There are various definitions of what the terms “spiritual” and “religious” mean. For me, “spiritual” refers to the human intuition that life is more than it appears to be. In other words, when we add up all the parts of ourselves and of the world around us that science opens up to us, the “sum” of those parts doesn’t really begin to scratch the surface of how we experience our own humanity. We appear to ourselves to be more than the sum of our parts. And that sense of “more” is intimately connected to our need to make our life meaningful. For most of human history, that sense of “more” has pointed us toward the transcendent: that if we wish to penetrate the meaning of human life, somehow we must access a dimension of reality that cannot be directly observed, but that has been genuinely experienced by spiritual explorers throughout human history. It is a dimension of reality that seems to be anchored within ourselves but also seems anchored outside ourselves. I think when most people speak of “spiritual” and “spirituality”, they are speaking of this dimension of experience that longs for meaning and intuits that there is more to life than can be quantified. I believe this sense of “more” is not an accident — I believe that it is a part of us for a reason, that it is present to motivate us to undertake a spiritual exploration (I am indebted to Marcus Borg, who wrote about this sense of “More” in his book, The Heart of Christianity).
In my own Christian tradition, we find some intimations of this way of speaking of spirituality — what I like to call “first spirituality”. In the Acts of the Apostles, a story is told of St. Paul’s visit to ancient Athens, a place he had never been before. Having toured the city, he began a speech to a group of people by saying, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” (Acts 17:22–23a). For Paul, this altar to an unknown god was a testament to what I am here calling first spirituality, a symbol of a spiritual longing that could not yet be described or made substantial. Elsewhere, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20a). While Paul writes these words in the context of a passage in which he is unfortunately taking a rather hard line against those who do not see God the way Paul does, his insight is nonetheless important: as we look at the world around us, and as science continues to open up for us the breath-taking beauty and complexity of the universe, we should properly be overcome by a sense of awe, a sense that there is more to this than meets the eye, a sense that the universe and the life within it are meaningful. This is all part of first spirituality, a sense of something more that is waiting to be named.
To define “spiritual” in the way that I have leaves the term with a rather amorphous quality. I am speaking of our spiritual sense as just that: a sense, an intuition, an intimation. As we become aware of this intuition, we begin to be brought out of ourselves, and we seek to give some substance to this sense, as Paul is seeking to do for the ancient Athenians. One way to think about it is to close our eyes. By surrendering our vision, we cut ourselves off from the faculty that probably gives most of us our greatest sense of the world being substantial. We cannot see the world around us, but we “feel” its presence. Yet, we are challenged to describe what the world we feel looks like. If we imagine that we have never been able to see, and thus can’t rely on the memory of seeing, then we can begin to understand the magnitude of what we are facing: we know that the world is more than the darkness we see, yet we cannot say exactly what that world is like. If our blindness is not the result of a physical problem that renders our eyes inoperable, but rather simply the result of never having opened our eyes, then the possibility of acting on this sense that there is more to the world than we perceive in darkness remains active. All we would need to do is learn to open our eyes and see what is there.
It is no accident that, in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, there are seven stories of Jesus healing blind people — the single most often-cured condition in the gospels. If we recognize that these healing stories are just as much parables as are the teaching stories of Jesus, and that therefore the meaning of these stories is at least as important as the stories themselves, then we can easily see that, within the Christian tradition, Jesus is seen as the “light of the world” who opens people’s eyes so that they are able to see that which they did not see before. These stories are not so much about making people’s eyes work again as they are about helping people to perceive spiritual truths of which they had been previously unaware.
This brings us to religion. The word itself, in English, comes from a Latin word that means “to connect”. Thus, religion is basically a path that seeks to connect this spiritual sense — this “first spirituality” — to something substantial. Whereas first spirituality is an amorphous intuition that reaches out toward meaning, religion is what spirituality takes hold of in order to pursue its quest. If spirituality asks, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What does my life mean?”, religion provides both the tools or practices by means of which these questions can be explored, as well as a framework for the exploration. Religion is how we begin to open our eyes, allowing us to begin to see what we previously only sensed, and providing us an interpretive framework within which to make sense of that which we are starting to see. To use yet another metaphor, first spirituality is a cord with a plug at the end and religion is the receptacle that completes the connection and allows meaning to flood into our lives.
