I was struck recently when one of my Facebook friends announced that while she was not particularly religious events had so transpired that she was becoming more spiritual. A simple Google search will reveal there are many different notions around the relationship between religion and spirituality, which are worth checking out but is not the main subject of this discussion, which is more to do with recognising the differences between spiritual and religious and looking to find common ground. Without wanting to appear smug, I would say I am not religious. I am simply a follower of the way of Jesus and that is the only true way. The sort of things often associated with religion, such as keeping certain days and following certain practices do not interest me much and what does is more to do with the heart and relating to God and man. However, I am aware that people have all sorts of views about “G*d” including non-existence and almost all have a spiritual dimension that recognises there is a lot more to life than merely what stares us in the face each day. A couple of years back I wrote a book titled “Theological Musings”. Here is an excerpt that is pertinent to the discussion concerning religion and spirituality …
In the course of my community activism, I have come across and worked with all sorts of religious types as well as those who do not believe in anything that can’t be deduced through reason or via the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch). Some have recalled bad experiences of a religious upbringing and others bring up the question of suffering or the bad things done in the name of religion. Besides addressing at length what I expect to be my main audience (i.e. Christians), I have touched upon other religions also, in particular Judaism and Islam, as well as those who disbelieve, i.e. atheists and agnostics. I have tried to do so respectfully and with sensitivity. That still leaves a sizable group of those who don’t come under any of these categories. In the past, most British people would have regarded themselves as being Christian. In the view of some of the people who particularly influenced me in my early days, most of these would have been Christian in culture only. These were often referred to disparagingly as nominal (i.e. not real) Christians. It was argued that in order to be a real Christian you need to be “born again”, giving your heart to and being a follower of Jesus, “take up your cross and follow Him”, and not to select beliefs according to whim or personal preference.
I tend to be less judgmental these days, leaving it to the Almighty to adjudicate on such matters. Moreover, when it comes to loving one’s neighbour, I find some of my nominal Christian friends do more than some so-called real Christians. I sense there is a sizeable number of nominal Christians still, who typically attend church infrequently, recognize but don’t regularly practice the religious stuff, like praying, and adopt a set of beliefs different to those sound Christians are expected to hold, and at the same time try to live a decent life. The picture has become muddied as the country has become more multi-cultural, along with the introduction of other religions, typically through immigration. Increasingly people have been emboldened to say they have no religion. This has been shown in the 2011 census that revealed a sharp rise in the numbers of such people since the 2001 census.
In recent years, I have come across those who don’t follow a particular religion but believe in the spiritual world and the importance of spirituality, yet stop short of notions of a personal God, with who we could relate. While there will be those sympathetic to a particular religion but not religion in general, the term “New Age movement” may not cover the whole shebang but it will do for the purpose of this discussion. I will use it to cover a group I define along the lines: “that which relates to a complex of spiritual and consciousness-raising movements originating in the 1980s and covering a range of themes from a belief in spiritualism and reincarnation to advocacy of holistic approaches to health and ecology”. Whilst the specific beliefs of people who believe in this way differ considerably, there are a number of common themes. These include adopting a mix-and-match approach to religious choices, in particular favouring eastern religions; subscribing to the opinion all religions lead to God, although usually ill-defined; a rejection of organized religion, especially those that are dogma based, like mainstream Christianity; favouring notions of relative rather than absolute truth, and a recognising the importance of the spiritual dimension in all areas of life.
In my experience as a community activist, there are many folk fitting these criteria who are also community activists that I have had on several occasions been able to work with, often with positive outcomes. Given the priorities of some of these folk, such as our shared interest in holistic mental health, therapeutic gardening, conservation and diversity events, for example, this is not surprising. I learnt early on of the need for wisdom and grace and not belittling their beliefs, despite being tempted to do so given the flaws and for reasons that should be apparent from preceding sections. My mantra remains: irrespective of peoples’ beliefs, we should seek to find common ground, including firstly welcoming some of the spiritual insights they bring in the area of community activism. Secondly, we do well to work together in order to achieve the most benefit for the people we try to help. At the same time, I feel compelled to stand up for what is true and right and not to compromise when it matters. This is something that is not always easy to do and, regrettably, there may come a parting of the ways, but it is at least worth trying