Excerpted from Spirituality & Health magazine, Spring 2001.

What's the difference between spirituality and religion? Do I have to belong to a religion to have a spiritual life? How do I choose a teacher, a path, a discipline?

On tour for her recent book, "The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure," Elizabeth Lesser

faced these questions as she traveled across the country: "These are the big questions of the hour," she says. "And it seemed to me that Huston Smith

would make an ideal partner for further explorations. We began discussing them over lunch when he was teaching at Omega Institute. I followed up with a letter, and he graciously replied. Several letters later, I realized that we had built up a correspondence worth sharing."

From religion scholar Huston Smith


Dear Elizabeth,

Religions are time-tested traditions filled with proven pointers on how to proceed through life. Of course you must cultivate self-responsibility within any tradition, but I certainly do not advocate throwing out whole traditions in order to create entirely new ones. That seems like a tremendous waste of some of humanity's most glorious creations. Religions are not all-good, nor are they all-bad. Rama Krishna compared religion to a cow. "A cow kicks," he said. "But it also gives milk."

The problem with cafeteria-style spirituality is that Saint Ego is often the one making the choices at the salad bar. What tastes good is not always the same as what you need, and an undeveloped ego can make unwise choices. I believe that it is most helpful for people to choose one main meal, to commit and focus on that tradition, and then to add to it if the need arises. I am a firm believer in vitamin supplements. Christianity is my main meal to which I have added several supplements over the years.

But back to my real concerns about the way spirituality is working (I don't say intentionally) to denigrate religion. In the public mind spirituality gets the good marks, religion the bad marks. Of which there are, needless to say, many, but I find little effort to balance the account responsibly. Some points that should be kept in mind.

Without the support of the mainline churches and synagogues, the civil rights movement of the '60s could not have succeeded;

Without their opposition, there would have been U.S. troops in Guatemala and El Salvador in the '70s;

The synagogues and churches of Berkeley unite to serve a hot meal to 2000 homeless people 365 days a year, and take turns offering overnight shelter in the winter to those who want it. Where is spirituality in this picture?

The day after a recent earthquake hit Istanbul, the San Francisco Chronicle published a list of 10 organizations to which contributions for relief could be sent. Half of them were religious; I was happy to find Methodist World Service listed along with Catholic World Service and the others. Spirituality wasn't on the list.

What demands and proscriptions does spirituality carry with it? When Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky, she quoted Clinton as having confessed that he sinned and asked Monica if she felt that she had sinned. Monica squirmed uncomfortably, and then she said, "I'm not very religious. I'm more spiritual." I admit that relating this is a low blow in our discussion and in a way apologize for mentioning it. My intent is merely to balance the record and try to restore religion to even terms with spirituality.

As a lifelong student of world religions, I value religion for its role as the winnowed wisdom of the human race. As I have said before, certain aspects of religions are far from wise, especially their social patterns--their support of the mores of the times in regard to class distinctions and gender relations.

But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in history or in the modern world that rivals them. Cafeteria-style spirituality (or New Age spirituality as it is sometimes called) is a mixed bag. Its optimism and liveliness appeal to me. But how deep does it go? Has it come to terms with evil? Where is its social conscience? Where are the New Age equivalents of Mother Theresa or a Dalai Lama? So, at its best

beliefnet.com/faiths/2001/06/what-new-agers-believe.aspx" target="_blank" class="bn-keyword">New Age spirituality is an energizing force, but at its worst, it can be a kind of private escapism, devoid of the power to do real good in the world.