Religion and spirituality

Editor’s note: The premier benefit of working for a college is the opportunity to take classes. This semester, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are deemed canonical and pertinent to Motu Proprio, excerpts will appear here under the TH200 tag after submission and grading. Formal errors both accidental and deliberate—such as the mandated use of “MLA style”—will be corrected, but the substance will be presented intact.

We are tasked to consider: “Is the idea of approaching religion through meaning and spirituality making sense to you? … What is your experience?”

Before approaching the first question, we must settle upon working definitions of its key terms, each of which has intuitive content that nevertheless evades precise definition.

First, “religion,” which we might tether to the notion of “holiness.” 1 Religion in abstracto, I would suggest, is the intuitive sense that the visible world is somehow incomplete or corrupt, but that there is something out there beyond our immediate vision that is complete and incorrupt (“holy”), and that it is possible for us to come into some kind of relationship with this holiness. 2 And it would seem to follow from that definition that any particular religion is a concrete, discrete, and distinctive set of beliefs built on the faith, observations, and inferences that arise from, and are prompted and contextualized by, that initial religious intuition. 3

That definition is, confessedly, ipse dixit. But it does have to commend it the “goldilocks” advantage: It affords the word content that is tolerably-precise without being intolerably-restrictive. By contrast, definitions such as “a virtue that leads man to render to god the homage that is due to him” 4 are too restrictive for an abstract definition, excluding polytheistic and non-theocentric religions, while those such as “man’s attempt to understand himself” 5 are too vague, sweeping in everything from science to what Ratzinger calls “mystical religion,” 6 the territory of the “spiritual but not religious.”

Second, “spirituality”—an especially-slippery term in the religious lexicon. McBrien helpfully defines it as one’s “way of being a Christian,” 7, and one could substitute any religion for “Christian.” Spirituality, then, is the believer’s response to religion. It comprises the forms that bridge the believer’s internal life with her external praxis, such as liturgy, devotions, disciplines, styles of prayer, emphases, attitudes, tone, and even sensibility. Thus, one religion may encompass any number of spiritualties: A Sister of Providence, a Dominican brother, and a member of Opus Dei share their religion, but each has a different spirituality. Likewise, Jews Hasidic and Sephardic, and Muslims Sufi and Salafi.

N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian seems to have in mind a different understanding of the word “spirituality.” In Wright’s usage (and I suspect in much usage—whence “slippery”), “spirituality” seems to be an ill-defined catchall term for anything that pertains to that which transcends the external, superficial, and immediately-visible world. Might we not bow to this usage, taking it as a gauzy superset of “religion”? I think not. If a word becomes vague and hazy, its content becomes shrouded in fog, “blurring the outline and covering up all the details,” 8 leaving its meaning precarious. Worse yet: Language and thought may each corrupt the other. 9 Mushy, indefinite writing not only betrays but encourages mushy, indefinite thinking. Words should connote ideas, 10, and distinct words should connote distinct ideas; when we allow words to bleed haphazardly into one another, ambiguity breeds, making the words less distinct, less definite, and therefore less useful, leaving us and our progeny less able to express thought, and, indeed, therefore, to think. A writer cannot be blamed for ambiguities in an unavoidable word as he finds it, but he should aspire to confer upon it greater precision and certainly should not leave it in a worse state. 11

Maintaining this clear demarcation between religion and spirituality will also allow us to respond confidently to the notion that something “may be true for you, but not for everyone.” 12 Whereas my proposed definition of religion makes religion in some senses objective, insofar as it is concerned with that which is true, vel non, spirituality is inherently subjective, and is shaped and mediated as much by things such as culture and individual psychology as by the substantive content of one’s faith. We are able debate a question of religion such as whether there is a God or whether Jesus of Nazareth is that Adonai, eternal logos of Adonai, and Son of Adonai because on either side of such questions are exclusive claims about what is true. 13 Of their very nature, such questions have correct answers, even if we may for now only strive to glimpse and explain them “as through a glass darkly,” 14 and therefore disagree on the answer. That answer, though, cannot be true for me and not for you, any more than absolute zero may be 0 kelvin for me and yet 15 kelvin for you. In sharp contrast, the answer to questions of spirituality (in the sense that I have suggested it must be understood) are firmly in the category “de gustibus non est disputandum.” We cannot debate a question of spirituality such as whether Taizé meditation, Gregorian chant, or “Christian rock music” most effectively lifts the Christian’s heart to God, or whether the Benedictines or the Franciscans have the “right” approach to religious life, because such things are subjective. Of their very nature, subjective questions cannot have “correct” answers. My answers to such questions may well be “true for me and not for you,” just as vanilla may be the preferred flavor of pudding for me and yet chocolate for you.

Given this understanding of the key terms, it would not be apparent to me that religion can be “approached … through” spirituality in the intended sense, because the latter is a component of the former. One can only learn so much about an engine through a detailed examination of the radiator block.

Lastly, the question asks us to discuss our own experience. … My spirituality is a product of my upbringing and my personality, as filtered through my religious and intellectual commitments. While I am a Catholic by confession (and a Roman Catholic by affiliation), it is fair to say that I remain a high-church Anglican by spirituality. This, too, evades precise definition, but as an impressionistic sketch, I can subscribe to what Marvin O’Connell says of the Church of England as the Oxford Movement found it: “The Church called her children to calm, rhythmic worship where Deity was encountered with decent English moderation”; its piety, “gently-encouraged but … not insist[ed] upon,” was “austere and self-effacing,” its mien “dignified, intellectually-respectable. It stood above the vulgar exhibitionism … which has traditionally made the Anglo-Saxon writhe with embarrassment.” 15  This may or may not be a sensible way to approach spirituality, still less the best, but in view of what I have said above, I think that it is probably mistaken to think that spirituality is chosen. To the contrary, I should imagine that one’s spirituality arises organically, instinctively, and therefore to a great extent uncontrollably, and even when we attempt to impose a different one, à la Wright’s dictator concreting over the natural springs, 16 it seems unlikely to stick. 


  1. Cf. Richard McBrien, Catholicism 365 (2d ed.,1994); Karl Rahner & Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary 402-04 (1965).
  2. Cf. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense 24 (2006) [Editor’s note: an assigned text for this class].
  3. Cf. Jn 6:44.
  4. 12 New Catholic Encyclopedia 57 (2d ed. 2003)
  5. Charles Bailey, Beyond the Present and the Particular 117 (1984).
  6. Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI 100-01 (2008).
  7. McBrien, supra note 1, at 1020 (emphasis added); accord Kathleen Fischer & Thomas Hart, Christian Foundations 163 ff. (rev’d ed.; 1995) [Editor’s note: our principal textbook for this class].
  8. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language in Princeton Readings in Political Thought 598 (Cohen & Fermon, eds. 1996).
  9. See id.
  10. See id., at 594.
  11. See generally Henry Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage 114-15, 130-33, 230-31 (1950).
  12. Cf. Wright, supra note 2, at 26-27.
  13. See Rom 10:9; Jn 1:1, 14; 1 Jn 4:15; CCC ¶ 446.
  14. 1 Cor 13:12.
  15. Marvin O’Connell, The Oxford Conspirators22-23, 39 (1969)
  16. Wright, at 17-18.