Saturday, 11 February 2012

The binary distinction between religion and spirituality

'AA is spiritual, not religious' (Anonymous)

The trouble with bandying around the terms 'religious' and 'spiritual' in some kind of binary opposition is that people rarely preface the discussion with any robust definitions of the two terms, which, it turns out are complex and overlap considerably.

Setting aside some of the less relevant definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (pertaining, for example, to religious orders or specific denominations), here are some extracts from the entry on 'religion':

'(a) Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.
(b) A particular system of faith and worship.
(c) Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.'

Do these three reflect what the AA programme teaches? Self-evidently. This, ladies and gentlemen, is religion. AA is 'lite' on worship and rites (though it does have both), but the programme does indeed encourage a system of faith (loose as that system is) and certainly sets out a code of living based on a superhuman power.

To assert that AA is not religious is a half-truth. AA's theology is extremely loose, it lacks the institutional power structures of major world religions, and it allows significantly more freedom than is typical for such religions, but 'trust God, clean house, help others', in accordance with the plain meanings of the word, is a religious instruction.

So, what does 'spiritual' mean?

Well, the OED is helpful on this matter too. Again, the many less relevant or irrelevant meanings are omitted:

'(a) Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect.
(b) Of, belonging or relating to, concerned with, sacred or ecclesiastical things or matters, as distinguished from secular affairs; relating to the church or the clergy; ecclesiastical.'

In plain English, 'spiritual' points in two directions: firstly, religion, secondly, spirit:

'The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life. (OED)'

This is the essence of the AA programme:

'And does not science demonstrate that visual proof is the weakest proof? It is being constantly revealed, as mankind studies the material world, that outward appearances are not inward reality at all. To illustrate:
The prosaic steel girder is a mass of electrons whirling around each other at incredible speed. These tiny bodies are governed by precise laws, and these laws hold true throughout the material world, Science tells us so. We have no reason to doubt it. When, however, the perfectly logical assumption is suggested that underneath the material world and life as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence, right there our perverse streak comes to the surface and we laboriously set out to convince ourselves it isn’t so.' (Alcoholics Anonymous, 48:3)

In truth, religion is concerned with the same matters as AA.

'Love consumes us only in the measure of our self-surrender.' (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a Catholic)
'The cause of the weakness of your … life is that you want to work it out partly, and to let God help you. And that cannot be. You must come to be utterly helpless, to let God work, and God will work gloriously.' (Andrew Murray, a protestant)
'What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being. To feed the hungry. To help the afflicted. To lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful. To remove the wrongs of the injured. That person is the most beloved of God who does the most good to God's creatures.'  (Mohammed)

I could go on but have made the point I wanted to make. Religion appears widely to be seeking precisely what we are seeking in AA.

What is really meant by this binary distinction between religion and spirituality?

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I believe what people are meaning to convey when they distinguish these two is to define AA's spirituality by what it is not:

It is non-denominational—you do not have to believe any particular creed (but good luck if, when you find yourself powerless in Step One, you are unwilling to try to find a power greater than yourself).

It does not impose rules or insist on adherence to them (as alcohol is ultimately our disciplinarian).

It has no ecclesiastical power structures or hierarchies in the traditional sense.

Essentially, it is not 'the Church' (whichever church that may be).

Why is this discussion necessary?

Newcomers will often have had bad 'religious' experiences and are put off by the initial observation that AA appears to cover much of the same ground as religions. 'AA is spiritual not religious' attempts to provide comfort. Typically, the bad 'religious' experiences are bad experiences of religionists, not of religion itself. If people have had experiences that are not loving, they have not had experiences of religion but of people failing to live up to their religion.

One summing up of this is in Romans Chapter 13: 'Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.'

This is not to excuse the often extreme treatment AA members have suffered but to indicate this: religion was never the problem—the true problem was invariably lack of true religion.

Why not leave this discussion be?

An extremely common experience amongst AA members is to have a spiritual experience as a result of the Steps but then, over time, to fall into spiritual decay and eventually to collapse back down to the starting point. Many then conclude that the spiritual path has failed.

A spiritual experience must be ongoing to remain vital, and I have needed a huge amount of guidance on how to achieve this. To dismiss everything religions have to offer is to hamstring yourself from the outset. I have tried to subsist on a thin gruel of AA dictums and failed. I need the experience of women and men of religions throughout the world and throughout the ages. It was, in fact, only once I grasped the nettle and started to investigate that I discovered this missing piece in my programme.

'There are many helpful books also. Suggestions about these may be obtained from one’s priest, minister, or rabbi. Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer.' (Alcoholics Anonymous, 87:2)

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