Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Difference Between Religion and Experiencing God

South central Kenya
In her book Forged In the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality, Diana Hayes distinguishes between African American religion and African American spirituality. Hayes writes:

"What is most amazing about the spirituality of African Americans is the simple fact that it exists in spite of the myriad trials and tribulations they have experienced in the course of their centuries-long sojourn in the United States." (Hayes, Forged in the Fiery Furnace:  African American Spirituality, Kindle Locations 861-863) How were they able to persevere as people of faith under such conditions?

The answer lies in the difference between "religion" and "spirituality." 

  • Religion involves the institutionalization of rites, rituals, and dogmas, which make it possible for persons to be "religious" without experiencing God; spiritual identity is the result of an actual encounter with God.
  • Religion teaches people to appreciate God's love; spirituality challenges human beings to directly experience the transformative power of God's love.
  • Religion is a belief system on the nature of ultimate reality; spirituality is the method and manner by which the ultimately real actually touches the depth of being of the human personality, transforms it, and causes it to long for true community.
  • "Religion may enlighten the mind; spirituality converts one's entire existence." (K575; Hayes is here drawing from Resurrection Song: African-American Spirituality, by Flora Wilson Bridges)
"African American spirituality is firmly rooted in the slaves’ experience of and encounter with the all-encompassing power of the Spirit." (Hayes, K 885-886) Religious theories won't help you when walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Only experience will.