Monday, February 22, 2010

Religion, Faith, and Spirituality

Recently, along with others in Milton Horne’s “Bible study” class at Second Baptist Church, I have been reading The World’s Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues (second ed., 2005) by William A. Young. It is a fine book, but I don’t like Young’s definition of religion: “Religion is human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” (p. 4). It seems to me that transformation is the aim or purpose of religion, not what it is.
Although it is no longer in print, I think the definition by Frederick J. Streng in his Understanding Religious Life (third ed., 1985) is better: “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation.” Streng goes on to explain: “An ultimate transformation is a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest level with those troubles” (p. 2).
In keeping with this view, religion can be described as what we humans do in order to achieve something. But that is one of the main reasons I have long sought to make a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is basically human efforts or attempts to gain something (salvation, peace of mind, harmony with the universe, etc.). Faith, by contrast, is response to God’s grace.
As we all know, many people now make a distinction between religion and spirituality, usually largely dismissing the former and embracing the latter. In general, that distinction is good and important. Spirituality is our basic attitude toward reality in the light of our awareness of God (the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Eternal, Mystery, the Great Spirit, or whatever term we want to use for that which transcends the physical world) and our actions on the basis of that attitude.
Religion is primarily a means toward an end. Faith, or spirituality, is more an end in itself. That is true of real worship also. Of course, worship can be engaged for the purpose of trying to get something from God, a means to an end. But true worship is focused on God and is basically praising God with no intention of getting something in the process. Whatever benefits we do receive are by-products, not direct effects from effort expended.
I have just finished speed-reading Faith and Belief (1979) by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), who was for several years director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. In this scholarly work, Smith clearly points out the difference between faith and religion as well as between faith and belief, contending that faith is prior to, and superior to, both. I may write more about Smith’s ideas later, but here let me cite a very short paragraph in Smith’s book, a statement I like very much.
“Faith is a saying ‘Yes’” to truth” (p. 163).
In that statement I think Smith means Truth. Religion is a search for Truth; faith is accepting, responding to, committing our lives to Truth. Spirituality, then, is how we live and act on the basis of that commitment.


  1. I was pleased to have received the following comments in an e-mail message from my friend and fellow church member Tom Lankford:

    "Today's blog was timely for me in my Lenten journey and my prep for next week's Lectionary, which includes Abram's belief that is credited to him as righteousness. Clearly Abram connects his lack of children to the fulfillment of God's promise for him having a vast number of descendants so I concluded his belief and hence righteousness is wrapped up in his surrender to the promise of God. I can just see him rolling his eyes and hear him saying; 'OK God, whatever you say, it sounds crazy to me but I will just wait on you to deliver whatever you want to deliver and live with a confidence that it is going to happen.' Certainly there is an outcome implied but its not really one Abram expected even though he might have wanted it. Our surrender is our worship, and what we are surrendering to is sometimes crazy and completely counter intuitive but at the same time makes theological sense. What an awesome God we serve."

  2. Leroy, great stuff,thanks. I guess I choose to drop the word religious for the time being, to much stuff in that bag for me. As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism I have been interested in HH Dali Lama's statements about two kinds of spirituality, one based on belief (faith) and the other a human, universal spirituality of practice. Not something from outside, but an awakening of the human spirit. I would suggest a look at Houston Smith's work, Thomas Merton, the Pluralism Project at Harvard, the Golden Rule Poster from the Sarboro Missions (sp) in Canada, Paul McKena for more up to day stuff.

    peace ko shin, Bob Hanson

  3. In the comments section of a previous posting, I shared what my daughter's father-in-law had written; now I am happy to share part of an e-mail I received in an e-mail earlier today:

    Cecile wrote that "there are more people in British Columbia who say that they are 'spiritual' than there are people who say that they are 'religious.' They resent having to be told from the 'religious men' what to do and how to think etc. When one considers how fallible some of the 'religious men' are it is easy to understand why they turn away from 'religion' and find comfort in their spirituality."

  4. A Thinking Friend, whose e-mails I have shared several times previously, sent me this today, with a most interesting quote from the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel:

    "I like your thinking on those definitions, Leroy. I add one further definition of faith. Abraham Heschel said in 'Man Is Not Alone,' 'Faith is a blush in the presence of God.'"

  5. Well, I think you dislike Young's definition of religion because it facilitates your understanding of the distinction between faith and religion as an end in itself vs. a means to an end. Frankly, as Young's definition currently stands (the one you don't like), it accomplishes the same thing as your understanding of faith: it is an end in itself. That's because, as Young says, it is tranformation in response to the ultimate.

    But I would say that your definition of faith, despite your denials, is in practice but another means to an end. I am frankly skeptical that there is such a thing as true disinterested faith, or that it is as common as you seem to think it is or should be. Thus my light-hearted objections to your distinctions between religion and faith. It's a pleasant surprise when you encounter people who hold to their religious faith without concern for notions of some kind of security, some kind of mental health, some kind of good life, some kind of eternal security, or some kind of job (thus professional ministers) etc. And every now and then I do meet such persons who seem to be doing this. However, the real surprise is that they would never describe themselves as persons who are either religious or faithful. They are usually simply committed to what is ethically good, both at an individual and a social level.Sometimes it is a commitment to God that is related (though not necessarily causal); sometimes it is not. If you want to call such behavior "faith," I'm not opposed. It's just as meaningful to me to call it "religion." Though, I'm happy not to call it either.

  6. This may be highly critical and/or cynical, but I think there is also a clear distinction between what people claim as their religion, and what their life reflects.

    I am reminded of Paul Tillich's use of the phrase "ultimate concern" to describe religion. To Tillich, our heart, mind, soul, and strength is often placed on things that are not of religious significance. We can have many pseudo- or crypto-religious affiliations.

