To explore the difference between religion and spirituality, let me define the word religion. The origin of the word ‘religion’ lies in the Latin word ‘ligare,’ which means “to bind.”

This is like the word ‘ yoga’ that means ‘to yoke’ or unify.

What is it that religion intends to bind or unify? This unification includes:-

  • The personal with the Universal.
  • Time with Eternity.
  • Finite with the Infinite.

While this is religion’s intention the paradoxical reality realised through direct experience of spiritual revelation is that there is no such separation. There has never been such separation, nor will there ever be such separation.

You realize this reality of non-separation at the level of mystical revelation. It is not the experience of the believer. The believer not only believes that they are separate, but that is their primary life experience. The unconscious mantra of believers is, “I am separate from God.”

What is The Difference between Religion and Spirituality?

difference between spirituality and religion

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The contrast between religion and spirituality shared here is from the major Abrahamic religions. These are the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who each believe that God revealed himself to Abraham.

My focus will be on sharing the teachings of the mystics from these religious traditions and especially the mystics of Christianity and Islam.

To begin, let me state that I am not interested in converting anyone to a particular religious viewpoint. I am interested in sharing direct experience of the spiritual journey.

To begin this guide to the journey of spiritual awakening I share with you two ways in which we undertake this journey. These are:-

  • The Exoteric Way.
  • The Esoteric Way.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Exoteric Way

the exoteric way

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The Exoteric Way is the way of the many. It is your everyday religious practice. This is where most everyone begins. As children they teach us the doctrines of the religious traditions of our parents. Even if our parents are not religious, it is difficult to avoid the religious background of the culture into which you are born.

The focus of the Exoteric Way is a focus on making you a believer. The Esoteric way is the way of organised religion. You follow the teachings but mostly you have no direct experience of that to which the teachings point.

For example. The central teaching of the master Jesus as shared by St Paul is the requirement to “Put on the Mind of Christ.” This is what the phrase “When three or more are gathered in my name.”

The word ‘name’ is not referring to the personality that was Jesus of Nazareth but the experience of being the Christ. This is the experience of KNOWING union with the Divine. This is the experience of the mystic.

Most organized religion has persecuted their mystic followers. Many were exiled, and some were put to death. This is because the mystic invites the ultimate freedom.

Such freedom would cause the collapse of religious authority of all kinds and organized religion as we know it. If religion were doing its job, the religious hierarchy would work themselves out of a job.

The Esoteric Way

the esoteric way

The Way of the Few

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The Esoteric Way is the way of the few. This is the way of the inner. This is the meaning of the Biblical statement, “Many are called but few are chosen.—Matthew 22:14 KJV”

This is not elitism. This is not some God in the sky making a judgement about the merits of each of his children and whether they deserve a place in Heaven.

Such thinking is magical thinking. That is fine for children, but it is not based in reality.

You are the one who allows yourself to be one of the chosen.

However, this allowing is a death into life experience. Most religious teachings avoid speaking about this radical invitation. It is where you live with the intention, “Not my will but thy will be done.”

Being chosen isn’t the weekend high of some missionary get together that was part of my religious upbringing in Northern Ireland. Neither is it the Billy Graham football stadium experience where you are called to accept Jesus as your Saviour.

The Esoteric Way is the way of direct experience. The mystic poet Rumi says it this way.

It’s your road, and yours alone.

others may walk it with you,

but no one can walk it for you.”

― Rumi

On the Esoteric Way others will walk with you. Avoid those who wish to convert you to their way of thinking or their way of belief. Any such intention is a sign that the individual is walking the Exoteric Way.

Individuals who are graced a direct revelation of the Divine will allow you to walk your own way but they will be there to guide you. They allow you to make your own choices and learn from your own mistakes.

Such individuals may or may not belong to a formal religion.

You can find lots of people who will assure you that their way is the only way. It is more difficult to find someone who wishes to support you in your walking your unique way and having the Light express through you as intended.

The Esoteric Ways of Religion

Each of the three Abrahamic traditions has its Exoteric path.

  • Christianity – Gnosticism.
  • Islam – Sufism.
  • Judaism – Kabballah

Contrasting Religion and Spirituality

Let me give you some contrasting aspects related to the difference between religion and spirituality.

  • Focus.
  • Authority.
  • Promise

Religion versus Spirituality – The Difference of Focus

the exoteric focus

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The Focus of the Esoteric Way

The Exoteric Way has as its primary focus the belief in God. When surveyed many people declare that they have a belief in God. In the U.S.A. the percentage of believers is very high—between 92% and 87% – Gallup Poll.

I suspect that most people do not consider the question in much depth.

To answer the question, “Do you believe in God?” in the affirmative would be to acknowledge that you live your life IN God. The key word here is ‘IN.’ This is not the experience of most people.

The only people who live their lives IN God are mystics. They, however, are not believers. A believer is an individual who affirms a cerebral belief ABOUT the existence of God.

The Focus of the Esoteric Way

The focus of the Esoteric Way is on direct experience. It is the journey of awakening into the grace experience beyond belief. When this experience of awakening happens, there is no longer any need to believe.

This is because you KNOW.

You are also KNOWN through. Following such an awakening, you begin the journey of integration.

