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 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.



From Elizabeth Lesser, author of "The Seeker's Guide"


Dear Huston,

In your last letter, you asked, "What demands and proscriptions does spirituality carry with it?" The self-regulated kind of spirituality I have been talking about (the kind that allows for democracy and diversity: the kind I call "the new American spirituality") demands only one thing from the seeker: to take responsibility for his or her own reverence and virtue. It puts the onus on the individual to love, forgive, and to be peaceable from the inside out. Spirituality demands that we act out of love not because we've been told to love by an authority figure, but because we have faced and transformed the hatred and fear within us, and thereby learned to love.

Spirituality postulates that love cannot be legislated; it can only come from within. We've had thousands of years of rule-based theologies that demand love and proscribe hatred, envy, and inhumanity. It's been a noble experiment, and yes, some people belong to groups that engage in very kind acts for the benefit of others, but how deep and sustainable is their selflessness? Gandhi said, "You must become the change you wish to see in the world." Spirituality is about becoming what we love about God; it is not about blame or shame or guilt and the strange proscriptions that humans devise to prevent or punish the evil that dwells within each of our hearts.

In one of your Omega lectures, you said something that has kept me on track on my own progressive spiritual journey. "The heart of religion is not altered states but altered traits of character." This simple line has been a touchstone for me, helping me to gauge my own spiritual progress. I know that religions aim to help people do more than just follow rules. I know that they offer proven technologies for "altered traits of character." But I am afraid that many of the flock are merely following the rules out of habit or fear, and therefore their characters have not really been altered; they and their societies may have the veneer of righteousness, but scratch the surface and you will quickly find unresolved feelings, anxieties, and prejudices that have always kept humanity from growing up and waking up.

On the other hand, a spirituality that does not find its grounding in religious discipline often suffers from shallowness, narcissism, and loneliness. I value that criticism and for that reason have included religious tradition in my spiritual brew. Adding up all the twists and turns of my spiritual path, I conclude that it is not just religion that taught me how to walk with love and light through my life. Religion, mythology, psychology, science, bodywork, and the rough and tumble of everyday life--each has taught me about living an ethical, mystical, and magical life.

To read this article in its entirety, click here to go to Spirituality & Health magazine online.

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