  7. MPH, thanks, as always, for your significant contribution to my blog; your comments, usually a counterpoint to what I have written, add greatly to the value of having it as a place of dialogue.

    I was interested especially in your statement, "I am frankly skeptical that there is such a thing as true disinterested faith, or that it is as common as you seem to think it is or should be." I didn't say that true (disinterested) faith is common, I just said that in my understanding that is what faith is. That is also why I think it is more fruitful to have interfaith dialogue than interreligious dialogue, although, of course, there is considerable overlapping. There is far more commonality, I think, in the realm of faith than in the realm of religion.

    With regards to disinterested faith, I thought of two related passages in the Old Testament, which I can only refer to in English translation and without the linguistic and cultural background that you would have. But I thought of Job's statement, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (13:15, NKJV). This is translation I had remembered from growing up in when the KJV was extensively used, but it is the same in the NKJV. Is the NRSV translation a more accurate translation? If so, it shoots the point I am making here.

    The other passage is from Habakkuk 3:17-18. "Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation." This is a great statement of faith, I think.

  8. Tyler, thanks for posting comments on my blog. I don't think you were overly critical or cynical. There have been a multitude of dastardly deeds done in the name religion through the centuries (millennia). That is one reason I prefer to talk about faith (or spirituality) rather than religion. Religion is often not a good thing, as Charles Kimball points out well in his book "When Religion Becomes Evil" (2002).

    But let me clarify about Paul Tillich's use of "ultimate concern." That is, of course, one of his basic theological ideas, but he links that concept primarily to faith, not religion. In addition to talking about ultimate concern in his "Systematic Theology," it is central in his little book "Dynamics of Faith" (1957). In fact, the first chapter of the latter book is "What Faith Is," and the first part of that chapter is "Faith as ultimate concern."

  9. So, which one is the circle, and which one the straight line? Does not this debate on religion and spirituality echo our earlier discussion of the nature of history? Based on my ongoing journey through Rubenstein's book, I am inclined to ask if we might not also find a similar tension between priests and prophets right in the pages of scripture.

    In "After Auschwitz" he sees priests as the sorrowful gatekeepers of sanity, using ancient rituals to purge our deepest darkness, while he sees prophets as relatively ephemeral seekers after the light of justice. For in the Nazis he saw the death of the God of History.

    Checking up on him on the internet, I see that Rubenstein has mellowed with age. Which only makes sense, for an amazing characteristic of his book is that while he wrote on behalf of the priests, against the prophets, he still wrote much as a prophet.

    Religion has a great, deep, theatrical-psychological mission to fulfill. In that sense, religion is inherently pagan, even in Christianity and Judaism. However, the thrust of history is so obvious to see, and so overwhelming to feel, that some place must be found for the rational, linear, prophetic.

    Perhaps, if we had been reading carefully, we would have known all along that Jehovah had much in common with Shiva, more than we ever wanted to admit. So, with Elijah, we can say to the managerial God of History, God is not in the earthquake, wind or fire. God is in the still, small voice. Give me religion AND spirituality.

    Now, as for faith and spirituality, faith is modern and linear (pick your choice, circular or straight), while spirituality is post-modern and non-linear. Being an omnivore, I will take both of these, too! Do not be confused by the fact that faith and spirituality both predate the modern era. At other times, they had other avatars. Or, as John Muir put it, he wanted men who "believe in God and glaciers." If you climb to the top of a mountain, you can see, feel and understand.

  10. In an e-mail with the subject "Disinterested Faith," a Thinking Friend, whom I have quoted more than once previously, wrote:

    "Another example is Dan 3:18 where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego use the famous phase 'but even if he does not...' I would have to rely on you to verify but I am not sure there was anything in that kind of faith for those three guys because they didn't even believe in a resurrection or an after life so why risk your one and only life. I am not suggesting there aren't numerous practical benefits to a faith-filled life, they certainly make it easier to sell, but are those side effects really what we should be in it for? I'm not sure life in and of itself has any meaning except for faith so the practical benefits of something that has no meaning really have no meaning either, it does feel good though. This last point could open a whole new discussion that I don't have time to respond to because I'm out pilling up a whole lot of meaninglessness in this thing called a job. What have we come to? I feel like a dog chasing its tail."

  11. In the comments section of a previous posting I shared what my daughter's father-in-law had written; now I am happy to share part of an e-mail I received from her mother-in-law:

    Cecile wrote that "there are more people in British Columbia who say that they are 'spiritual' than there are people who say that they are 'religious.' They resent having to be told from the 'religious men' what to do and how to think etc. When one considers how fallible some of the 'religious men' are it is easy to understand why they turn away from 'religion' and find comfort in their spirituality."

  12. This morning one of my Thinking Friends and fellow church members wrote the following in an e-mail:

    "As I read the comments of . . . 'Religion, Faith, and Spirituality,' I began mulling over the statement, 'But true worship is focused on God and is basically praising God with no intention of getting something in the process. Whatever benefits we do receive are by products, not direct effects from effort expended.' I began to think of my own experience in worship, I do believe that there are benefits I receive from having been involved in worship. Had I not been there in the choir or in the pew, there are personal blessings and benefits that I would have missed."

    LKS -- Perhaps I was not as clear in what I wrote as I should have been. I certainly did not mean to imply that true worshipers do not receive personal "blessings and benefits" from engaging in worship. I just meant to say that "blessings and benefits" are not the purpose of worship. They are, though, significant by-products that we can enjoy.

  13. Religion, spirituality and faith have suffered from long-term and systematic neglect in development theory, policy making and practice. It concludes that religion, spirituality and faith have a role to play in the future of development, particularly in ensuring that it is appropriate and sustainable. Thanks a lot.