Spirituality, Unlike Religion, Grows Inside Out

By Collins, Patrick W. | National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Spirituality, Unlike Religion, Grows Inside Out


Collins, Patrick W., National Catholic Reporter


I told a friend one of my favorite Twelve Step stories. As is often the case with powerful expressions, he both got it and didn't. There is too much truth to get it all at once -- or ever, perhaps. And it can quite confuse the literal-minded.

It starts with a question: What is the difference between religion and spirituality? The joke goes that religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there -- perhaps through involvement with religion.

My friend said, "Right on! My experience surely supports that." But the quip also beckoned him to deeper questions. "What is the difference between religion and spirituality?" he asked. "Aren't they the same thing -- or at least intimately related? Can you have one without the other?"

Religion, in this context, I take to mean the externals of religious life: the teachings, the laws and the customs that characterize a particular religious group. It involves seriously trying to conform one's life to the doctrines and disciplines of that religious group. It is faith lived from the outside in.

One follows the tradition, perhaps for less than highly spiritual motives, such as fear of hell or being accepted by others. Isn't that another version of the self-centered goal of saving one's own skin in the long run?

Religion is primarily one's relationship with God in and through a religious community. Religion is expressed best in I John 2:24: "As for you, let what you heard from the beginning remain in your hearts. If what you heard from the beginning does remain in your hearts, then you in turn will remain in the Son and in the Father."

Spirituality, on the other hand, grows out of and beyond the creed, code and cult of religion as one makes it his or her own. That does not mean moving against one's religion. Rather it means growing beyond it as a tree grows beyond its roots. Spirituality is one's internalizing of a religious tradition that is at once true to the tradition and also uniquely true to the individual. Spirituality lives from the inside out. It is primarily a personal relationship with the Holy One. A spiritual person is aware that "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me."

Spirituality is expressed best in I John 2:27: "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in your hearts. …

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Spirituality, Unlike Religion, Grows Inside Out
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