Integrating this revelation is through surrender into silence. It is where you learn to FEEL the Presence of the Divine. This is where you learn to FEEL the FORCE. (Star Wars movie)

You FEEL inspirited.

God becomes a Presence that you feel within. This is the experience of bringing Heaven to Earth. This Presence has always been and ever will be. You are awakening from the dream of separation.

The American mystic Joel Goldsmith (1892-1964) writes about this Presence in his book The Infinite Way in this way.

One day something happens within. Consciousness expands and sees that which before was invisible. One feels a flow of warmth; a Presence never before known becomes tangible, very real.

You can start by believing in the possibility of communion with this inner Presence as invited in

Be Still and KNOW that I AM God—Psalm 46:10

Belief is a 1st step.  It can be your viewing the signpost that points the way into the unknown. However, do not become one who is a signpost longer. – Eckhart Tolle

The Difference by Way of Authority

religious and spiritual authority

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Exoteric Authority

When you follow the Exoteric Way, the authority for your religious belief is an outer authority. It is a collective outer authority.

To belong to the religion, it requires you to accept certain principles and tenants of the faith. For example, when I was a member of a church choir in Northern Ireland it was a practice that I would recite the Creed.

I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.

While I recited this tenant of faith, I felt nothing when doing so other than feel a doubt that I did not express.

Esoteric Authority

When you journey the Esoteric Way, the authority for your spiritual journey is inner. This does not mean that you cannot ask for and receive spiritual direction from another.

However, the primary guidance is from “The Still Small Voice Within.”  This is sometimes a voice, but mostly it is how you find your life flowing. There is less and less struggle.

You feel In Tune with the Infinite. (Ralph Waldo Trine)

The direction you receive is from the practice of stillness and silence. This is how the mystic communes with Divine Presence.

The nearest thing to God is Silence—Meister Eckhart—German Mystic (1260-1328)

It is honouring the primary spiritual instruction “Be Still and KNOW that I AM God.” How you practice this primary spiritual guidance is for you to explore as part of your progressive journey of awakening.

This is not knowing ‘about’ God. It is the direct KNOWING of you and the Divine as One.

The Difference by Way of Promises

the promise of religion

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The Promise of the Exoteric Way

The Exoteric Way promises you that your reward will be in Heaven or Paradise or some other place that no one has ever discovered. This is provided that you adhere to the tenants of the religious doctrine.

You are promised this reward once you die, but not before.

Many who walk the Exoteric Way assert that their way of walking is the only way. Therefore, if you do not belong to their religious group, you are not one of the chosen. Theirs is the practice of a kind of personal religious elitism.

The Promise of the Esoteric Way

Walking the Esoteric Way is where you are open to the direct experience of union NOW. Through grace, you experience Heaven on Earth and not at some later place and time.

One of the key revelations of walking the Esoteric Way is the revelation that you are eternal. The walker of the Esoteric Way considers eternity to be a very long time beyond measurement.

The walker of the Esoteric Way will be graced the KNOWING that eternity is outside of time and is forever NOW.

While the walker of the Exoteric Way considers eternal life a reward for doing good and believing in the right way, the walker of the Esoteric Way KNOWS that eternal life is who you are.

You and eternity are not separate and have never been separate.

The most radical aspect of the Esoteric Way is the revelation that there is no such thing as ‘sin.’ Imagine what would happen to organized religion if this were the direct revelation for most everyone.

There would be no sinners to save. This changes the focus of Christian teachings from one of Jesus dying for sinners to his life, becoming a living demonstration of the way to union with the Divine.

Buddhism affirms this illusory reality of non-separateness in the vow of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is one who has attained enlightenment but takes the vow.

I vow to save all sentient beings from Samara (separation) knowing that no sentient being has ever been separate.

They share this same understanding in A Course of Miracles.

Lesson 259

Let me remember that there is no sin.

  1. Sin is the only thought that makes the goal of God seem unat­tainable. What else could blind us to the obvious, and make the strange and the distorted seem more clear? What else but sin en­genders our attacks? What else but sin could be the source of guilt, demanding punishment and suffering? And what but sin could be the source of fear, obscuring God’s creation; giving love the attributes of fear and of attack?
  1. Father, I would not be insane today. I would not be afraid of love, nor seek for refuge in its opposite. For love can have no opposite. You are the Source of everything there is. And everything that is remains with You, and You with it.

Invitation to the Journey of Spirituality

invitation to the esoteric way

Spirituality is the Unfurling of Your Sails – Richard Rohr

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In this Lesson 1 of A Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Awakening, you are invited to journey the Esoteric Way. This is the Way of the Few. Do not consider this elitism or some form of superiority.

The question you have to answer for yourself is, “Do you want to KNOW God or are you content to remain a believer or non-believer.”

Let me ask this question in another way, “Do you want to KNOW LOVE?”

Travelling the Esoteric Way is the journey into KNOWING who, and why you are. It is not for the faint of heart. It is a challenging journey. It requires that you be true to thine own self.

Sometimes and even often there is the experience of loneliness. You are longing to love and be loved, and all that there appears is a kind of emptiness. There is a paradox to be realized. It is from a primal emptiness that all fulfilment arises.

You are created to be a KNOWER of the Way of Love. This is your birthright. The choice is yours. I hope that you will take the 1st steps along the Road Less Taken.

Tony Cuckson
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