Religion is one of the most polarizing topics in the world. Not just in the commons but in particular religious spaces that claim the same spiritual origins, people are constantly divided and dividing over matters of religion. Religion essentially involves the institutionalization of rites, rituals, and dogmas, and this institutionalization is precisely what makes unity difficult (Bridges 2001). Institutions, and in some cases, individuals, begin to see themselves as guardians of unchanging spiritual realities codified in certain, often creedal, language that is itself immutable and inerrant. This language and these creeds become sacrosanct and any more thought on a particular matter is then deemed heretical and anyone who dares to challenge them a heretic. Religion forces people to play the dangerous game of who is in and who is out. Creeds by definition are always barrier-building vehicles. They are ecclesiastical attempts to draw the theological lines of division (Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic 2013). No religious creed is a full statement of faith as they are all communal responses to particular arguments. Anything that is undebated in a community has no creedal response and thus the totality of spiritual understanding cannot be addressed in any one creed or even in several creeds (Spong, A New Christianity For A New World 2001).
Spirituality is, in its broadest sense, the understanding of how life should be lived and our attempts to live it that way (Gottlieb 2013). Unlike religion, spirituality is centered on the questions, the journey, and the process, not checking the boxes of repeating the prescribed answers. In this way, our spirituality is the fount and source of life. Spirituality is the method and manner by which the ultimately real actually touches the depth of being of the human personality, transforms it, and causes it to long for true community (Bridges 2001). Our spirituality enlarges us by allowing us to sit with the big questions of life and journey alongside others who are sitting with those questions in effort to live authentically and faithfully in response to their understanding of God and their place in the cosmos. Authentic spirituality sanctifies, as it is the soul’s journey. While religion helps to inform the journey, spirituality is the journey. Religion refers to any organized, structured, traditional religion, whereas spirituality embraces the freedom of the human spirit to encounter the Divine in surprisingly unexpected ways (Hartin 2010). Truly spiritual people become inspired (in spirited) to be, while religion is the doing or response to that being. Spirituality exists both inside and outside of the impenetrable boundaries created by the dogma and creeds of religion. Spirituality is fluid, because it is faith seeking understanding.
The task of the liturgist is to craft and lead religious rites and rituals that lift the spirituality of a community. To find in a community’s dogma the transformative life-giving substance that brings practitioners of the faith to an experience with the Divine that promotes the well-being of the individual so that the individual can transform the collective. The true liturgist is both a technician of the sacred and a practitioner of spirit. On one hand, the liturgist knows the technical functions of ritual and understands how to navigate them, while on the other hand is fully connected to the Wellspring of Life. Much of the division and polarization we see in the world comes from the hubris of religion that is unmitigated by the humility of spirituality. When our creeds and customs are not in conversation with ongoing redemptive reforming encounters with the Divine, unchecked egos will always look for a way to dominate and subjugate others.
Internal alertness to the critique of our institutions as bastions of orthodoxy verses living communities of transformation is the call of day. The task of defining faith in each generation is a difficult one. The liturgist is constantly defining faith in the structures and execution of communal worship. Heresies are beliefs said to be in opposition to the teachings of the religion. By this definition anything we hold as orthodox was in some historical context considered heretical, because the teachings of the church have changed over time. In our time heresy may be a virtue and not a liability if we begin to search for the places where our religion has both portrayed and betrayed the true Gospel.
I invite you to ask yourself where has your religion been in opposition of true spirituality? How can you bring a corrective lens to your community of faith? How do we revitalize our collective religious practices with fresh invigorating spirituality?
Please feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Bridges, Flora Wilson. 2001. Resurrection Song: African American Spirituality. Maryknoll: Orbis.
Gottlieb, Roger S. 2013. Spirituality: What it is and Why is Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hartin, Patrick J. 2010. Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.
Spong, John Shelby. 2001. A New Christianity For A New World. New York: Harper Collins.
—. 2013. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York New York: HarperOne.