Can you have spirituality without religion? How many times have
you heard someone say (and maybe you’ve said it yourself), “I’m not interested
in religion; I’m interested in spirituality”?
I think I know what people are getting at when they say this. It is possible
to do religious practices—go through the motions—without those practices
coming from or speaking to the heart. For example, you could be going to
Sunday services more in response to the social pressure exerted by the expectations
of family or friends than from your own conviction. But there is a sense
in which this distinction between religion and spirituality is only a half-truth.
The false part of that distinction is the assumption that one can somehow
practice a disembodied spirituality.
Spirituality is a way of seeing that leads to a way of being. Unless you
are somehow “reinventing the wheel” of spirituality, you are getting your
“way of seeing” from a religious tradition. And a “way of being” is an acting
out of that way of seeing eventually requiring some shared expression of
the shared vision. Well, when you are talking shared tradition and shared
expression, of course, you are talking religion. At the same time, religion
is always in the service of spirituality, and without a vibrant spirituality
religion is dry, or even dead.
The genius of that reading from 1 Kings 8 is that it is in touch with these
realities. Here we have Solomon praying at the dedication of the first temple
after he has constructed it. All the religions of the Ancient Near East had
temples, a sacred space in which they understood their god or gods to be
especially present and accessible. Now here is Solomon dedicating Israel’s
first temple in Jerusalem—a magnificent structure built of cedar and stone—and
in his prayer of dedication he is saying in effect, “We know that we cannot
contain you in a box. You are more than any earthly space or structure. But
when we gather here to pray, look down from your heavenly dwelling and bless
us.” Although Israelite spirituality realized that the presence of Yahweh
was more than any human structure could contain, they went right ahead and
constructed the best structure humanly possible to symbolize and relate to
that uncontainable presence.
In Today’s Gospel reading Jesus confronts some of his Jewish peers for allowing
some of their religious traditions to distract them from the essential spirituality
of their Jewish faith. That doesn’t mean that he was attacking the Israelite
religion as a whole. He was trying to reform it.
And when, in the early 6th century of our era, the Italian twins Benedict
and Scholastica got in touch with a new sense of the communal dimension of
Christian spirituality, they invented a new religious structure, the monastic
community. During the subsequent fourteen centuries, Benedictines have had
to labor and pray hard to keep their religion in touch with their spirituality
and their spirituality in tune with their religious practices. The same goes
for us. Solomon, Jesus, Benedict and Scholastica all teach us that religion
without spirituality has no soul, and spirituality without religion has no
body. Religion and spirituality—you can’t have one without the other. If
you think you are pursuing spirituality without religion, it is time to “get