A sundance brother recently asked my views on the differences between religion and spirituality for possible inclusion in his doctoral thesis. An interesting question, I thought, as the common assumption is that religion is spiritual, that the two terms are interchangeable, even synonymous. To question that is to ask if religions actually lack a true spiritual foundation. This is not only a large topic, but borderline heretical in some circles. To do it justice requires an exhaustive study of the teachings and actions of literally every known religion and every nonreligious, but spiritual practice, including an extensive lexicon, all of which are well beyond the scope of this article and capacity of its author. But so what, let's consider these two phenomena anyway through the device of some admittedly homemade definitions, loaded with limitation and opinion.
As I see it, all religions throughout time and throughout the world, are human-made constructs that attempt to define some higher power, both temperamentally and attributively, in what are essentially self-serving terms. From this, a hierarchy usually evolves, what we call a "clergy" in this country; professional social engineers. Another common characteristic of corporate religion is to impose itself at large, and sometimes violently as witnessed in the Inquisitions prosecuted by the Catholic Church spanning some 600 years, to the recent exploits of the Talibahn in Afghanistan, to a number of Christian churches gleefully acting as Indian reservation agencies in the late 1800s US. The inconsistencies here of preaching love while advancing war or trampling other cultures under foot are not at all limited to these religions, either. The Pews of History are filled with heroic tales of religious wars, religion-promulgated, influenced, or condoned imperialism to the lesser sins of religious chauvinism, to innumerable ethical scandals.
I think it's fair to say that virtually all religions have exceeded the bounds of their legitimate purpose, whatever they might claim it to be. How many nations associate themselves with a particular brand of religion, even today? More than we might realize. Some overtly in their constitutions; England and the Church of England, Israel as a Jewish State, and Iran as an Islamic State. Others putting considerable effort into becoming constitutionally mandated; the USA, where religion and state are supposedly separate, yet there has been a steady and aggressive calling to baptize the nation into Born Again status, even before it was born the first time. And it has had an effect: Witness the litmus test of every candidate having to proclaim some form of Christianity to be acceptable leadership material, and what about national holidays founded in Christian mythology; Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter?
In 1993 I interviewed Deepak Chopra for publication. Now, whenever I spoke with the more interesting personalities, there was usually an agenda or two imbedded in the interview. Chopra's interview was no exception. And so, I asked him if he thought religions had helped or hindered the growth of human consciousness. I honestly had no idea if he would even take on the question, or cut me off short. You decide.
"R...As a very general statement, do you think that modern religions, especially in the United States because that's what we're most familiar with, are hindering the evolution of consciousness or are they growing with it and helping to facilitate it?
C: I think all religions in all times have been the bastardization and corruption of spirituality. When spirituality becomes corrupt, it becomes religion because religion as we have experienced it throughout the course of history, and this is true of Hinduism and Buddhism and all kinds of current religions, have been bastardized into dogma, ideology, and belief systems. And as long as the religion has a belief system, and all religions have one, all without exception, then they hinder man's evolution. So I think religion is toxic to society, all religions. And that includes the Eastern religions. The Eastern religions, before they became religions, they were spiritual devices or you might say spiritual styles of living with an exact science and methodology to find the truth about one's own nature. But when they became institutionalized, they became a set of rules and regulations and beliefs and ideas and dogmas and ideologies and there is no religion that I know of, whether it is from Judeochristianity or it is from the East, that has not propagated war and destruction and murder and killing. We have this popular myth in society that Hinduism is a nonviolent religion. Well, the Hindus are burning the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the Buddhists are doing the same in southern India, so, you know, religion is a very dangerous force, as far as I'm concerned. " 1
You have no idea how stoked I was when he stepped up to the plate and gave the answer I hoped he would. Not only did he speak directly to the ubiquitous negative effects of religion, he gives us one of the most eloquent informal definitions of spirituality I've heard; "...they were spiritual devices or you might say spiritual styles of living with an exact science and methodology to find the truth about one's own nature..." To fully appreciate his words, we need spend a little time on the term "spiritual."
In the Medicine Wheel workshop, we define a few terms, two of which are Soul and Spirit. I offer them here for your consideration only. Whether you agree or not is up to you, it is none of my business. But I offer these in an effort to shed light from a different direction:
"Soul & Spirit: I recognize we all have our own ideas of what Soul and Spirit mean. I offer the following definitions of them for the purposes of this class. Thinking of them in this way may help you connect with the Wheel on a deeper level.
Soul (as a noun): Who and what we are throughout time and outside of time, from the beginning of time and before. The Void, or Cause of all that we are; in the physical and energetically, the invisible. Part of the Great Mystery.
Spirit (as a verb): That through which the Soul relates to all others, and to the various environments it operates in; the physical body of the individual, the physical environment of the Earth, the environment of concepts, ideas, intention, and thought, the emotional environment, the environment of All Our Relations. The Lakota call it the Taku Skan Skan (dakoo shkah shkah), that which is behind everything that moves. The Spirit is the actor that connects everything to the Soul. It is the energy through which the Soul touches, reaches out to, and communicates with all other life.
