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.