This continues from the previous post.
PART TWO: Definitions.
It helps to have definitions of the things you are trying to explore as well as a grounded understanding of them in both practical and theoretical terms. This is one of the reasons I decided to become ordained as in interfaith minister – to get some practical, and well as theoretical, knowledge of the world’s faith and wisdom traditions. So, what do I mean when I talk about religion and spirituality? How are they different? How are they related? Can you be religious without being spiritual? Can you be spiritual without being religious? I believe the answer to both those questions is, yes. Part of that reason lies in the definitions I apply to them.
To me, religion is about answering questions of how we came to be here, how we are to live while we are here, and what happens to us when we die. Religions can be about much more than those things, but those are, to me, the three central questions. Spirituality, to me, is about more than one thing as well. It’s about transcending a limited sense of self for a wider view that opens one’s mind to the interrelatedness, interdependence, and ultimate non-dual nature of the universe. It’s also about achieving, through this vision, a sense of inner peace – a mental and emotional equanimity unbroken by the trails and pains of life. And it is about cultivating an ever-deepening universal experience of compassion and love.
Philosopher Ken Wilber defined this difference between religion as spirituality as Translative vs Transformative – between providing rules for how behave and adhere to as set of beliefs vs a set of guides for how to shift our perception of ourselves and our world. In this way, spirituality does have an empirical streak. All of the world’s major religion have spiritual traditions, and these give a set of instructions to be followed, like experiments, in hopes of achieving certain results. If you do this meditation over a period of time, you will have a calmer mind, or you will reduce your anger, or you will become more compassionate, or you will experience your sense of self as an illusion, or you will experience the universe as a non-dual phenomenon. If thousands of people do the meditations and have similar results, one can provisionally accept the results as valid, and by extension, the method/meditation as a valid means of achieving those results. I know, those results are all in the mind, but all of our experiences are in the mind. Think of it as learning to shift one’s perspective to see those Magic Eye 3D images that were all the rage in the 90s. If nine people can see the 3D shark but the one person can’t, we can provisionally accept that there is a 3D shark hidden in that pattern of color.
This shift in perspective, to see reality in a new way is at the heart of spirituality, but not necessarily religion. This is why I think you can be religious without being spiritual, or spiritual without being religious. This is also why, I believe that while it is possible to reconcile, to a large degree, the various spiritual paths of the world, it is not possible to reconcile the various religious theologies. It’s practically impossible to reconcile theology within religions, much less between them, because theology is about accepting rules and ideas based not on experience, but on faith and let’s be honest, a good dose of imagination (maybe this was Horgan’s real issue with that particular school of Buddhism). You cannot prove the existence of any God, so you cannot prove, or disprove, any interpretation of what that God wants from his or her followers. So, theologies will always be at odds. But the different spiritual paths seem to have similar realizations and goals at their core – what Leibniz called the Perennial Philosophy – popularized in the last century by Aldous Huxley, author of the sci-fi classic Brave New World. Of course, different paths will lead to slightly different results. Buddhists describe the ultimate reality of the universe as Emptiness, Hindus as Brahman, Christians or Jewish mystics as Godhead, etc., but it seems only natural to me that their descriptions of an ultimate reality would be colored by different social and cultural factors resulting different, but similar, depictions.