Reconnecting spirituality and religion

By Gethin Abraham-Williams
November 21, 2008

Spirituality and religion have fallen out with each other long enough! My new book, Spirituality or Religion? Do we have to choose? (O Books, November 2008) aims to show not only that they need to make up, but why and how. As religion has become progressively self-absorbed and spirituality increasingly other worldly, both have failed a generation searching for a vision of a better way.

Surprisingly, as religion has become increasingly suspect in popular perception, spirituality has taken off. Many may be reluctant, or even embarrassed to admit to being 'religious', but will often be quite open about their interest in, and pursuit of various forms of spirituality. Why this is so is the subject of the first section.

A spirituality that denies, or becomes detached from its religious origins, however, is in danger of ending up with nothing significant to offer, or worse, to substituting a coherent framework of faith with a mishmash of half digested truisms. Equally, when religion denigrates spirituality it denies its own essence, because without a genuine appreciation of spirituality, religion is in danger of losing its soul.

The middle section looks at some significant areas in which religion has been less than effective to the detriment of the common good, and in which spirituality has had to carry the torch. It poses three specific questions: Is there a connection between the fall-off in religious awareness over the last century, and our increasing disregard for the well being of the environment? How can a whole culture become so paralysed that it allows the evil practices it abhors to flourish? And why has religion such a bad record in combating racism when it has also thrown up some heroic figures who have led the crusade for racial equality?

The final section returns to the central thesis of the book with a positive take on religion and spirituality. It argues that religious adherence can be liberating where there is generosity of spirit, because belonging in some form helps believing.

It argues that it's possible to be open to people of other faiths without denying the integrity of one's own beliefs, and that engagement with those who see God differently from ourselves enlarges our own understanding of God. The book's final argument is that belief in an afterlife is not 'pie in the sky when you die' but a necessary conviction that sharpens our focus to live responsibly in the here and now.

These themes are played-out in triangular relationships in two arenas. One involves Jesus of Nazareth and the Jewish patriarchs, Moses and Elijah. The other concerns Branwen and her two brothers, Brân and Efnysien, from one of the great folk tales of the Celtic period. Both narratives provide insights that not only complement each other, but challenge our willingness to face uncomfortable truths.

Together they tease and test, sharpen and blur, stretch and squeeze the distinctions between religion and spirituality, and show why it is invidious to expect that we should have to choose between them.

You can order Spirituality or Religion? Do we have to choose? from Ekklesia’s online book service:


© Gethin Abraham-Williams is a Baptist minister now working as a freelance ecumenical consultant. He has served as an adviser to the World Council of Churches and on various inter-faith bodies. He was for a number of years general secretary of Cytun, Churches Together in Wales.

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