The Religion of Spirituality

Netanel Miles-Yépez

"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Breugel the Elder c. 1653

"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Breugel the Elder c. 1653

In 1949, Max Zeller, a disciple of the visionary psychotherapist, Dr. Carl Jung, came to Jung with a dream he could not understand. In the dream, he saw a “temple of vast dimensions” under construction. As far as he could see, in every direction, there were multitudes of people participating in the building of the temple. Though the temple was only in its beginning stages, the foundation had already been laid, and he was himself working on a pillar. Hearing this, Jung simply nodded and said, “this is the temple we are all building today.” It is “the new religion.” We don’t know all the builders, of course, because they are “in India and China and in Russia, and all over the world.” But “this new religion will come together.”[1]

This is what Jung believed. The problem for us is that the process has only just begun, and we do not yet know what shape it will take or how it can help us. Looking at the rubble of the past and the chaotic building-site of the present, many people today—both spiritually-inclined and secular—are understandably declaring “the end of religion.” But what neither seems to understand is that religion cannot die unless we, as human beings, somehow cease to feel and long for that indefinable, ineffable awareness of the sacred to which religion is merely a response. Until that happens, we will continue to reach out to the sacred, and we will use religion to get it. The real question is, what kind of religion will we use to access the sacred? Will we continue to use the old religions of the past, whether in their conventional or mystical forms? Will we evolve and participate in new hyphenated fusions of traditions like Christian Zen or Sufi-Hasidism? Or will we embrace a greater religion of spirituality, as some are already suggesting?

I think the simple answer is, ‘Yes.’

Until fairly late in the 20th-century, no matter where you might find yourself on the map, you were likely to live in a more or less homogenous culture, where most people were ‘like you’ in language, race and religion. If you knew anything about another religion, you probably viewed it as something inferior. But today, we live in a world where cultures are increasingly bumping up against one another, and where religions are learning to co-exist. Today, we find that our neighbors are Hindu, and our co-workers Muslim. In almost every metropolitan area, we have access to Yoga classes, Buddhist meditation, Hindu satsangs, Muslim Sufi dhikrs, Christian Centering Prayer groups, and Jewish Renewal services. Living in this spiritual marketplace, in a time when many of us find ourselves cut-off from the religions of our birth, and with almost every religious possibility within reach, some are asking, “How do we choose between them?” Nevertheless, my sense is that this is not actually the question they want to ask; I think they are bewildered at having to make a choice at all . . . Indeed, I don’t think they want to choose anymore.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, the expulsion from Eden is characterized as the loss of the primal unity. Having eaten the fruit of the eitz ha’da'at, or ‘tree of knowledge,’ humanity suddenly found itself cast headlong into the world of separation, into a world devoid of the sacred, in which we could only see the differences between things.[2] But in the last century, we have again eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge—of other cultures and religions—and found, paradoxically, that we are really one people, one body, whose needs are the concern of all.

Our current access to all the religions of the planet is slowly (or perhaps quickly) putting an end to the myth of religious superiority, the view we call ‘triumphalism.’ But something else is happening as well. It is also eroding the clearly definable boundaries of our current religions, giving many the feeling that there is no longer any particular reason to be exclusively wedded to one religion or another. Many people no longer want to be boxed-in to any one tradition. Having had access to them all, and having seen the unique tools and beauty of each, who can believe that any one of them has all the answers anymore?

Given this awareness, which religion you choose really becomes a matter of emphasis and individual need. For a tall person, a ladder with rungs far apart is preferable, while a shorter person obviously prefers one with rungs set closer together. Still, both are ladders, and both are designed to facilitate access to higher regions. In the same way, religions have all developed the same basic tools to deliver an experience of the sacred, but each has a different emphasis and uses these tools in different ways, just as the ladder is used for different jobs. What the spiritual seeker is able to do today, which is different than through most of our past, is choose which religion (or even which aspect of a religion) is most suitable to their needs, their purpose, and their abilities.

Over the last forty or fifty years, the gradual dawning of this awareness of personal choice has led to an interesting evolutionary phenomenon, one I like to call, “hyphenated religion.”[3] With all the jostling and bumping up against one another that happens in the universe, new relationships are bound to form, just as atoms gain and lose electrons, or different chemical compounds are formed in seemingly random interactions. In the world of religion, such interactions have led to the development of hyphenated loyalties—Christian priests who have become recognized Zen roshis or Vedantic swamis, rabbis who have become Sufi sheikhs or embraced a more shamanic form of Judaism. Today, there is hardly anyone who doesn’t have some kind of ‘hyphen,’ whether they be dedicated Christians devoted to Jungian psychology or resolved atheists to Yoga practice, couples learning to handle the demands of inter-marriage or individuals integrating dual cultural identities. So why should it be any different with religions? Although there is certainly an element of choice at work here, it is also clearly an evolutionary process, the planet mashing things together, as it always has, creating new forms of life and a healthy diversity for itself.

