Can you be spiritual without being religious? We know the opposite is true: that you can be religious without being spiritual. You can be religious and be a pedophile. You can be religious and oppose universal health care. You can be religious and starve the children of your enemies, while championing the rights of the unborn. You can, like the Pharisee from the gospels, cry, “Thank God that I am not like this publican!” and rest content in the knowledge that you attend weekly religious services and tithe from all that you earn. You can have your shabbos bread and your communion wafer…and eat it, too!
We’ve kept coming back to the same question for more than a century now, beginning with Emerson and William James and culminating in the writings of popular Power of Now guru Eckhart Tolle. There it reaches something like its penultimate expression–which is to say, the question still hasn’t been answered, but it’s gone as far as it can go.
The “spiritual but not religious” debate is like a worry stone. The question gets smoother with use. We wear down its grosser defects and rougher edges, polishing its surface to a somewhat higher gloss. But it never stops being what it is–a moral dead weight at the bottom of the modern heart, a troublesome thought we can’t help having, even if we are among those who answer in the affirmative, like Anne Rice has, taking up our beds (should I say coffins, Anne?) and walking as far away from religion as we can go.
For all our worry, it seems we never really get anywhere with the question. Why? Perhaps because, no matter how you ask the question, at bottom it remains fundamentally flawed. Can you have spirituality without religion? religion without spirituality? It’s like asking if you can have a head without a heart–or vice versa. Some of us try to get by with just one or the other, but it never works out very well.
At the risk of offending those who like to look anywhere for truth but Islam, I’d like to suggest that the shahada–the Muslim declaration of faith–presents the world’s most concise statement on the fundamental pointlessness of the spirituality vs. religion debate.
That shahada reads La ilaha Illallah, Muhammadan rasul Allah (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet”). The first half is often misunderstood, even by some Muslims. It does not mean that Allah is the only real god, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, and Vishnu being mere counterfeit deities. It means that the god we make of ourselves is not real. To say “There is no God but Allah” simply means that our human agenda (which is to say, any human agenda) is not the final word. This realization transcends religion (which is always man-made, whatever claims we may make to the contrary in our zeal), and is therefore “spiritual.”
The second part–”and Muhammad is His prophet”–is likewise often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that Muhammad is the only prophet. It means that, to be real, spirituality has to get grounded in the life of actual human beings. The human agenda may not be the final word, but it our word, and we have to do our best to get it right. Our spiritual impulses have to have a form. And to grow, they have to be rooted in some form of community. This second realization comes down on the side of religion. It favors leadership, organization, and the kind of collective effort that builds stability, sustaining the spiritual life of the many, not just the “personal revelation” of the select spiritual few.
There have long been those who claim that you can have Allah without Muhammad. And it could be argued that there are some in the world today who claim that Muhammad is enough. I’m thinking Taliban in this context, but an equivalent could be found just as easily among our own fundamentalists, who stick like glue to Jesus without ever listening to what he has to say about religious hypocrisy or about God.
The truth about religion and spirituality seems to be that one is pretty useless without the other. A lot of what passes for “spirituality” in America today is self-absorption and nothing more. And a lot of religion is mere politics disguised as God. The problem isn’t with one or the other, but with the persistent delusion that we can get by without having both. If religion divorced from spirituality is hypocrisy, spirituality divorced from religion is hypocrisy, too.
As a final caveat, I will admit to having learned all this the hard way. Sometimes the publican cries foul back at the Pharisee, only to realize later, and with more than a little chagrin, that he was also in the wrong.