F. Neil Folks: Spirituality: What is it?


Spirituality. A word that seems to be thrown about a lot these days, and used in many contexts, a word that the modern world uses a lot as it struggles with religious fanaticism on the one hand and religious indifference on the other. A word used much as man struggles to find her/his own purpose and meaning in the cosmos.

"I am spiritual but not religious. I get my strength from spiritual inspiration, not from the church. I feel closer to the Creator in nature than in a religious institution." What does all this mean, and can we give it some clarity and articulate what we really mean by spirituality?

Frequently, spirituality and religion are used interchangeably, yet both have separate meanings and can be complimentary as well. The spiritual story of humanity is at least 70,000 years old. Formal religion has existed for a mere 4,500 years. Spirituality seems to be more central to the human experience than religion.

Quoting from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary on the definition of spiritual: Of, or consisting of, spirit, incorporeal; Of the intellectual and higher endowments of the mind - pointing to an inner authority - and spirit being the breath of life from a supernatural source. Religion, quoting the same source: The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship - indicating an outer authority.

Thus, spiritual seems to be something emanating from within the human body, from our core, our very essence, the inner authority. Today's religion has become more of a human construct of how to be: rules, doctrines and dogmas, and purity and perfection codes, the outer authority, that Creator's love and attention must be earned (performance codes).

The two, spirituality and religion, have gone separate directions. The religious institutions have too long insisted on this outer authority, from top down on the pyramid of authority. The process of earning seems to give way to the overwhelmingly passive and even passive-aggressive nature of many churchgoers. The worship is reduced to a black and white encountering; the action is pretty much transmuted into various forms of self-sacrifice and moral heroics.

In the spiritual process, it is the experience that directs our thoughts and actions. This experience is something that can't be fully explained in any human language. The mystery of the cosmos is far beyond any human understanding or theology. We know that something strange or mysterious has occurred within us, often referred to as "the inner workings of the spirit." Often, this inner feeling can be at its strongest in nature, or in a contemplative setting. Spirituality counteracts a world filled with scarcity, judgment and fear.

We let go and give it to the great inner spirit to direct us fully. To do so requires that we "Go inside and know for yourself!" As Jesus graphically puts it, prayer is "going to your private room and shutting the door and [acting] in secret" (Matthew 6:16). The Creator sees in secret (within the heart). The "law is already written on our hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33). Oftentimes, we already knew it, but it did not become conscious or real for us until something or someone brought the wisdom into focus. It takes the inner conviction and the outer authority to bring about the spiritual wisdom. The journey into the mystery of Creator is necessarily a journey into the "unfamiliar" ("Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality," Richard Rohr). Our relationship with the Creator is bound up with one another and the whole created order.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.