“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” – 2 Corinthians 3:17
I was back on the elliptical this week. After almost two glorious weeks of running in the warm Florida sunshine, I am back to the reality of post-polar vortex Southeast Pennsylvania, which means lots of snow and ice on the roads. Our visit to my sister and brother-in-law in the Sunshine State had, sadly, come to an end.
I was amazed and somewhat dismayed, by the way, to discover that there are hills in Florida. My first clue should have been the name of the town where my sister lives – Howey-in-the-Hills. I was under the misconception that all of Florida is pancake-flat. Not so, it turns out.
Every morning we would run down to Lake Harris (down being the operative word), travel along the lakeshore, trying not to trip as we (OK, maybe just I) kept an eye out for exotic birds, then run back up to return home. The hill was significant and steep.
Now I am running on the elliptical again. Today I watched a show on Oprah Winfrey’s network. I have to admit, I don’t remember ever watching Oprah before. Oh, I know Oprah. You would have to be living under a rock for the past 30 years to not know her. I just don’t believe I ever watched her interviewing someone before today.
I don’t remember the name of the woman she was interviewing, but when I heard the topic, spirituality, I perked right up and paid attention. One of the questions she asked her interviewee was “What is the difference between spirituality and religion?”
The woman she was interviewing seemed to be at somewhat of a loss, but when she finally responded, she said that spirituality is the important questions that we ask, such as “What is the meaning of life?” and “What happens after we die?” Religion gives us the answers to those questions.
“Hmmmm…” I thought. I don’t believe that’s the whole answer. I thought about the difference between religion and spirituality for the rest of my run and for a long time afterward.
There are many people who will tell you that they are “spiritual but not religious“, and I certainly respect that. Spirituality implies discovery, freedom, individuality, all good things in my book. In the same context religion implies rules, organization, structure, maybe initially less appealing, but certainly no less needed.
Here is why I believe I personally need both spirituality and religion.
When my kids were young, we gave them the freedom to participate in any activity they wanted. Play the saxophone? Yes. Try out for the golf team? Sure. Join the Quiz Bowl team? OK. Soccer? Wrestling? Tennis? Piano? Baseball? Yup.
Surrounding that freedom as scaffolding, however, were the rules. You may try anything you like, but you may not quit in the middle of a season. Your grades cannot suffer because you are spending too much time on activities. You must eat dinner with the family. Every night. Every. Night.
Freedom without rules leaves us rootless, unsatisfied, without the tools necessary to build self-discipline. We lack a sense of security and we need security before we can fly. Rules help to socialize us; they are needed in order to develop community. Rules are reassuring, they keep us safe and provide a sense of order.
Rules without freedom can seem petty and restrictive. Too many rules can take away our ability to make decisions and live independent, responsible lives. Living by rules without freedom can strip away our self-confidence and squash our ingenuity. It can invite fear into our lives.
The problem with plain, unadorned, unbending rules is that each group thinks the correct set belongs to them and only them. Christians, Jews, and Muslims each believe in their own set of rules, and please don’t get me started on Buddhists.
Even among Christians, Catholics, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestants believe their rules are the correct ones. The United Methodists differ from the Lutherans and the Mennonites. The Amish, Mormons, and Presbyterians each have slightly different sets of rules. How are we to know which set is right for us?
It is appropriate to think about spiritual things. Theologian Paul Tillich called spiritual topics our “ultimate concern“. It’s natural to want to peek under the deep veil of eternity, to consider how we are spending our faith. Everything else is just “playing pinochle in the bottom of a rowboat“, to paraphrase Annie Dillard. Finding our comfort zone spiritually is imperative. Each individual needs to think about what he or she believes. That’s spirituality.
We have a compass to help us do that heavy thinking. Everyone does not need to reinvent the wheel. There are guidelines, a framework, living, breathing rules. Each person is responsible to find the set of rules that fits their faith. That’s religion.
I once read that spirituality is based on love; religion is based on fear, but I think that is a misconception. In the Bible, 1 John contains the words “God is love” not once, but twice. In Isiah, we are told, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you“. And in Deuteronomy, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” I think we have mistakenly added fear to religion, where it does not actually belong. There is no need to fear the rules. They are there to help us.
Freedom and rules, individuality and community, independent thought and guidelines. I need both sides of the equation in order to follow my heart closer to God. I need that balance of spirituality and religion.
I think I will run on the elliptical again tomorrow. The weather prediction for tomorrow morning is for icy fog. Not a great combination for road running. Maybe I will watch Oprah again while I run. Who knew her interviews could be so thought-provoking? Stay tuned.
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