Religion Vs. Spirituality and the Field of Spirituality Studies

“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Its a phrase often heard if not inside, at least in the vestibules of religious sanctuaries.  Some more conservative theologians  seek to dismiss such a statement outright as self-indulgence, while others see the sociological trend of disaffiliation with denominationalism combined with a greater interest in spiritual self-exploration as a blessing in disguise as it opens up fresh avenues for discourse with the millennial generation. As a university chaplain and scholar of Christian spirituality, I take the later view.

In my own academic discipline of spirituality studies, a number of superb scholars have wrestled with this tension between religion and spirituality. Relying upon work of Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, William E. Connolly, and others in the field of critical theory, these scholars seek to re-think what it might mean to be spiritual in a secular age, and what such a secular spirituality might have to do with the great religious traditions from which such spirituality clearly arises. Bernard McGinn, Philip Sheldrake, and Sandra Schneiders are the most significant scholars in the relatively new field of Spirituality Studies. Though the field is still most likely to be found taught in Jesuit higher education, due no doubt to the towering influence of Ignatius Loyola on spiritual practice and thought, the field is also taking root in some of the more progressive Protestant schools of religion. At Yale Divinity School, for example, Janet Ruffing, formerly of the Jesuit run Fordham University, teaches spirituality to students some of whom are committed to a particular religious tradition, and some of whom likely fit the new demographic category of “the nones.” (The name coming from the practice of checking off “none” when asked to which religious tradition one adheres.)

Here’s Sandra Schneiders from her essay “Religion Vs. Spirituality: A Contemporary Conundrum” in which she argues in favor of the integrity of the field of spirituality as an academic sub-discipline distinct from theology or religion, yet one in a necessarily symbiotic relationship with both.  In the passage below, she argues that spirituality needs religion, and spiritual seekers benefit greatly from being a part of a particular religious tradition. Unstated, of course is the corollary that religious traditions need spirituality if they are not to collapse into ideological stupor and enervating institutional self–preservation. Schneiders writes, it should be noted, from an explicitly Roman Catholic perspective and this necessarily colors her perspective. The question of institutional unity, when it comes up in her work, is one place where a non-Roman Catholic might need to raise some crucial questions. Yet unless one has decided that religious institutions are irredeemably corrupt and not worth saving, a thought worthy of the greatest critical scrutiny, it is, I think, hard to argue with her plea for the value of institutions, and not just explicitly religious ones, as having a crucial educational role for human virtue and self-transformation.

“My third, and most important, hesitation about the adequacy of disaffiliated spirituality is that, while it may respond well to someone’s current felt needs, it has no past and no future. It is deprived of the riches of an organic tradition that has developed over centuries in confrontation with historical challenges of all kinds. And even if it facilitates some major spiritual intuitions by the individual it is intrinsically incapable of contributing them to future generations except, in some extraordinary cases, by way of a written testimony.  By contrast, the participant in a religious tradition can both profit from and criticize all that has gone before and thus, at least potentially, can help hand on to successive generations a wiser, more compassionate approach to the universal human dilemmas and challenges with which religion has always grappled. Privatized spirituality, like the “social cocooning” in lifestyle enclaves that sociologists have identified as a major problem in contemporary American society, is at least naïvely narcissistic. It implicitly defines spirituality as a private pursuit for personal gain, even if that gain is socially committed. Although the practitioner may be sincerely attempting to respond to a reality, e.g., God, who transcends her or himself, she or he remains the sole arbiter of who God is and what God asks. The person accepts as authoritative no challenge to personal blindness or selfishness from sacred texts or community. There is certainly continuity, but there is also a real difference, between the personal openness to challenge that a sincere but religiously unaffiliated person might try to maintain and the actual accountability that is required of the member of a community.”

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