But this phenomenon of hyphenated religion is just the beginning of a larger process. Each hyphen must, in time, join to form a part of the mortise-and-tenon construction of the temple of the new religion, described in the dream of Jung’s disciple. In this process, the magisterium—the body of spiritual teachings, lore, rituals and techniques—of each individual religion must, in the interaction with other religious traditions, begin to ‘surrender electrons’ and form a new magisterium that “transcends and includes” both.[4] The process will go on, contributing to and eventually forming a greater magisterium of all religions, where the myths and practices of each will become the rightful inheritance of all. In this sense, it will be a true religion of humanity, though I believe it will be defined as the religion of spirituality, with these basic values:

The religion of spirituality will recognize the centrality of the spiritual, valuing it above religion, which must serve exclusively as a cultivator of spiritual awareness. The religion of spirituality will be comprised of the magisteria of all religions and unified by the primordial mysterium at the heart of all. It will recognize the call of the spirit as the source of all previous religions, and will utilize the deep structures of religion, made clear by comparative analysis, as the catalyzing basis for further spiritual evolution. The distinctively nuanced teachings and practices of independently developed magisteria will continue to serve the needs of individuals and their unique spiritual orientations from within the greater, unified magisterium of the religion of spirituality.

Why is “the new religion” to be defined by spirituality? Because the ‘spiritual but not religious’ have declared it so. They have made it clear that spirituality is more important than religion. What they have not yet discovered is what to do about it; for doing is the territory of religion. Religion is the tool that allows us to access the spirit with regularity, to catalyze growth and spiritual maturity, to accomplish spiritual awakening and transformation. Thus, religion in the future must be the handmaiden of spirituality. One is clearly the servant of the other, though both are essential ingredients. Over time, these two ingredients—the deep structures of religion and heart-essence of spirituality—will be extracted from the individual religions, making a religion not of the Buddha or the Christ, not of the mind or the heart, but of Humanity and Wholeness, the parts and nuances of each the inheritance of all, a reflection of the primordial human archetype, Adam Kadmon, as it is called in the Jewish mystical tradition.

This is my conviction. But it is also clear to me that we are not there yet, and won’t be for a very long time. It is not enough to have a vision of the future and theoretical access to the ‘Greater Magisterium of the Religion of Spirituality.’ We must also understand those deeper structures of religion, the basic technology of how religion works to accomplish spiritual transformation, and put that understanding into practice over a long period of experimentation. Actual understanding will come slowly, organically. We are only beginning to understand what it means to have commitments in more than one tradition. We still don’t have a firm grasp on how one balances and honors each without making one or both anemic. And what will be the role of the old traditions in a universal structure which must, over time, make them all less relevant? How painful will the descent into a lesser degree of relevance be, and how will we deal with the inevitable reactions of violence, which we are already witnessing? Our questions still far outnumber our answers.

After Jung had interpreted the dream of the temple of “the new religion,” his student, Zeller, asked him if he knew how long it would take to build. Jung answered without hesitation, “About six hundred years.” “Where do you know this from?” Zeller asked. “From other people's dreams and from my own.”[5] Did he mean, six hundred years in transition to the new religion, or six hundred years for that religion to reach its peak? And what does it mean that the foundation has already been laid?

However we interpret the dream, three things are clear: our current religions will continue for a long time yet; they will evolve and begin to hyphenate; and the great experiment of the religion of spirituality will proceed, slowly creating the structures of spiritual practice that will define it as a true incubator for spiritual transformation. For this is what is lacking today, and the reason we must bear with the slow evolutionary process.

(Part three of a three-part series on The Religion of Spirituality.)



[1] Max Zeller, The Dream: The Vision of the Night, ed. Janet Dallett, Los Angeles: The Analytical Psychology Club of Los Angeles, 1975:2.

[2] Actually, the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil,’ etz ha-da'at tov va-ra, Genesis 2-3.

[3] After similar usage by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who often referred to the hyphen connecting a person to more than one religious commitment.

[4] A phrase used by philosopher Ken Wilber in his descriptions of holarchies.

[5] Zeller, The Dream, 2.

