Playing with Icons

My book of the month is called ‘Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood.’ I’m only in Chapter One and I find myself wryly smiling as the old adage of the relationship of spirituality and religion pops up once again. As someone who feels strongly drawn to sacraments and their role in my spiritual journey and the need I have of both sharing that with others and facilitating their spirituality through the sacraments, I am also drawn towards the charismatic and the mystic, and their importance in my life.

The following quotes from this book require further, deeper reflection:
“Does spirituality require religion if it is to be more than a misty mood? Or can we flourish spiritually just as well without religion?”

“I shall suggest that the reason why religion should oppress the spirit of one child and set another child’s spirit soaring has all to do with which face, frowning or smiling, we grown-ups turn on them.”

He (John Pridmore) goes on to say ‘that religion lends a language. It is the supreme gift of religion to the spirit.’ This ties in so well with something I wrote in my recent dissertation in reaching out to spiritual seekers.

Though often seen as polar opposites, or as a sliding scale where one begins to eclipse the other, religion and spirituality can and should be mutually complementary. Many religious rituals (of different faiths) have meanings that stretch back through time, though these meanings are not clear until one has delved deep into why things are done in a particular manner or they are done at all. Some, but not all, have prophetic aspects to them.

There is and never has been a universally acceptable definition of religion. One’s understanding, both personally and institutionally, tends to create bias in attempting to establish such an explanation. Alister McGrath writes that “the term ‘religion’ has now been accepted by many writers to refer to ‘beliefs and practices with a supernatural referent’.”[1]  However, attempts to explain religion from a sociological perspective tend to either define it with regard to the functionality of ritual or regarding substance, as in the beliefs of divine creatures.

In my dissertation,  I suggested that a hermeneutical process of secularisation had led to the sociological definitions and understandings rising to the fore, with assumptions made regarding their accuracy. A contemporary equivalent of this would be to hear ‘news that has been uttered in a way to make it sound authoritative when it has no factual foundation’ a.k.a. ‘fake news’ and use this over a number of decades to be an absolute definition, only to discover that the original information was factually incorrect. No-one can begin to estimate the damage caused by such a statement, yet there is a great deal of damage, not only in the those who are members of the institutionalised church but also in those who have left the church, with the understanding that religion is to blame. Some of these have tried to leave religion behind, but still claim that they are spiritual.

As John Pridmore says above, religion provides a language through which the spiritual aspects can be explored. Christian spirituality is defined by its explicitly Christian content – the Trinity, the Church and the sacramental mysteries. Sandra Schneiders defines spirituality as ‘a project of life-integration pursued by consistent self-transcendence toward ultimate value.’[2] It is about developing a perceptive, meditative, and transforming relationship with something that is identified as being sacred. For Christians, sacredness is found in God, and the outward transformation is seen as a life full of prayer and actions which spill out into the community.

Religionless spirituality often tries to remove any known vestiges of institutional religion. However, for it to remain viable and applicable to one’s life, it also picks up items or habits that are perceived to be of value. [2]  Many of these are ‘borrowed’ from the religions that are being actively rejected but are possibly repackaged in a way that is not instantly identifiable. A new set of rituals and symbology is therefore applied to that spiritual journey, without the person recognising that they have inadvertently created a set of religious accessories, akin to those they wished to be free of in the first place.

So I come back to Pridmore’s first quote about whether spirituality needs religion. My thoughts are that we cannot have one without the other. But I’d be interested to know what you think on this matter.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford; Blackwell, Fourth Edition, 2007, 447.  [2] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners,” The Santa Clara Lectures, Vol. 6 no. 2, February 6, 2000, accessed March 29, 2018.