I’m working on this week’s sermon, which will focus on “new religious movements.” As I did some reading to prepare, I found an interesting passage in the book New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge (Oxford University Press, 2004), that has helped me to clarify the difference between religion and spirituality.
In his introductory essay, Partridge takes some time to distinguish between religious movements, sects, and alternative spiritualities — and I found his definition of the latter to be particularly helpful:
The term ‘alternative spirituality’ has been included because not all the articles in this volume discuss beliefs and practices that can be described as ‘religious’. Arguably, one of the more significant developments in particularly Western religious adherence is the emergence of private, non-institutional forms of belief and practice. The sacred persists, but increasingly it does so in non-traditional forms. There is, as the sociologist Grace Davie has argued, ‘believing without belonging’. More specifically, it can be argued that much of this believing without belonging should be defined as ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’. There is in the West, for example, a move away from traditional forms of belief, which have developed within religious institutions, towards forms of belief that focus on the self, on nature, or simply on ‘life’. While there may be particular traditional teachings that are valued by the individual seeker, or particular groups to which the individual belongs, generally speaking there is a suspicion of traditional authorities, sacred texts, churches, and hierarchies of power. There is a move away from a ‘religion’ that focuses on things that are considered external to the self (God, the Bible, the church [and maybe Truth and Goodness?]) to ‘spirituality’ — that which focuses on ‘the self’ and is personal and interior….[pp. 16-17]
Reading this, it struck me that ‘believing without belonging’ is one of the major challenges faced by any institutionalized religious movement today. It also fits in with my observations:– many newcomers to the congregation I serve have little idea of how institutionalized religion works; they are sometimes suspicious of institutionalized religion; and they are often wary of committing themselves to a religious institution.
Christopher Partridge continues his definition of “alternative spiritualities” by saying this:
While the term ‘spirituality’ in this volume often has a particular reference to the ‘turn to the self’, it is also used of religious reflection that, strictly speaking, refers to more than this. For example, much contemporary feminist and eco-feminist spirituality cannot be considered as principally a ‘turn to the self’ and, indeed, is often developed within a particular religious tradition. Hence, when the term ‘spirituality’ is used of such developments it is used in a broader, less precise way, which merges with what might be understood as a ‘soft definition’ of religion. …[Some] Christian spiritualities discussed in this volume seek to overturn the distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual and understand spirituality to be a quest for full humanity that embraces the whole of the created order. Perhaps spirituality can be understood as a path that, while focusing on the self, seeks to extend to all life and certainly beyond the bounds of institutional religion. [p. 17]
While I’ve always felt a little queasy about “spirituality” as the term is usually used, I could definitely be an advocate of spirituality as a quest for a full humanity that gets individuals to embrace all humanity, all living beings, indeed all of life. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the pressures of mass culture that don’t allow us time or place to engage in spirituality — and that time/place is exactly what institutionalized religion (especially a local congregation) can provide.