Spiritual and Religious

By Netanel Miles-Yépez

Without a doubt, it is a new day for spirituality. In the popularity contest of modern life, it is religion which can’t get a date for the prom. More and more, people are declaring themselves “spiritual but not religious,” which is both progress and a problem for us.

The problem with being “spiritual but not religious” is that it is a dead-end for the spiritual seeker. Without the positive ‘tools of religion,’ it can only describe a person’s point-of-view: on the one hand, a sense of wonder and personal conviction about transcendent possibilities and the numinous; on the other, a disinterest in, or dissatisfaction with known religious history, structures, and dogmas.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticizing people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Anybody who feels compelled to choose spirituality over religion has, in my opinion, “chosen the better part”—to quote Jesus from the Gospels.[1] Sometimes it seems like the only appropriate response to the religious confusion of our time. The problem arises when we are asked, or ask ourselves, “How are you ‘spiritual but not religious’?” For when we try to answer the question, we either have a difficult time explaining it, or immediately start to name activities or refer to teachings from existing religious traditions that undermine the original statement.

This is because it is actually a mistake to separate religion and spirituality, as if the two were opposed to one another. The truth is that they are natural partners and cannot be separated without doing damage to the greater goal. Religion in this partnership is what you do or use to accomplish spiritual transformation. It is not something in which you must believe. It is a tool that performs a service for us, something we utilize for our own spiritual development. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves being used by the 'tool' in the end; but that’s not the fault of religion.

It is up to us to gain an understanding of what it is with which we are dealing, to know what our own position is relative to our religious traditions. Obviously, if we make an idol out of religion, we become its servant and can expect to be used. But if religion is the tool that we use to gain access to the sacred, then we are in the right relative position to achieve our own ends with it.

For as long as we can remember, we have been in relationship with this thing called ‘religion.’ So long in fact that we sometimes forget who created whom. We treat it like an ‘All-knowing God’ over our lives, slavishly trying to live up to its apparently divine dictates. The irony is, we created it to help us remember how to connect with the sacred, to help us achieve an experience of the ultimate reality. Even the word tells us as much; for ‘religion’ derives from the Latin re-ligare, meaning ‘to link back’ or ‘re-connect.’ It is what links us to the source or essence of our being, to all that we would remember about how to connect with that source or essence.

When discussing his theory of spiritual renewal, the ever-innovative Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would sometimes borrow the Latin word, magisterium, from Catholicism to describe a religion’s collected body of knowledge or wisdom.[2] But it is also a good way to think about religion in general, i.e., as a body of spiritual teachings and lore, rituals and techniques, carried down and growing ever-bigger through the centuries, like a slow-moving glacier carried onward by its own gravity. That is to say, religion is our collective memory of spiritual technologies and instruction manuals, the means by which we can ‘re-connect’ with the sacred dimension—but which is not itself sacred.

What is sacred is spirit or spirituality. Spirit is the living essence of the sacred, the divine life, as it were. Spiritus, as the Latin suggests, is the divine ‘breath’ in the body of the human being, the planet, and the universe. It is the ‘active ingredient’ in all things, including religion. If we were to concretize it into a working definition based on human experience, it might be characterized thus:

Spirituality is an awareness of a transcendent value encompassing, permeating, or hiding just below the surface of material existence; it is the living essence of the sacred at the center of one’s life.

Nevertheless, spirit is impotent without a body to carry its essential message. And this is the rub for the “spiritual but not religious.” While religion without spirituality is, as so many have come to realize, just a dead body without a soul; at the same time, spirituality without religion is a soul without a body. It can’t do anything in the world. Thus, one’s spirituality is limited to a vague sense of something ‘other,’ something ‘beyond,’ which may bring us hope, but little help. Without the structures of teaching and practice, i.e., religion, we cannot accomplish the spiritual transformation of our lives for which so many of us long.

Nevertheless, the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” is a critical insight for us today. What we are really saying is that we have a sense that the two—spirituality and religion—have become divorced, that the life-spirit has left the body of religion, making it dead for us. When people began to quote Nietzsche in the late 1960s, saying, “God is dead,” what many actually meant was that religion was dead for them.[3] But even if we acknowledge the ‘death of religion,’ we are still left with the problem of the soul without a body. This is where so many of us find ourselves today, longing for spirituality, but lacking the means of deepening our relationship with it.

Although spirituality is indeed “the better part,” it is limited in what it can do for us unless we learn to pair it with a proper understanding of religion.

(Part two of a three-part series on The Religion of Spirituality.)


[1] The New Testament, The Gospel of Luke 10:42.

