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By:
Rabbi Rami Shapiro

The Difference Between Spirituality and Religion?

I know this sounds basic, but what is the difference between religion and spirituality?
Religion is about belonging, community, shared values, shared rituals, and mutual support. Spirituality is about living life without a net, forever surrendered to reality and meeting each moment with curiosity, wonder, gratitude, justice, humility, and love. The two are not antithetical. Religion is often a container in which spiritual practices are preserved and passed on. Some people find the container as helpful as what it contains and choose to belong to a specific religion. Others simply take what they need from the containers and fashion their own way. I do a bit of both.

I’ve been doubting my own faith lately. It’s not that I’m trying to doubt; I can’t help it. My pastor says doubt is evil. Is this true?
I think doubt is essential to faith. People want security and surety; we want to feel safe, if not in this world then in the next. But there is no security, surety, or safety. There is just the wildness of life lived in the shadow of death. We never know what will happen next. Religion should provide us with the humility to know we do not know; the wisdom to see through what we claim to know; and the courage to unhesitatingly and lovingly embrace this very moment, knowing it may well be our last. Don’t use faith to shut out doubt; use doubt to open up faith.

I think of myself as religious, and I go to church regularly. My girlfriend insists she’s “spiritual but not religious” but can’t explain what this means. Can you?
I can tell you what it means to me: People who are SBNR (spiritual but not religious) are seekers open to any teacher, teaching, or technique that cultivates compassion and justice in themselves and the world. They aren’t concerned with religious claims to exclusivity, or theological arguments about the afterlife, and who is saved and who is damned. They find wisdom in both Christ and Krishna and refuse to be limited to or by either. Don’t ask your girlfriend to explain SBNR. Ask her to share her deepest values. It is there that you may find common ground.

What should I make of Eckhart Tolle? Oprah loves him, but he doesn’t come from a religion, so how do I know I can trust him?
Trust the teaching, not the teacher. If the teaching and the practices associated with it enhance the welfare of person and planet, it doesn’t matter if a teacher speaks for a religion or not. Regarding spiritual teachers in general, as long as a teacher shows respect and compassion for others, encourages inquiry, focuses attention on the teaching rather than on herself, and teaches others to do the same, you can trust her. If not, move on. As for Eckhart Tolle, in particular, I know him personally, and he is this type of teacher.

My neighbor insists that miracles prove his religion is true. I don’t believe in miracles. Do you?
I do. Miracles, for me, are ordinary events to which we assign extraordinary significance. This is why living a deeply spiritual life — a life lived with awe and reverence — is a life filled with miracles. It isn’t that something out of the ordinary happens but that we come to see the ordinary itself as miraculous. Religions are filled with stories of great souls doing extraordinary things that violate the laws of nature. We call them miracles, but they are better called parables — teaching tales that are spiritually true without having to be literally true. When we insist that parables be taken literally, we aren’t believing in miracles but in magic.

All religions seem to say the same thing. Why don’t we just reduce them to one universal religion?
Religions are like sports. Basketball, hockey, soccer, and football, for example, are four ways of moving a roundish object from one end of a playing surface to another, yet some people love hockey while others prefer football. We have different religions for the same reason we have different sports: as a species, we are too creative to limit ourselves to only one game.

Take this a bit further. In soccer you can’t pass the ball with your hands, while in basketball you can’t pass it with your feet. Someone who insists on kicking the ball during a basketball game will be thrown off the court. Rules matter in sports, and without them, the game can’t be played. The same is true with religion. All religions try to move you from narrow mind to spacious mind, from self to soul, and each has its own rules for doing so. It would be wrong to insist on playing one religion by the rules of another.

On the other hand, just as it would be silly to forbid people who love hockey from playing soccer, it should be silly to forbid Catholics from playing Buddhism, or Muslims from playing Judaism. The more sports you play, the more fun life becomes. It’s the same with religion.

If people don’t believe that Jesus is Christ, they must believe he is a liar or a madman. Is Jesus God or not?
Is Jesus God? Yes. And so are we. The difference between Jesus and us is that he realized his true identity and lived out the obligations that come with that realization — loving God/reality, loving our neighbor, caring for the least among us, and challenging injustice — and we haven’t. As far as Jesus’ being a liar or a madman, why are these my only choices? I think Jesus was a Jewish mystic, prophet, poet, and storyteller who used language metaphorically to awaken us to our true nature and how to live from it.

If you were riding with me in an elevator and had 30 seconds to explain to me what you believe about God, what would you say?
I’d say, “God is reality — all that ever was, is, and will be. God is intrinsically creative and over time, reality evolves life forms with the potential to know the non-duality of God, woman, man, and nature. When they do, their lives are steeped in love. We humans have this potential, and through contemplative practices, we can realize our true nature as God and live our lives ‘doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with, in, and as God’ (Micah 6:8).” I’d then use the remaining seconds to smile smugly before exiting the elevator. I suggest that if you and I find ourselves in an elevator together, you should ask me about my dog rather than my God.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. His most recent book is The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness (Jewish Lights). To send him questions, email rabbirami@SpiritualityHealth.com. His online column is at SpiritualityHealth.com/RabbiRami.