Inclusive Spirituality

March 15th, 2011


It happened once again. I was asked to take a funeral in a tragic situation. The family described their dear departed as intelligent, philosophical, very musical AND particularly emphasized that he was spiritual but not religious. I feel right at home in that setting and have strong intuition about what people mean when they use the phrase.

I prefer to call it inclusive spirituality to avoid any unnecessary negatives. It’s generally healthier to talk about what you are than what you aren’t. It took me a while to come around to that distinction and I fought for the “spiritual but not religious” label for some time. But it’s not a fight I need to take on anymore. I’m very comfortable with the phrase inclusive spiritual and I think it catches the spirit of what people mean when they say spiritual but not religious but without the unnecessary drama. If there’s one thing we need less of in the world, its drama.

Labels are a funny thing. None of us want to live with them, but we can’t communicate without them. We spend our days growing in and out of various labels like a pair of jeans that shrink in the wash and stretch with use. That’s all fine as long as we don’t imagine that ANY of the labels fully define who we are. Even our most carefully crafted labels will fall short and grow holes eventually. Still, we do our best to identify ourselves with the language we have.

What are some of the features of inclusive spirituality? Let’s start with the bleeding obvious. It’s inclusive!

A cowboy went to an up market church wearing jeans, ragged boots and a worn out old hat. As the cowboy took his seat, people moved away from him. No one welcomed him. As the cowboy was leaving the church, the minister approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what he thinks would be appropriate attire for worship.” The old cowboy assured the preacher he would. The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored.

The preacher approached the man and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church.”
“I did,” replied the old cowboy.
“If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping in here?” asked the preacher.
“Well, sir, God told me that She didn’t have a clue what I should wear, seeing as She’d never been in this church.”

Maybe you have had your own experience of being made to feel unwelcome in church because you didn’t have the right clothes, lifestyle or labels. I couldn’t tell you how many people have asked me over the years, almost apologetically, if I would baptize their babies or conduct their weddings, even though they aren’t members of any church. Many of them have already been rejected by 5 or 6 churches who insisted that they go to classes or agree to certain labels.

The whole intent behind inclusive spirituality is to bring people together. Incidentally that’s also what the word “religion” means, “bring together”. If you are one of those people who have been shunned by the church because you didn’t measure up in some way or other, then this message is for you. Inclusive spirituality is concerned with bringing together; head and heart, past and present, beliefs and values, people and neighbors, tribe and nation, reason and passion, spirituality and religion. All of life is part of a unity that is miraculously connected and beautifully meaningful. Maybe you don’t even have to choose between spirituality and religion. Just be yourself, love what you love, and live beyond the labels.

Having It All. It’s All Spiritual!

Inclusive spirituality is about having it all, including it all, loving it all. Millions of people have been deeply moved by the Elizabeth Gilbert book, “Eat, Pray Love.” It’s the story of her search for meaning in a variety of places. She wanted her life to make sense as a whole, and she wanted to honor all the parts. She wanted to include even seeming opposites in a worldview that excludes nothing. She was on a quest to eat, pray and love with intention.

The concept of having it all always reminds me of a Seinfeld episode. George Castanza has a fantasy about making love to a woman while eating a sandwich. The scene has George under the sheets, his hands occasionally appearing out of the sheets to dip his pastrami sandwich in hot mustard. Then he says under his breath- “Now for the trifecta.” Grinning, he puts his ear piece in and begins watching a portable television under the sheets. The woman turns the light on, throws the sheets off and sees George eating his sandwich and watching television. She says, “what are you doing.” George replies sheepishly. “Pleasuring you?”

Narcissism, and pastrami, aside, what if it was possible to have it all and learn from it all? Inclusive spirituality honors all traditions, religious and otherwise, science included. It honors inner wisdom that intuits so much ancient wisdom. It honors the collective imagination and the earth’s wisdom. Inclusive spirituality touches every aspect of life, and includes all experience and all language. My favorite quote from Gilbert is about the value in cherry picking, which is taking wisdom from many different sources and not feeling tied to one tradition alone. She says, “I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted… You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.” (Eat Pray Love p. 208)

When it comes to life partners and family doctors you might want to find one and stick with them. There is something to be said for loyalty and intimacy in those cases. However when it comes to your spiritual essence on a unique human journey finding your connections to all else, no such limitations apply, because God is in your bloodstream. All of life is infused with wonder and meaning the way sunlight glistens on water and oxygen moves through your body. You don’t want to limit your experience of life any more than you want to limit your oxygen intake.

