Every piece collected here touches on transcendence, but not all are explicitly religious. Reading, I was reminded of friends who say “I’m spiritual, not religious.” You’ve written elsewhere that you’re averse to the word “spiritual,” in the sense that you don’t like seeing your books filed in the Spirituality section of libraries and bookstores. Why is that?
Because I’m a curmudgeon. Here’s this word that millions of people find lovely and liberating — an alternative to all that seems calcified about religion, and what do I do? I complain. I think that in nine out of ten cases “spirituality” is a con — not a con by the person invoking it, but a con on that person. It offers the illusion of individual choice, as if our beliefs, or our rejection of belief, could be formed in some pure Ayn Randian void. For better and worse we make our beliefs and live our beliefs together. That’s what you get with the word “religion,” which means to tie, to bind. You may not want to be bound! I don’t. But we are. We’re caught up in a great, complicated web of belief and ritual and custom. That’s what I’m interested in, not the delusion that I’m some kind of island.
Update from a reader:
I guess I get what Mr. Sharlet means, but some of us don’t see the matter as being one of spirituality “vs.” religion. In the way that I look at it, faith has to be the deepest activity of “religion.”
Faith is that eternal ongoing journey for we mortal beings toward “Truth.” Spirituality can be another way of saying that, without getting bogged down in human prejudices toward particular religions. (If one thinks there might be other conscious life forms “out there” in our vast universe, does one assume they all have the “right” religion, or does one wonder how they approach their own journeys toward the ineffable Light?).
I get what Mr. Sharlet means about human responsibility via practical, proven means of association – aka religion. But religion has also had a lot to answer for over the centuries. Who are the very people who have broken the fundamental and basic promises to God that religious people say they are trying to keep? Often they’re the people who are merely “religious.” They are people who haven’t believed in their own connections to their Creator enough. They tend to be the people who worry about everyone else’s actions first, rather than seeing their challenge as being one of overcoming their own egos -fighting their own spiritual battles with the help of the Grace of God.
Religion can be a great thing if one doesn’t forget the faith that is supposed to live at the core of it. It can be a great thing if it unites the world’s peoples without dividing them. Some of us don’t think this is an impossible dream; it just requires the will to act on these ideals. For this reason, some of us think that focusing on what the various religions might have in common is a good thing: Faith, love, serving humankind (“even” in the form of one’s family and friends), actions that lead toward peace, justice, unity … even, God willing, a big dose of humility now and then.
So I guess while I think that the world would be, on the whole, in trouble without the good that religion (practiced the way it should) imparts, I have no problem discussing the deeper aspects of our relationship to our Creator, and how one lives one’s life, in terms of faith and spirituality – spirituality being another way of talking about “faith” in my view. In my own life, I think I’ve sensed the “Holy Spirit,” aka Love, active in a wide variety of religions; even if those religions might have added some goofy “man-made” ideas. This is why there can be so much confusion with religion – the Holy Spirit doesn’t “care” about man-made boundaries. It “blows” where it will, just as our physical sun shines down on “high” and “low” alike, or on the “good” and the “evil”.