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Religion and spirituality

by Stephen Hayes

Nowadays a lot of people talk about "religion" and "spirituality" as if there were some kind of opposition between them. The climate of opinion, or Zeitgeist, as it relates to these things, is changing. Many people say that they are not interested in religion, but they are interested in "spirituality". On a pagan newsgroup there has recently been an earnest discussion of "atheist spirituality".

Those who reject "religion" in favour of "spirituality", and those who reject both, often say that "religion" has been responsible for most of the violence in the world, and cite such things as the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunts in 16th-century Germany, and more recent instances of violence where "religion" seems to play a role, at least as a badge of identity -- the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Sudan, Indonesia, Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka and other places.

What do these terms mean, and how did they enter our vocabulary. Is there any way of understanding them?


For generations of English-speaking Christians, religion has meant "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 2:27).

Can these activities truly be said to be responsible for most of the violence in the world, or are we talking about completely different things?

The terms "religion" and "spirituality", as they are used today, are quite recent, and took on their current meanings in modern times. They originated in Western Europe, and the concepts they express are closely bound up with European modernity. "Religion" arose from the sectarian strife that followed the Protestant Reformation, which coincided with Europeans' beginning to travel widely in the world and come across peoples whose morals and manners were different from their own. There were such radical changes in religious orientation in post-Reformation England that there was in effect a diachronic religious pluralism, which led to secularisation, and the comparison of the various forms of Christianity with one another, and shaped to a significant extent the way in which the English were to see other 'religions'. The whole comparative approach to religion was directly related to confessional disputes within Christianity" (Harrison 1990:3).

One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it has been "no salvation outside the Church", now it had become "No salvation without profession of the 'true religion'" - but which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for 'fundamentals', which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the 'fundamentals' were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of "the religions" is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims (Harrison 1990a:63-64).

One effect of this was that Western missionaries, seeking to proclaim the gospel of Christ on other cultures, could often not discern any "religion" among the people they were going to. This was because for them "religion" meant "sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life".

The modern expression 'the religions' found its way into English vocabulary at about the same time as 'religion'. The earliest occurrence is Hooker's _Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie_ (1593), where we find the following usage: 'The Church of Rome, they say... did almost out of all religions take whatsoever had any fair and gorgeous show.' With the publication, twenty years later, of the first edition of Edward Brerewood's _Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions through the Chief Parts of the World_, the plural expression entered common usage. In his preface, Brerewood {sic} explains that there are 'four sorts of Sects of Religion' - Christianity, Mahometanism, Judaism and paganism, making it clear that these 'religions' are species of the generic 'religion'. This fourfold classification of religion was to hold till the end of the century (Harrison 1990a:39).

The key point here is the idea that there is some kind of generic "religion", of which Christianity is one example. So Christianity is seen as one religion among many. Again, for many of the Western missionaries who went to other cultures, Christianity was the "best" religion, or the "only true" religion. And so they often sought to proselytise rather than to evangelise, to get people to convert from one religion to another.

For many premodern people in the world, however, "religion" remained a way of life rather than defined sets of beliefs. The Western mind, with its worldview of modernity, saw "religion" as a distinct phenomenon, which could be separated from the rest of life. This is seen in such Western notions as "separation of church and state", and popularly expressed ideas that religion should not interfere in business, or with a person's "private" life. For the modern mind, life is divided into separate compartments, which should not interfere with or influence each other - work, religion, leisure, politics, sport.

The idea of Hinduism as a "religion" -- as an "ism" -- can illustrate this kind of thinking. The word itself, "Hinduism", is a peculiarly Western construction, and signifies an attempt to impose Western ways of thought on India. Until recently India was in many ways like the pre-Christian Roman empire -- a society of innumerable cults and philosophies and ways of life. Christianity was one of these, and had been since the time that St Thomas the Apostle preached in India. Christians were just as much "Hindu" as Vaishnavites and Shaivites and rural villagers whose cults included nature and local gods.

Under the impact of modernity, this is changing. If Hinduism was not a "religion" before, it is rapidly becoming one, under the influence of the ideology of Hindutva, an aggressive Hindu nationalism that is strongly opposed to other "religions", such as Christianity and Islam, and especially those that promote the social equality of the Dalits, the untouchable castes.


Like "religion", "spirituality" is a word that has developed a distinct modern meaning. In Western Europe in premodern times church leaders were often political leaders as well. Prince bishops governed principalities by virtue of their office, and in history there were conflicts between "church" and "state" over this. There was the investiture controversy, over whether it was the Emperor or the Pope of Rome who should institute people like prince bishops into the temporalities and spiritualities of their office. In the case of a prince bishop, the "temporalities" were the rule over the secular principality, and the "spiritualities" were the symbols of the office of a bishop in the church.

But later "spirituality" came to be applied to certain forms of devotion, or understandings of the life of Christians guided by the Holy Spirit. So people would talk about "the spirituality of the desert fathers", for example, by which they meant the way in which the desert fathers thought Christians ought to live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In this context "spirituality" means much the same as "religion" when St James says that true religion is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keep oneself unspotted from the world. In this sense spirituality could also be distinguished from "religion", in the modern sense, if by "spirituality" one means a way of life rather than a defined set of beliefs, or "confession".