Soul is the "Being." Spirit is the "Actions of the Being." We know the Soul by what the Spirit does. Spirit is Soul in action, expressing in the physical through us. Spirit is the relational link between Soul and all others. Since Soul is part of the Great Mystery, and all Souls are, of all that is, animate and otherwise, all souls are one. Spirit, then, is the Great Mystery experiencing itself through infinite avenues of expression.
Soul is the Center of our being, it is the Cause of us, that which catalyzes life into existence and action, outside the physical Void, outside of space-time. The Skan.
There is no separation between the spiritual and the material, though mainstream society and its various religions would have us think so (heaven in the sky, spirit only accessible in the afterlife, God looking down upon us "from a distance," that sort of thing.) Without the spiritual, the material would not function as we know it. Do not confuse "spirit" with "religion." They are in no way interchangeable." 2
We need also to broaden our discussion of "spirit" to include its use when referring to nonphysical beings, or the intelligent, self-aware energies we call "the Spirits." One popular perception of Indigenous ceremonial practice is its reputation for working directly with these Spirits, in real time and real contact. This idea fairly rankles most professional clergy when you get right down to the truth of it, except for certain strains of Evangelical Christianity, a relatively recent phenomenon, and one I'm not so sure was not inspired by or heavily influenced by Indigenous practices. In my lifetime I have heard from more than one pulpit on how the Spirits, what many call Angels, told about in the Good Book no longer talked to humankind, that was then, this is now, they have spoken, end of story. Makes it tough when sincere religious people start having direct contact with the Spirits.
Corporate religions actually deny direct contact from the Spirits, especially by the unclean, denigrating those who claim such experience, the intimidation so aggressive from the pulpit most of the flock will close down to the possibility, thereby taking themselves out of the processional long before the first note is even played. For instance, the whole idea of the "personal relationship with Jesus" actually serves to block out any kind of personal relationship with any Spirit not Jesus, as Jesus is the only approved Spirit, but held in such high esteem that we can never expect that he would actually be present at our next prayer meeting in such a way as to physically reveal himself as do the charlatan spirits of pagans.
Some of you may have heard me say or read it on the website, that the Red Road is not a religion, that in general, traditional Indigenous spiritual practices are not a religion (ancient Aztecs, Mixtecs, Inca, Toltecs, et al excluded). Granted, there has been a great erosion of these ways. Consider the hyper-aggressive imposition of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and New Zealand for instance. When you hear an informed person use the word "religion" when discussing the Red Road, it will be more in the nature of an accommodation to those in the mainstream who are unaware of the differences. In our June newsletter (Ceremony) we touched on some of the differences between ceremony and ritual, the most notable being that religion is primarily ritualistic while the Lifeways of Indigenes are more ceremonial in nature. Further, you'll recall one of the differences between ritual and ceremony is that ritual tends toward rigid and is usually the exclusive domain of professional clergy. Ceremony is flexible and seeks to include everyone present in its execution.
From this, we see it becomes a question of power. In religion, all power is vested in the Church, Temple, or Synagogue etc., usually what is termed religious (Church) Law, and carried out, or franchised, through its various orders or sects, and their clergy. Spirituality, whether Indigenous, New Age, neo-Pagan, or unaffiliated, tends toward acknowledging Creator is in every literal "thing," be it animated or not, and that we as two-leggeds are directly connected to all Life, not separate from it, neither above nor below it. Where religions perceive their assorted deities generally in anthropomorphic images, they are also set apart in some fictitious place, such as heaven, which is significant as it underscores the erroneous idea of separation. Indigenous spirituality and ceremonial practice tends toward the mundane, its dominant purpose being to support life right here, right now and with immediate benefits. Unlike most major world religions, there is no Great Payoff that can only be received in the afterlife. And where this idea of perpetual forgiveness doled out by the Church for the same repetitive sins actually breeds irresponsibility ("Hey, I can do this...all I gotta do is ask to be forgiven...again..."), the Lifeways of Indigenes may be a little more difficult in that they require one take responsibility for his or her actions now. In other words, there is no Heaven or Hell at the end of this road, we just keep moving ahead.
As you can see, this is indeed a very large subject. We've not even gotten into the geographic foundations of religion or spirituality, of how language impacts whether a culture develops religious institutions or remains centered in a living spirituality (the implication here that religions are spiritually void is intentional), nor have we discussed how exporting religions changes them, of how they shift out of geographic relevance and into a historical archive when that happens, of how merging a religion into government fully compromises any spiritual efficacy it might have once claimed, of how religions are damaged when they involve themselves in economic exploitation, or bind themselves to or even instigate the blind religio-nationalism we see in so many countries today, including the US. In the coming months and years, we may consider these.
1: © Rick McBride, Connexions Magazine, 1993
2: © Rick McBride, Teaching of the Medicine Wheel, 2007
This article © Rick McBride, 2008