Of course, if religion connects us to meaning, then it is natural to ask about the source of this meaning. A connector must connect us to something, to a source of some kind. If religion is the receptacle that first spirituality plugs into, then the logical next question is to wonder what generated the voltage flowing through the receptacle.
For most of human history, our explorations of first spirituality have led us to the conclusion that there is an Other, who is at once remote and intimate, in whom the meaning of our life is to be found — the source of the voltage. Of course, various human beings and communities have chosen to describe that Other in very different ways. And some have chosen to acknowledge that Other, and then to leave it alone, choosing not to say too much about it (Buddhism, for example). Despite these differences, there is perhaps one thing all have agreed upon with respect to this Other: that our ability to describe the Other is necessarily severely limited. Indeed, until relatively recently, we generally agreed that the only way to even speak of this Other was by way of metaphor and analogy, through the use of symbolic language that could suggest something to us that was deeply true about this Other, but could not provide a direct, straight-forward description. It turns out that religion, having given us the tools to connect to this Other and a symbolic, interpretive framework through which we are able to make some sense of this connection, turns us back to something less certain, returning us to the realm of spirituality.
The Hebrew Bible speaks beautifully of this second spirituality into which religion drops us: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:33b–34a). This is a passage that imagines a relationship of connection at the level of the heart (the metaphoric center of a person) that transcends religious law and instruction. St. Paul, too, speaks of this at length when he insists that our relationship with God must, in the end, be rooted in grace rather than law (argued most clearly in his Letter to the Romans). This second spirituality is different than the first spirituality with which we started. It carries with it a sense that our questions of meaning have been answered by connection to the Other, and yet the deepest answers can’t quite be put into words.
St. Paul, in the passage from Acts I quoted above, is seeking to make a religious connection for the Athenians, to take an amorphous first spirituality symbolized by the altar to an unknown god and plug it in to something more specific, a framework that would allow meaning to flow and make the unknown more known, leading to second spirituality. After mentioning this altar to an unknown god at the beginning of his speech to the Athenians, Paul goes on to say,
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (Acts 17:23b–28)
Paul is clearly attempting to build on what he knows is a foundation of human longing by connecting it to the understanding of God that arose within the Jewish tradition of which Paul was a part, and ultimately to his experience of Jesus. Indeed, Paul suggests in this passage that human beings are designed to take this journey, that is, to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.”
I want to be clear here that I am not attempting to argue that the Christian tradition alone can make this connection. The Athenians whom Paul was addressing did already have a rich philosophical and religious tradition, though Greek religion has not survived into our own time as a living tradition. Paul clearly believed that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided something that the Greeks were groping for but had not yet found, and that Greek religion was not a path that would enable them to find it. In other words, Paul doubted the ability of the Greek tradition to make an authentic connection with the transcendent Other. But I don’t want to get lost in Paul’s own religious biases. Rather, I would simply like to appreciate what is operating at the heart of Paul’s thought, namely, the first spirituality that I have been speaking of as a natural and even necessary part of the human experience.
Even as Paul believes strongly that the Judeo-Christian tradition is uniquely positioned to give an authentically religious focus to the first spirituality of the Athenians (and, for that matter, everyone else), Paul still recognizes that religion can only take us so far. He uses the word “mystery” a number of times in his writing, always with the conviction that something important has been revealed with the coming of Christ, but also equally with the conviction that there is much that is not understood. In one of his letters, he writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). What I take from this is that even when first spirituality is plugged into religion and the mystery of our life and the universe begins to open up a bit, we only ever know in part. As our eyes begin to open, we still see dimly. When Paul speaks of a time when we will “see face to face” and “know fully”, he is not speaking of this life that we are living right now. This lingering sense of mystery, this partial knowledge and limited vision, is the second spirituality to which religion properly leads us, a space of humility that must be left open in us. It is a state of knowing and not knowing at the same time, a state of being connected to the intimate yet transcendent Other without claiming too much.