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Currently there is a bit of contention in the
West when it comes to the terms, “religious” and
“spiritual.” Recent studies on how these terms are
perceived show that, in general, the terms are used
interchangeably, but when people are pressed on the
matter the term “religious” is viewed as being more
rigid and dogmatic than “spiritual,” which is seen as
more holistic and open. When given the choice
between being classified as religious or spiritual,
people tend to prefer the latter, as they find it less
restricting. Thus, one can self-identify as being
spiritual without being religious. Interestingly, the
history of religious writings reflects this idea, as it is
replete with examples of those who are religiously
robust, while being spiritually dead. But what do these
terms actually mean, and how can learning their
meaning help us move forward in life?
In about 100 BCE, a Roman statesman named
Cicero created a Latin philosophic vocabulary. He
traced the term, Religion, to the root word, religari,
which means “to read over again.” Soon after this
others traced the word to ligare- meaning “to bind
together” (as found in the word ligament.) Even though
the origins of the term are unclear, the underlying idea
of strictness is evident: as reading something “over
again” certainly does “bind” one to the text.
To work all of the world’s religions into a
single definition that does justice to each is a daunting,
and perhaps an impossible, task. This is because fitting
all of the various nuances and subtleties of even two
religions into a phrase that one can neatly slip into
their pocket is like capturing all of the various and
unique characteristics of an elephant and a fish in a
few short paragraphs. (Give it a try and you will soon
understand why it has not been successfully done to
date). However, this function of “to bind together” is at
the core of most all definitions of religion.
Spirituality is another term with uncertain
roots; however it is generally agreed that it comes from
spiritus, which is related to spirare, “to breath; the
breath.” In its earliest traceable use, about 100 CE. a
spiritual person was one who was oriented to God. By
the 12th century, the term was connected to one’s
psychological virtue apart from worldly goods. In the
18th and 19th century, its use died but was later
resurrected in the 20th century by French Catholic
writers with its original meaning intact. Today its
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meaning is more connected to human potential and
striving: The Human Spirit. The term’s current
incarnation may partly be due to a resurgence of the
ancient, pantheistic view that states: “Because God is
in all things; we can therefore realize our divine nature
and recognize that we are God.” Here, the orientation
is still to God, but the focus is on the internal God: not
the external.
conceptualization of spirituality into one of three
groups: Exotheistic: one being oriented to the external
God in the hope of becoming more aligned with God’s
will; Pantheistic: realizing that one is God, and;
Humanistic, recognizing one’s potential for selfimprovement apart from any particular belief in God.
Although we lack a practical universal
definition that can capture all religions, the fact that
religion is universal has been well established. What
should be noted is that all religions, from Adventists to
Zoroastrianism, are traceable to a founder. Each
founder had an “experience” that he or she shared with
others: breathing new life into them. Soon, the “way
to the experience” was modified and expanded and
became standardized over time. Whenever a person
wanted to share in the experience, they were then
bound to “the way.” When latter followers of the
founder had their own experiences that differed from
the religion, they established their way to which their
followers were bound. And thus, one religion broke
into many, with each claiming the true connection to
the founder.
With this understanding, we can see that
spirituality can precede religion, can be reciprocally
linked to it, or can stand alone. (Of course there are
many other factors involved in the establishment and
propitiation of a religion, but the general idea here is
sufficient for our purposes of understanding the
Knowing that a spiritual experience can happen
apart from religion, become the foundation of a
religion, or come out of religious traditions, can help
us grow and improve our lives. This knowledge can
help us understand our own faith traditions, be more
open to accepting the religious and spiritual practices
of others, and increase our level of comfort, exploring
new practices as we continue in our own spiritual
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