[2] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, God Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: An Essay on the ‘Contraction’ of God in Different Jewish Paradigms, Boulder, CO: Albion-Andalus Books, 2013: 7.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974: 181.


The End of Religion

Netanel Miles-Yépez


Religion as we have known it is breaking down. The evidence is everywhere we look. It is in the despicable rhetoric and violence of politically oriented religious extremists, far and near. It is in the scandals and abuses plaguing our current ecclesiastical structures. It is in the surface tension between the ‘religious right’ and modern culture, in the growing indifference of that culture to religion, and its occasional disgust with it. And yet, it is not religion itself that is so evidently coming apart in all of these examples, but an old and outworn idea of religion as an-end-in-itself, as an idol that has—for far too long—been mistaken for its maker and its goal. It is that idol which is now being broken. Religion will go on; it is how we relate to it that will change, and must change, if we are to reclaim its genuine usefulness to us.

Over a century ago, the Russian philosopher, P. D. Ouspensky explored the symbolism of “The Tower” in the Tarot deck as an important metaphor for religion. The tower, he said, was begun in a time before memory, as a monument to the sacred, a reminder of the true tower in each of us, its every level representing a level to be climbed on the inside. But even before the foundations were fully laid, some of the builders began to “believe in the tower of stone they had built,” and to teach others to believe in the same. To them, the tower was itself sacred, and they soon tried to control access to all its doors and windows, and to occupy the summit and the very ‘rights to heaven,’ as they saw it. They even began to fight over these rights in their confusion. Thus, of all the people of the earth, the worshipers of the tower were the most surprised when heaven spoke from beyond its walls in the form of a lightning bolt, sending its priests sprawling to the ground, where they lay helpless amid the rubble. Now, says Ouspensky, all who look on its ruin and see its broken summit—open to heaven as it always should have been—know not to believe in the tower.[1]

As the metaphor suggests, the real issue is one of remembering the original function of the tower, of maintaining one’s awareness of the true meaning and purpose of religion, i.e., that it is a reminder of the sacred. The problem is, it is just so easy for us to forget that religion is not sacred, but merely a vessel for the sacred. Although, truth be told, I wonder how many people ever made the distinction in the first place. I don’t think I would be going out on a limb to say that religion is not well understood in our culture. Often, it is assumed to be ‘right and necessary’ by the religious, or ‘backward and unnecessary’ by the secular; but how many people really know anything about it in itself, about its function, or how it works? How many people, religious or secular, can actually give a working definition of religion? Perhaps if we really knew something about the true end of religion, we might better understand why religion as we have known it is currently breaking down, and more importantly, get a glimpse of what is currently evolving—namely, ‘the religion of spirituality.’

But let me back up a step and propose a working definition of religion:

Religion is a sociological construct meant to take us back to the primary experience from which it arose; it enshrines an ideal and provides one with a structured approach to spiritual awakening or transformation.

That is to say, religion is what follows in the wake of the spiritual luminary’s breakthrough experience; it is what happens after Muhammad receives his revelation, or the Buddha his awakening; it is what their disciples cobble together from reports of those experiences, using them to make a ‘map’ to lead themselves and others back to the source experience. As the Buddha himself taught: religion is like a raft one makes and uses to cross a river; once you are on the other side, you needn’t carry it around on your back.[2] It is just a means to an end, not the end itself.

We must always remember then that the map is not the sacred territory; it must be used by us (with its original purpose in mind) and not the other way around. As my teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, once put it (while commenting on the abuses of various religious extremists), “Good religion puts itself in the service of God; bad religion puts God in the service of religion.”[3] It is the latter that usually has us so upset with religion, that causes us to question its foundations, and which is the cause of all that seems to be breaking down in religion. But this is religion misused and misconstrued. It is a false religion that puts the sacred in its own service. False religion is to true religion what the cancerous cell is to the healthy cell. It is this imposter that provokes our most vehement objections, and which now has us looking up at a broken tower and boldly declaring, “A new day for spirituality!” as we wave goodbye to the “old-time religion.”

(Part one of a three-part series on The Religion of Spirituality.)


Latlaus Sky


[1] P. D. Ouspensky, The Symbolism of the Tarot: Philosophy of Occultism in Pictures and Numbers, tr. A. L. Pogossky, New York: Dover Publications, 1976: 48-49.

[2] “The Raft Simile” in the Pali Alagaddupama Sutta.

[3] Heard directly from Schachter-Shalomi after he gave a Yom Kippur sermon at Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, California, in which he used this formulation for the first time, ca. 2009.