Inclusive Spirituality is Universal

I like to think that Jesus was a great humanist preacher and an inclusive spiritual teacher in his day. He seemed to prefer ordinary people over priests, compassion over rituals, and justice over judgment. Jesus traveled with a group of rural hippies who were critical of a religion controlled by Roman yuppies. Jesus was nominally Jewish, knew nothing of the later Christian movement named after him, and was intolerant of the intolerance of the temple. He seemed to appreciate nature and laughter and food. I don’t know what he thought of pastrami, but he certainly had his own way of eating, praying and loving with intention.

Jesus was living the truth of many ancient traditions that life is beautiful and every person and every experience contains some golden nugget of truth. There is an ancient story from India that points to the universal truth of unity.

The God Brahma got sick of being alone. So he created the goddess, Maya. Just for fun, Brahma and Maya created a whole world of illusion; sun, stars, planets, oceans, animals. Then they said, “Let’s create an animal that is so intelligent and aware that it can appreciate this wondrous creation.” So they created humans.

Then the game began. Maya cut Brahma up into millions of little pieces and placed a piece of Brahma in every human being. Maya said to the human beings, “ I am going to make you forget who you are, then you can try and find yourself. You will spend a lifetime searching for your true essence.”

Every now and again, a little spark of light awakens in each of us. It comes at odd moments, sometimes with thoughts, sometimes while eating, praying and loving, but also in spontaneous moments of new awareness. As more and more people have more and more moments of waking up to their true essence, the world becomes a more peaceful place.

Religion is one place that this awakening happens, but it’s not the only place. For many people, it doesn’t happen in religion anymore because religion has over identified with its labels and confused the label with the reality. If one religion or another still gets the job done for you, that’s great. If not, or if like me you don’t want to be limited to one perspective alone, then look to the life in front of you for inspiration. It’s all there, all inside of you, all at your feet. As Franz Kafka wrote,

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

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  1. Marjorie Jones says:

    WOW!!   Thanks, Ian, just what I needed to hear today.   Labels and name calling, so divisive.   Can’t wait to return to MI the end of April, just leave the light on, the snow cleared and the heat on!!  Marjorie Jones 

  2. ian says:

    we’re ready for you Marjorie and can’t wait to see you

  3. Patti says:

    Ian I am all about inclusivity and appreciated your article.  Are you a minister or life celebrant that you do weddings and funerals?  Did you produce a CD?  Seems to me I had one by an artist with a similar name awhile ago and it went missing… same guy?   I am studying to be a life celebrant specializing in funerals… it’s all about inclusivity!!

  4. ian says:

    hi Patti, im a minister but no longer operate within a mainstream religious context. I’m not a musician though- only in the shower 🙂
    Good to hear you are training. We need more inclusive leaders in the world.

  5. Kris says:

    LOVE the line about “hippie” Jesus and the Roman “yuppies!”  Great message — one I really needed today — thanks!

  6. joan cook says:

    I had to wait until my 60’s to hear someone put my spiritual truth into words.  Thank you for being our Risk Taker , Ian. 
    Joan Cook

  7. Todd Reinhard says:

    A great article, Ian.  Much love and light to you and yours.  “Religion,” incidentally, can also mean “binding back,” which is very similar to the meaning of the Sanskrit word “Yoga.”  Also, if you get a chance, I think you might be very interested in Joel Osteen’s last two sermons at the Lakewood Megachurch.  Personally, I was thrilled by what I heard, and I am hoping that he continues to preach in this direction.  Regardless, many blessings to you.  Namaste.

    Todd R.

