As the very good dlevy notes in his post about the recent Boston event, Jay Michaelson
and I have this ongoing machloket (Torah debate) about religion, spirituality, and a number of other things. As such, the nice folks over at Jbooks.com asked us to write it out–or, rather, for me to respond to a piece of Jay’s.
Here’s what he said:
To define those terms a bit, by “religion” I mean those structures, dogmas, and practices which bind communities together, help people be a little less mean to one another, and provide pre-set ways to be a good, and even holy, person. By “spirituality” I mean almost the polar opposite. Spirituality transgresses existing structures. It doesn’t construct the self—it transforms it, even negates it entirely. And while it, too, is interested in goodness and holiness, its heroes are those who blazed their own paths, and were often deemed rebels in their day….Spiritual people don’t like organized religion because organized religion is someone else’s, and thus to some degree inauthentic.
But the biggest issue, I think, with our cultural moment is in the splitting of “spirituality” from “religion.” This bifurcated language has been around since the 60s or so, but I think it’s become more acute in recent years, as the schism has become more entrenched between a hyper-literalist fundamentalism and a feel-good panacea offering easy steps to enlightenment….It seems to be about the personal, individual journey of the brave individual self—one pictures Jack Kerouac setting out on the road, needing nobody and finding no use in external help.
Yet this picture belies 2,000 years of nuanced theology. The spiritual giants about whom we often talk—Heschel and Rebbe Nahman, St. Theresa and Gandhi, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, the Kabbalists of Safed, Rumi—these were people deeply embedded in a religious tradition. They were certainly brave enough to go deep into the dark, hidden corners of the soul, to meet their own naked heart and the soft murmur of Divine with an openness to hear whatever might be heard, but they did not do so as rogues beholden to no one. They did so as religious adherents, as people who prayed sometimes even if the experience was boring, or uninspired, who followed the tenets of their practice even when it was sometimes inconvenient, who took on strictures even if they weren’t always even sure why they were doing so. They innovated in their thinking and actions, to be sure, but their extraordinary transformation to the people who could offer up such depth came as a result of being pushed by their practice in ways that they might not have pushed themselves.