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Crucial Connection between Religion & Spirituality

Can there be legitimate spirituality segregated from religion?

Catholicism would contend that genuine spirituality must emanate from that which is religiously true. Otherwise, it constitutes false worship or superstition.  We do not pray to any fertility goddess or to the four winds or to anything else of the sort.  We invoke the intercession of the saints but repudiate the worship of voodoo and New Age angel worship.  We do not worship the sun in the sky or accept that our lives are predetermined by the heavenly constellations as in astrology.  We do not pamper ourselves with the narcissism of paid motivational speakers that substitute slogans and psychology for faith and prayer.   

As Catholics, we see the Church as both a human and a divine institution. She is both entrusted with the saving message and the vessel established by Jesus to ferry us to the promised shore.  Our Lord gave us the Eucharist as our rations to sustain us on the journey.  Catholic spirituality finds it core in the Eucharist and the Church that gives us the sacraments.  The human side of the Church is liable to sin. Such is an immediate connection to the great commission— we are commanded to call sinners into our ranks.  The divine side of the Church is the source of holiness. Both Christ and his Church is the Way.  The Church is not viewed as an optional construct for purposes of fellowship but is esteemed as the great mystery or sacrament of salvation instituted by Jesus Christ.

Christianity takes a hardline against alternative movements such as oriental, new age, and nature spiritualties. While tolerant of others, the faith would insist that believers find their spiritual strength and solace in the Christian kerygma. Ultimately this comes down to a profound appreciation of the sanctifying movement of the Holy Spirit, the redemptive mediation of Christ and the fatherhood of almighty God. Catholicism is intensely communitarian as our Lord identifies himself with his Church as his mystical body. This is where the connection is made with the Blessed Mother Mary and the sanctoral intercession of the saints. Within the history of the West there have been a number of spiritual doctors and movements that reflect these truths, such as Augustinian, Franciscan, Dominican and Ignatian (Jesuit) spiritualties.

The reference to “oriental” spiritualties might wrongly be interpreted as a slur given a secondary dictionary definition that reflects current ethnic insecurities and excessive sensitivity.  Polite conversation and discourse is frequently made impossible by an unrestrained passion to argue.  Such belligerence has infected both political and religious interchanges. What is meant here is no slander but a shortcut to listing Eastern religions or philosophies = Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. The term is typically used in religious dialogue. It can also refer to Oriental churches which are the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the East. We should remember that dictionaries like Webster tend to restrict themselves to pedestrian definitions.

When this discussion emerged online, another critic lamented that there was a downplaying of Judaism in my appraisal of spirituality.  This was not my intent.  Christian and Jewish spirituality are not the same but they both find their root in the revelation of the true God and his promise to his people. Catholicism regards Judaism as true religion and the precursor for Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI argued that we are both people of the one covenant. We claim Abraham as our spiritual father in faith. The psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures constitute a staple of prayer for Catholics used in the Mass and daily prayer. Any Catholic who would claim Christ might be regarded as a spiritual Hebrew. Antisemitism would be regarded as a terrible sin, not only against the Jewish people but against the very foundations of Christianity.

Just as there are varying definitions or appreciations of religion, similarly there is diversity in any appreciation of accompanying spirituality.  The Christian tends to view spirituality and prayer as directed to holiness and union with almighty God.  There is a great deal of authentic variation, some stressing the imagination, others rational reflection and still others a select brand of piety. The traditions of faith, liturgical worship and the transmission of the Scriptures immediately link Catholics to the Church. 

While Christian voices would urge against it, there are a number of Eastern and/or New Age religions that are pursued for some proposed spiritual benefit today by people in the West. Christianity takes exception to popular elements like pantheism and animism that are inimical to the faith. Most secular spirituality would likely propose adherence to a humanistic philosophy lacking adherence to any creed.  Such might denote introspection, as to oneself be true.  It might denote a connection to others or to nature or to the cosmos.  It might imply a tenuous relationship with something greater than ourselves but unnamed. 

No doubt frustrated by the shenanigans of “right-wing Christians,” one critic remarked in an online discussion that there is nothing worse than a “God told me” Christian.  However, worse would be a God that is utterly silent. Prayer and spirituality is signified by a two-way dialogue or relationship. It is not a one-way soliloquy. That mentality sets the stage for deception and charges of atheism.

What the Catholic Church would propose, especially for believers, she would not force upon those outside her ranks. We respect the conscience and religious liberty of persons even if we disavow the associated sects.  Ecumenical dialogue invites but it does not impose. Just as with this post and comments, there is a sharing of my faith’s perspective and our diversity— not immediately for conversion but hopefully for greater mutual understanding. We can become friends even if we have substantial disagreements. Doors are opened.   Accomplished within the context of peace and respect for persons, it is our hope that the witness and the testimony of the Christian faith would have a compelling power to draw people to Christ and the Church. 

One Response

  1. In an ideal situation, “religion” and “spirituality” are combined. I know “religious” people who are caught up in externals (nothing wrong with externals!) and the letter of the law, and people who say they are on a “non-religious spiritual path” who have a greater sense of awe, wonder, mystery divine immanence, transcendence, and the sacred, than do the former.

    FATHER JOE: The faith is a precious gift that can be set aside or neglected— that is true. The saving narrative reaches beyond the Scriptures and the long history of the Church (the lives of the saints) to intersect our own stories. It is within this that we need to be disposed to the truth and to divine grace. The problem with moments of awe or wonder outside the faith is that they are ill-defined. They signify a precondition for true spirituality. One might say that we are wired for God. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau. A Christian hermit isolates himself from the distractions of the world so that he might find a greater unity with God. Thoreau would suggest isolation so as to grow closer to nature. But again, the problem is a lack of specificity. The Church would have us discern in such harmony the finger of God that creates all things and sustains them. Apart from the faith, one’s spiritual reflection might prematurely terminate with creation and never penetrate deeper to encounter the Creator.

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