, but life itself. For example, in the Western world until the 1400s, life for most people revolved around the Roman Catholic Church. People attended the church in their village; they were baptized, married, and buried by the church, generation after generation. With the Protestant Reformation, a process was put into motion that continues to this day. From that time until now, some 30,000 different Protestant denominations have evolved, and the number of religions continues to grow.

 

A plethora of different churches, even as early as post-Reformation England and in Colonial America, made it clear that if society was to run smoothly without being under the dominion of a particular church, “religion” would have to be separate from government and laws. This was the birth of secularism – the separation of the divine from the material. From that point, everything in Western life – from law to science – would be split along these lines. The good news is that in our society, no one can be forced by the State to pledge any particular religion. The bad news, in the eyes of many, is that a separate “compartment” was created within the human psyche, a special place – separate from the rest of the person – just for religion.

 

It was out of this secularism that the idea of “spirituality” as separate from “religion” would develop. Generally, religion can be seen as a particular set of beliefs relating to the divine, incorporating particular rules and, perhaps, rituals. Spirituality is the direct experience of the divine in a way that transcends labels. Another way to put it: spirituality asks the big questions about life, and religion attempts to answer those questions.

 

The concept of a “spirituality” as distinct from religion has been a blessing in many ways. 12-Step programs are a great example of this. People seeking to recover from addictions and countless other ills can become involved regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). In this way, these groups can cast a wider net, and help more people that might otherwise feel threatened by certain religious beliefs.

 

Here are just a few “spiritual” movements that seekers are exploring today:

 

Native American spirituality. The beliefs of Native American tribes are actually extremely diverse. In general, Native Americans have always placed supreme importance on nature and on their ancestors. Native Americans today tend to practice of beliefs that date back as far as 60,000 years and that have, in recent centuries, been infused with Christianity. For example, The Native American Church, founded in 1918, combines Christian ritual and theology with the sacramental use of the peyote cactus, which goes back 10,000 years.

 

Ceremony plays a huge role in Native American religion; although they vary from tribe to tribe and from place to place, these ceremonies are not simply a “part” of Native American spirituality, they are its very expression. Ceremonies are believed to influence health, fertility, the weather, and tribal power.

 

New Age seekers are increasingly looking to Native American spirituality for inspiration, but sometimes, they are disappointed. For example, women may find Indian religions just as “patriarchal” as Christian ones. In addition, some Native Americans are outraged by what they see as “wanna-bes” who copy and revise their sacred rituals. Anyone who is seriously interested in examining Native American religion is advised to contact a Native American leader in their community for direction.

 

Kaballah. No, Madonna and Britney Spears didn’t invent it.  And with their rather lewd behavior and capitalization on this practice (Madonna is selling expensive “Kaballah water” at her concerts), longtime practitioners of the philosophy are dismayed.

 

Kaballah is a form of Jewish mysticism said to go back thousands of years but to have resurfaced in 11th Century Spain. The Kaballah’s great symbol is the Tree of Life, which symbolizes the invisible reality of mankind’s existence. Through study of the Kaballah practitioners come to understand the relationships between various aspects of their lives and to effect change in themselves and in the world.

 

Historically and traditionally, the study of Kaballah has been for an elect few. Generally it is required that before studying Kaballah, one must be at least 40 years old, have great wisdom and moral strength, and be extremely well-versed in the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, it is considered dangerous to approach Kaballah without years of preparation. Anyone interested in exploring Kabalah should consider the above and avoid new, “glitzy” Kaballah schools and anyone who demands sums of money in exchange for such knowledge.

 

Eastern philosophies. Sufism, Zen Buddhism, and Yoga are just three of the Eastern philosophies that have been gaining in popularity in the United States since the 1960s. Sufism developed in opposition to legalistic Islam, and focuses on one’s personal and mystical union with Allah. The path to enlightenment is expected to last a lifetime, and continues after death. Music, poetry, and dancing are all elements of Sufi expression. Sufis also practice spiritual healing, but not until they have studied for at least 12 years.

 

Zen Buddhism developed in China in the seventh century. Buddhism actually professes no faith in a supreme being; this is why followers of many other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, often incorporate concepts of Buddhist meditation into their spiritual practice. In Zen, the practitioner is encouraged to turn their consciousness inward and may experience visions and intense emotions before coming to understand the unity of all things.

 

Yoga, like Zen Buddhism, lacks allegiance to a particular deity, so it is practiced by a wide variety of people, both for emotional and physical health. There are many different types of yoga, each of which is based on a specific path whereby concentration, knowledge, or sexual energy can be realized. Dating back to before 1500 BC, yoga is today a tool in modern psychological and physical medicine.

 

Christian spirituality.  Because a majority of Americans are Christians, Christian spirituality might be considered the most familiar to us, but in some ways, it’s not. Part of the reason is that Christianity is so ubiquitous in our society that it’s taken for granted. When religious holidays are symbolized by Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, when churches are offering espresso bars and bowling leagues, “church” and “spirituality” may not be as closely fused as one would think.

 

Another factor is a sort of lowest-common-denominator Christianity, designed to attract would-be worshippers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Although such churches are perfect for some people, others feel that spiritual depth is lacking.

 

Christians who are seeking to deepen their spirituality may look to the disciplines above, or to any of a large number of other options; they may stay within the bounds of Christianity or they may choose to leave it altogether. But there is no need to leave Christianity to discover spirituality. Christians have always had a contemplative tradition. Many are re-discovering writings by Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich, Christian mystics who gloried in God’s love and mercy.  Books like “A Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster are being read in church book clubs everywhere.

 

Interestingly, the mystical, contemplative tradition of Christianity never left Eastern Orthodoxy, the Christianity that developed directly from the early church and has remained essentially unchanged in liturgy and theology since the third or fourth century. While the Western traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism were both affected by the Reformation, Orthodoxy (mostly found in Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries) remained geographically separate from the growth of secularism in the West. In fact, most Orthodox – especially those outside the United States – are confused when asked to speak about “Orthodox Spirituality.” For them, spirituality is not an aspect of their religion or their life; it is their religion, it is their life itself.

 

How does today’s spiritual seeker approach spirituality, within or outside of religion? There are a few simple rules. True teachers of spirituality won’t seek to make a financial profit from their teaching. They won’t attempt to separate practitioners from their current church or their family. They will be connected in some way to a larger system with accountability. And they’ll encourage your questions. Like any journey, the spiritual journey can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. But at the end of the road you’ll find that connection with divinity, however you choose to label it.

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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