This is an excerpt from the message I gave at the Canton UU church this morning:
A couple of months ago, my cousin posed an interesting question about spirituality on Facebook. He said, if my memory serves, that the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” has become a cliché, and he's not even sure if all the people who say that really know what it means. What is the distinction, really, between religion and spirituality, and what is it about religiosity that makes people want to shy away from it?
I've been thinking a lot about that question ever since he posted it. First of all, it occurred to me that I don't even really know what those words mean, so I started my search for enlightenment, like a true English major, with the dictionary.
I learned that, up until fairly recently, spiritual and religious were considered synonymous; for many centuries, they both meant of the church. However, the roots of the words are pretty different. Spiritual comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning of breathing, of the spirit.
Religious, on the other hand, comes from the Latin root religionem, meaning respect for what is sacred or reverence for the gods. Religionem may, in turn, have descended from the roots legere, meaning read, and re meaning again, implying that religion involves the close reading and study of sacred texts. Other etymologists, however, think it comes from the verb religare, to bind fast, as to an obligation.
So religion could be considered a focus on what is outside – a god or gods, a tradition, or a belief system developed by other people. And spirituality is a focus on what is inside of us – our minds, our souls, our spirits.
So in answer to my cousin's question, how come people seem so eager to eschew religion for spirituality? I think part of it is that people have started defining religion in negative terms. Maybe people equate religion with dogma, with blindly following, with choosing not to think for themselves. And I think those can be part of a religion if we let them be. But I think another part of what makes people wary about the idea of being religious is that sense of obligation, and the moral imperatives that go along with it.
And that gave me a revelation about my own religion. Unitarian Universalism might not have a creed or a holy book or a bunch of traditions, but it does have moral imperatives. People joke that while other religions have the ten commandments, Unitarian Universalists live by the seven suggestions. I, however, don't think that could be further from the truth. Unitarian Universalism has a very definitive set of obligations, of challenges. And in a lot of ways, those challenges are trickier than say, a set of commandments, because they're not thou shalt nots, they're thou shalts. The seven principles are a list of ideals to strive for, and you'll never be done striving.
My friend Maya has a mantra that goes something like “I'm doing the best I can, and I can be doing better.” And that's really the clarion call of Unitarian Universalism. Because no matter how good a job you're doing of respecting the worth and dignity of every person, no matter how well you take care of the interdependent web of which we are all a part, you can always be doing better. And our congregations, at their best, are places where we come to challenge ourselves and each other to do better.
I think you've all heard somebody say this at one point, and I used to be one of them. If you don't believe in heaven or hell, then why make good moral choices? I mean, working the ten commandments or the seven principles or what have you is really hard work; if you don't believe you'll be rewarded or punished for what you're doing, why not just take the easy way out? Most Unitarian Universalists don't believe in the traditional ideas of heaven or hell, so why do we care so much about following these seven - frankly very difficult – mandates? Well, I've come to think that people who don't believe in the traditional ideas of heaven or hell have even more of an impetus to do good stuff because most of us think this life's the only one we've got, and we damn well better work our butts off to create the world in which we want to live, in which we want our kids to live. Just in case there's no prize at the end of this race, let's treat the race we're running as the prize.