Can we experience spirituality without religion?

In a New York Times review of Sam Harris’ new bestseller, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, the columnist, Frank Bruni, said the book caught his eye “because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.”

Harris describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, literally, by the Sea of Galilee. He writes, “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” Harris, an atheist,poses this question: Which comes first, faith or a feeling of transcendence? Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.” But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced one, because similar exaltation can be found through meditation, exercise, communion with music, and immersion in nature.

As the world breaks out in epidemics, terrorism, and conflict, there’s a heightened, universal need for transcendence and peace. A long hike on a wooded trail, an invigorating run, or music that deeply touches my soul serves to lift my spirits and give me a sense of well-being. But the effect is fleeting. I watched a scene from the film Perfect Sense (I don’t recommend the entire film), a love story between a chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) who fall in love as an epidemic strips people of their five senses one by one. The loss of each sense is predicated by a strong, often violent, seizure of emotion. During the scene as the world slowly descends into chaos caused by the epidemic, the two lovers are flooded with a euphoric awareness of all that is good in the world – appreciation of nature, of beauty, of human kindness, and intense love for one another – so they immediately run to find one another. As they kiss, the screen turns black. They go blind.

Can our pursuit of transcendence and spirituality really just be an end in itself or does it lead somewhere? Might it lead to spiritual darkness if not wedded to truth? During my journey, I’ve come to believe that an authentic spiritual awakening begins with an encounter with God through the same historic Jesus who actually walked where Harris walked and grows brighter as we walk with Him.

Jesus brought life wherever he went, proclaimed good news, and made audacious claims that he was God. He experienced pain, suffering, and joy like we do. He distinguished Himself from all other philosophical and religious claims as He transcended death by rising from the dead after suffering and paying the price for humanity’s true ailment. Tim Keller wrote, “The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion, but something else entirely – a third way of relating to God through grace.” 

It’s likely our view of God fits into one of these scenarios:

  1. Irreligion: ignoring God, atheism
  2. Religion: performing before God for acceptance
  3. Gospel/grace: receiving acceptance based on what God has done for us

According to Harris, “There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears”. I think this is true since we need a framework, or scaffolding, to enter into a discussion about meaning. We cannot dismiss the need for a fixed point. The Gospel story explains our brokenness as we fell out of relationship with the God who created us in his image, the problem of evil and suffering, and the yearning not only for transcendence, but also for intimate relationship.

Designed for relationship

The succor we crave is not an abstract spiritual experience, but loving relationship. A sense of “I” or “me” does not vanish when we become spiritually alive in Christ. We are more truly ourselves, more vibrantly alive than we have ever been; yet we no longer live for self. We experience the fulfillment of intimate relationship with God through adoption as a son or daughter and authentic relationships with others while growing together in wholeness and purpose.

Spirituality is not neutral

When we seek spirituality as an end in itself divorced from truth, we can end up in a dark alley trapped by forces that are far from benevolent. Evil and good are not only evident on earth, but in the spiritual realm. As ISIS boastfully kills their enemies, dark spiritual forces seek to steal, kill and destroy; except they are often disguised as freeing, enlightening and good at first. For example, Harris describes drug-induced states of euphoria that convince the user that all is right in the world, yet drug addicts often experience a hollow emptiness that drives them to their next fix even at the cost of financial, physical and relational ruin.

In contrast, the spiritual path we embark on with Jesus begins with spiritual awakening and leads to life and freedom. A transformative exchange takes place when we acknowledge the darkness within our own hearts, our wrongdoing, and turn from trusting in ourselves to trusting in Jesus – we enter into a new life free from guilt, filled with purpose, and enveloped in love. It’s spiritual, yes, but it goes deep and plays out in practical ways. The spiritual work of regeneration is the entry point that illuminates every sphere of life.

As the apostle Paul addressed the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of Athens, Greece in the Areopagus – the seat of authority over civil and religious life in their day – he said, “He (God) gives to all mankind life and breath and everything . . . He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:25,28). While everyone can experience common grace, the undeserved blessings God gives everyone, both believers and unbelievers, we cannot enter into spiritual awakening apart from acquiescing that we are not lords of the universe and our own destinies. God is. And fortunately, He is good.

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