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Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person, but not a religious one?
If so, what do you base that self-conception on? Do you pray and meditate daily? Do you enjoy reading books about spirituality, humanistic psychology and self-improvement? Do you identify with the mystical teachings of various Faiths, or mysticism in general? Do you feel attracted to the esoteric traditions, to Eastern religious concepts, to the subjective spiritual experiences you’ve had in life? Are you convinced that something exists beyond the material world? Do you believe you can have an experience of the Divine in nature?
In other words, what is it about you that makes you spiritual?
You’ve probably seen the dozens of online quizzes and questionnaires that say they can identify what makes you spiritual with just a few questions like these. If you haven’t encountered those sites yet, use the search term “spirituality quiz” and you’ll find page after page of websites that promise to determine your “spiritual type,” or help you understand which religion most closely matches your innermost thoughts. One of the most popular sites breathlessly describes itself this way: “Take the Belief-O-Matic™ quiz and answer 20 questions about God, the afterlife, nature and more to find out your true religion!”
As if. Spirituality comes from deep inside, so most of us like to think of our spiritual life as a complex inner condition, a thoughtfully- and deeply-considered mindset, a profound philosophy of being—and not something a five-minute online quiz could possibly analyze, catalog or classify. If you’ve taken these quizzes, you’ve probably taken them with a very large dose of skepticism.
But those quizzes do tell us one thing: that we often, in this era, frame our spirituality as a kind of personal, behind-the-scenes, individual orientation, rather than a group identity. We tend to see spirituality as a way of encountering reality that allows for some appreciation of the forces we can’t perceive with our outer senses. We view ourselves as spiritual because our private thoughts and beliefs—what we feel and think deep inside—reflect a conviction that material explanations don’t exhaust all the possibilities in life. Instead, those of us who conceive of ourselves as spiritual believe that the physical and the spiritual do co-exist, that reason, science and technology can’t always explain everything, that the universe offers us something meaningful beyond this tangible plane.
This is new. From a historical perspective, this unique way of looking at and defining spirituality has just barely gotten started. We now use the term “spiritual” to describe what the word “religious” used to define about us. That radical alteration in usage started very recently, mostly in the past seven decades during the post-World War II period. Many scholars of religion and philosophy believe that the carnage and religious conflicts WWII witnessed and caused have had the effect of largely disconnecting religion from spirituality, and consequently given birth to a burgeoning New Age, non-traditional phenomenon we now think of as “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR. “The New Metaphysicals,” one author calls people who put themselves in this growing SBNR category, while another observer calls them “Spiritual Lone Rangers,” or “Unaffiliateds,” those without any traditionally organized religion but still with a focus on the inner life. Some surveys indicate that as much as a quarter of the population of many Western nations thinks of themselves this way—and almost a third of younger people. That represents a huge change in the way we see ourselves.
While it does indicate a refreshing willingness and ability to think independently, this kind of newly-developed, highly-individualized “Lone Ranger” definition of spirituality also has some downsides. Because it encourages choosing from a smorgasbord of spiritual menu options, it has a tendency to close us off from one another in a social sense. Rather than leading to a unified spiritual community, it can create a lonely series of disconnected silos, separating us from others with similar beliefs. Instead of challenging us to move beyond our own selfish concerns and grapple with the world’s real issues, a self-invented private spirituality can sometimes lead to isolation, complacency and navel-gazing.
Anyone can have deep thoughts all alone, or enjoy a beautiful sunrise on a peaceful morning and meditate on the spiritual metaphors embodied in it. But those solitary personal experiences don’t often confront us with the bigger global issues of society, or ask us to work in community with others. That’s what true religion does—create a collective environment where different, diverse people come together to fight injustice and poverty and war and racism; build a collaborative group of spiritually-attuned souls who can love and support one another; challenge us to face the struggles of life and death together; and conduct an ongoing, learning-based and ultimately unifying engagement with others who just might happen to disagree with our view of the world. Religion brings people together. It gives us a safe place to share our views and hear the views of others, and to maybe modify or change our views as a result. It offers us a discipline, a practice. It allows us to become part of a larger tradition, a wider community and a true spiritual movement. It ushers us into a workshop of the soul, where we can develop and change under the tutelage and influence of others. It takes us away from the narrow confines of the self.
That rich, provocative, fulfilling and challenging interaction with humanity, currently missing from many of our isolated lives, has enormous psychological and spiritual benefits. It gives us love, connection and context, embracing us with a diverse, extended community and a collective sense of spirituality. It challenges us. It offers our inner life an outer purpose:
All the holy ones of God have tried with heart and soul to spread the light of love and unity throughout the world, so that the darkness of materiality might disappear and the light of spirituality might shine forth among the children of men. Then would hate, slander and murder disappear, and in their stead love, unity and peace would reign. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 120-121.
In this series of essays on spirituality, we’ll attempt to discover what this new brand of contemporary spirituality really means, and see if we can answer these important questions: Is it possible to lead a spiritual life by myself? Does the decline of religion mean I’m forced to invent my own sense of spirituality? What happens when I do? Can I find a spiritual community that doesn’t compromise my principles? Where can I turn when my current spiritual community doesn’t meet my needs? What do the Baha’i teachings say about spirituality, both individually and collectively?
Stay tuned as we explore the path of the spirit and try to walk it together.
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