About twenty years ago now, I had an epiphany while visiting with a gay cousin. We were discussing our grand-aunt. In the course of our conversation, we both agreed that she was one of the sweetest and kindest people that either of us had ever known. "Yes, she's very religious," I said. "No, she's very spiritual," my cousin corrected. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew instantly that my cousin was correct in making that distinction. My own experiences with religion had taught me that there was a difference.
I had been a member of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by one Herbert W. Armstrong; so I knew what it meant to be religious. I knew that being religious involved a commitment or devotion to following a set of beliefs/doctrines/principles. Moreover, as a devoted follower of Armstrong's brand of religion, I was convinced that there was a clear distinction to be drawn between FALSE and TRUE religion. My religion was meaningful and efficacious, but other religions were meaningless and unproductive. The TRUTH made me righteous and superior to other believers. At least, that is what I thought until I knew better!
Over time, I came to understand that religion was a man-made construct - a human process or systematic way of dealing with the Divine. Sure, most Christian religionists (including Mr. Armstrong) claimed to derive their religion from the Bible; but each one of them had their own unique understanding/interpretation of what that book required of them. When I finally left the Worldwide Church, I came to understand that the Bible itself was a very human book in many respects. After all, God had used humans to write, edit, translate and organize the books that made up the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. I came to understand that inspiration itself was a process that God used to work through humans to produce something, and that the resulting product would not be perfect because of human involvement. In fact, it was inevitable that the weaknesses and prejudices of the humans involved in the process would show up in the finished product.
On the other hand, being spiritual implies/suggests an elemental connection to the supernatural - the Divine. A spiritual person manifests the very nature of that other world. A spiritual person exhibits the love, kindness, compassion, patience and mercy which is generally attributed to the Divine. A spiritual person is eager to explore the meaning behind the rituals and doctrines that preoccupy the religious. The spiritual person seeks to align him/herself with goodness - to be in harmony with the creation and its Creator. The spiritual person seeks to transcend the mundane and temporal and is not interested in exercising authority/power over others or forcing them to adopt his/her viewpoint or creed.
Another former Armstrongite recently wrote a piece for The Journal: News of the Churches of God (Issue no. 174, June 2015) that illustrates the difference between religiosity and spirituality with great clarity. In the article, Patt McCarty talked about his experiences with Mr. Armstrong's teachings about divorce and remarriage. He shared with his readers the story of how the church destroyed what had been for him a happy second marriage (after what had amounted to a youthful indiscretion that was considered by the church to be his only valid first marriage), and how that destroyed his self-confidence and relationship with God and led to addiction and a downward spiral.
Looking back over his story, he wrote: "Mistakenly, I had pursued Herbert's image of God for a large portion of my adult life and found only condemnation continually coming form the image of his God. When I allowed Jesus to apprehend me for His purpose, then and only then did I find right relationship with Father God in Jesus. Then Herbert's image of God was exposed for the fraud it is by the revelation of the loving God in me." Mr. McCarty had had the same epiphany that I had experienced. He came to understand that you can't be in harmony with the Divine by adopting another man's formula or system for doing so. True spirituality involves a personal relationship with and connection to the Divine.
Carol Kuruvilla recently wrote a piece for Huffington Post about Reba Riley's "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome." You can view the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/post-traumatic-church-syndrome_55d3fe11e4b07addcb4499d5?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051 Riley defines this phenomenon as: "1) It’s a condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing or breaking of those things. 2) The vile, noxious, icky and otherwise foul aftermath of said spiritual injury. 3) A serious term intended to aid serious spiritual healing -- without taking itself too seriously in the process." I think that this is a good description of what many religious folks experience at some point in their religious career.
Likewise, I found that I could really relate to her answer to Kuruvilla's question regarding what had frustrated her about her childhood faith. She said: "It’s really death by a thousand cuts. You find cracks in your faith and you express them and you try harder to hide them and reason your way out of them. The process was probably a year and a half long before I recognized that what I grew up with was ‘believe it all or believe it none’ theology. When I realized there were tenets of this faith system I couldn’t believe in, I didn’t have a choice. It was all or nothing. It’s not that I left my faith, it’s that my faith left me."
For me, the realization that it didn't have to be "all or nothing" was a big turning point in my own spiritual journey. From that point forward, I could begin to sort out for myself what was man-made and what originated in the mind of God. I could truly begin to yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and accept that God was much bigger and much more profound than anything that I had been taught by others or imagined through the process of my own reasoning. It was then that I finally realized that God cannot be contained by us or anything that we can construct.