The emperors participated personally in the care of the needy, e.g. by anointing lepers or sharing meals with the hungry. This must have provided them with political public relations benefits, but it also represents a crucial emphasis in Orthodox spirituality. To be complete, a charitable work cannot deal only with structures and institutions but must involve a direct relation between persons, who bear the divine image. Thus Romanus not only funds the feeding of the masses but also invites a few at a time to his own table. Whether he does this out of genuine compassion or only from a desire to appear compassionate, he shows his respect for a spiritual and ethical principle which his society values highly (Harrison 1990b:24).

I have found, however, that Western Christians often have a different understanding of "spirituality". On several different occasions such people have said to me, "I find Orthodoxy fascinating. We can learn a lot from Orthodox spirituality." The implication is that spirituality is something that can somehow be separated from the rest of Orthodoxy, from all the bits that they don't like. But if there is any spirituality in Orthodoxy, it is certainly not something separate and separable from the rest of the Orthodox faith. Spirituality perhaps may be likened to the blood in the body -- remove it, and the body is dead.

There can be noticed all through Orthodox history the existence of a spirituality which we might call 'evangelical'. This spirituality takes care to identify Christian life neither with the rigorous asceticism of the Desert, nor with ritual worship; it lays stress on the spirit and virtues of the Gospel, on the necessity of following Christ, on charity towards the poor and afflicted. St John Chrysostom is the most eminent representative of this trend. It prevailed in ancient Constantinopolitan monasticism, owing to the rules of St Basil, who was both evangelically and humanistically minded, and of St Theodore the Studite (A monk of the Eastern Church 1978:4-5).

Nowadays, however, what many people seem to mean by "spirituality" is some kind of indefinable spookiness, apart from religion, or faith or the Holy Spirit. Father Alexander Schmemann had a discussion with his wife and Father Thomas Hopko about an Anglican priest, a psychotherapist, who wanted to convert to Orthodoxy and "help" in the field of psychotherapy.

I need to sit down and carefully think through my instinctive aversion to this whole area with which others are becoming increasingly obsessed. What stands behind it? What is its attraction? Tentatively (but I might be quite wrong), it seems to me that the cult of psychotherapy is difficult to reconcile with Christianity because it is often based on a monstrous egocentricity, on preoccupation with one's self. It's the ultimate expression and product of "I, myself," i.e. of the sin from which one must be saved. Psychotherapy reinforces that basic egocentricity, which is its basic principle. When psychotherapy penetrates religious consciousness, it distorts it. The result is often a search for "spirituality" as a distinct entity. Hence, the darkness and narrow-mindedness of many spiritualists, hence the confusion of teaching, pastoral work, care of souls, with psychologizing. The principle on which Christianity is built -- "Christ saves, revives, cures" -- is opposed by "What saves and cures is understanding one's self." "To see one's self in the light of God" is replaced by "to understand oneself and be cured." (Schmemann 2000:104).

The "search for spirituality as a distinct entity" is often characteristic of Western Christians who toy with the idea of becoming Orthodox. Sooner or later, however, they will discover that in Orthodoxy it is not like this at all. Then they will either turn aside and look for "spirituality" somewhere else, or else they will see that Orthodoxy is holistic, that is, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that spirituality cannot be separated from the rest of the Christian life. Neither "religion" nor "spirituality" is enough to describe or explain the fullness of Orthodoxy.

But Orthodox Christians themselves can be afflicted with this diseased spirituality.

The church is not a religious establishment, but the presence in the world of a saved world. But so often the church is entangled in problems that in faith are nonexistent and harmful. 'Spirituality,' 'churchiness' -- dangerous and ambiguous concepts. So often many people whom I know as seekers of spirituality were narrow-minded, intolerant and dull, joyless, quite often accusing others of not being spiritual enough. They were often the center of their conscience, not Christ, not the Gospel, not God. In their presence, one does not bloom; just the opposite, one crouches. Pride, egocentricity, self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness; but then, what is the use of spirituality? One will say to me that this is not genuine spirituality, that it is pseudo-spirituality. But where is true spirituality to be found? -- Maybe in the desert or in lonely monastic cells. Yet the spirituality found in the church somehow frightens me. There is nothing worse than professional religiosity. All this fingering of a rosary in the midst of church gossip, the whole style of sighs and lowered eyes, seems too often terribly fake (Schmemann 2000:32).

When we speak of "religion" or "spirituality", therefore, we need to be careful about what we mean by them. There is a danger of misunderstanding, and being misunderstood.


A monk of the Eastern Church. 1978. Orthodox spirituality. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Harrison, Peter. 1990. "Religion" and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dewey: 291.0942

Harrison, Verna. 1990. Poverty in the Orthodox tradition, in St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 34(1). Page 15-47.

Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the life of the world: sacraments and orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. Dewey: 264.019

Schmemann, Alexander. 2000. The journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. Dewey: 281.9092

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Created: 26 September 2001
Updated: 2 August 2014