  8. ian says:

    Awesome Kris. Have a great day

  9. ian says:

    Joan, you are a great inspiration to me, and an encouragement to keep taking risks. Namaste

  10. ian says:

    Todd, nice to hear from you. Its been a while. I will look up big Joel’s latest work. Namaste

  11. Todd Reinhard says:

    Yes, it has been a while, Ian.  I hope you have been well.  Just to be clear, check out #493 and 494 from Joel if you get the time.  I think he might have a repeat (464) as his latest installment currently posted on his site.  (I’m not sure why that is.)  Anyway, again, namaste.


  12. Keith Laidler says:

    I’m a recent  ‘finder’ of inclusive spiritual living.   I am growing from the truths offered in your articles and sermons. Imagine this: sometimes I can say “Wow, a ‘growth thought’ similar to that has recently occured in one of my meditation times.”  How affirming it is to be able to catch those nuggets of truth the Universe tosses to us.
    The Soulseeds subscription has paid off for me also many times over.
    I add my energy of agape to the warm gulf stream of nurturing life that is reaching the shores of your soul.

  13. ian says:

    hi Keith, thank you for writing and thank you for your kindness. Your last sentence is now my affirmation for today. Namaste

  14. Margaret says:

    Thank you to you all, and yes, Keith’s words are amazing as well and I shall attempt to live with all these words alive in my heart. Namaste to all margaret

  15. […] for what we now call spirituality without religion or as I call it inclusive spirituality. (Click here to read more about what I mean by inclusive spirituality) People are coming of age now like never […]

  16. David Ryan says:

    “Inclusive spirituality” is an improvement over “spiritual but not religious.”  However, the word spirituality still has a wide array of definitions.  Isn’t it all about finding meaning so why not just call it “the search for meaning?”  That is a pretty clear definition and yet it encompasses virtually every human activity.

  17. ian says:

    thx for your comment David. My sense is that many people are looking for language that describes depth and possibility. Meaning sounds bland and flat. So while I agree that we are describing the search for meaning, i think there is value in finding universal language that describes the multi facited, mysterious dimensions of meaning. My opinion, at this moment, anyway.

  18. David Ryan says:

    Thanks, Ian, for what you are doing and for your response.  So which is better?  a flat word like meaning around which we can create depth and possibility or a multi-definition word like spiritual that requires us to keep explaining what we mean.  As you know 400 hundred years ago our present day ghost meant spirit and our present day spirit meant ghost.  Think of all the evolutionary stages in a transition of that magnitude and it is no wonder that we have to explain what we mean when we talk about spiritual or spirituality.  Since I think the dominant definition of spiritual in our culture is a connection to an invisible, second-universe, assumption-based, “More” that pre-dates the Big Bang, I would more accurately describe myself as religious but not spiritual.  I am an evidence-based helper who participates regularly in a helping-community (church) but I don’t make the assumption of  the above definition of spiritual.  So I am religious but not spiritual but I am committed to the search for meaning in the midst of all of life.

  19. ian says:

    hi David- great reply. Love it.I know exactly where you are coming from, and I resonate. Your comment almost convinced me to do away with both religious and spiritual language- too much baggage in both. Its certainly good to say what we mean, with as little ambiguity as possible. I move more and more in a personal development direction, and occasionally dip my toes back into the language game around spirituality. When I do, this conversation inevitably arises.Im still trying to decide if its a worthy conversation or not.

  20. Todd Reinhard says:

    Either of you read Ludwig Wittgenstein?  Some keen insights…if you can follow the language games….

    Love and light to you both. 

  21. ian says:

    A long time ago Todd. We are “Imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to us to pull rather than push.” The language game requires a lot of pushing and shoving which is one reason I avoid it. Easy to get imprisoned. But I may be missing Ludwig’s point. NIce to hear from you Todd

  22. Todd Reinhard says:

    HA!  I think you’ve hit on the major issue, my friend.  Did Ludwig ever really have a point?  Is there really any meaning to meaning at all?  Or is “meaning” just another way of saying “no meaning”?  It’s all seriously humorous, I think.  Great to hear from you as well, Ian.  Keep up all your great work.  Luv you all.

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