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Piety, spirituality, religion and fanaticism


After reading an article on Nidal Hasan, I was struck by the question about how  difficult it is many to distinguish between piety and fanaticism.  That got me going on a parallel track.  The author of the above article was actually commenting on an earlier article published in the Washington Post and asked the following:

In other words: when does piety become deadly? The question is not only how do you draw the line, but where? Daily prayer? Making a pilgrimage Mecca? Traveling to Pakistan for terror training?

Further, there is a serious societal danger in misreading piety for fanaticism.

Looking up pious on Wikipedia, I found the following: “While different people may understand its meaning differently, it is generally used to refer either to religious devotion or to spirituality, or often, a combination of both. A common element in most conceptions of piety is humility.”

Spirituality is one of those words that is often used today but seldom understood and has as many definitions as there are writers.  The word “spirituality” is not used in the Bible but there is “spiritual” or pneumatikos (greek).  Pneumatikos is used 21 times in the NT, 20 of these by Paul and 11 of them in 1 Corinthians.  It seems that the opposite of spiritual is unspiritual or fleshly (sarkinos) which is also translated as worldly in the NIV. Spiritual individuals are also contrasted with the immature or nerios in 1 Cor 3:1) Spiritual teaching is contrasted with human wisdom or sophia (1 cor 2:13).  Something is spiritual because of the work of the Holy Spirit (pneuma) and so we have spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:1, 14:1), spiritual people (Gal 6:1)  spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3), spiritual songs (Eph 5:19) , spiritual wisdom and understanding (Col 1:9) and a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5).  The one exception is in Eph 6:12 in which “the spiritual forces of evil” are referred and there spiritual seems to contrast with the fleshly or bodily forces of evil.  One could also look at Gal 5:22-23 to see what the fruit of the Spirit should be.

Now it gets very interesting when one considers religion or threskeia in the NT which is only used in three passages.  In Col 2:18 threskeia is used to describe the worship of angels.  And what does Paul equate with this religion?  False humility, an unspiritual mind that is “puffed up with  idle notions,” someone who has “lost connection with the Head” (referring to Christ), “based on human commands and teaching,” have an appearance of wisdom, self-imposed worship, false  humility, a “harsh treatment of the body” that “lacks any value in  restraining sensual  indulgence.”  Sounds like fanaticism to me.

When you look at threskeia in James 1:26, 27, we learn that true religion (spirituality?), religion that God accepts as “pure and  faultless”,  means that we can “control our tongue,” that “we take care of  orphans and widows in their distress” and involves keeping ourselves from “being polluted by the world.”  If we don’t do these things, then we are “deceived” and our “religion is worthless.”

I find this to be quite convicting personally and would welcome comments.

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  1. Ettore Grillo
    January 4, 2010 at 12:18 am

    The word pious comes from the Latin “Pietas”. It means compassion. It is not necessary to follow a spiritual or religious path, for being pious. Many atheist are like that. Nevertheless only the religion or a spiritual school can give you the tools for improving, refining your mind or soul. In fact the religions and the spiritual schools are created by persons endowed of a superior mind. Without them it is almost impossible to go on in whatever spiritual quest.
    The book I have recently written may help in this direction, and I want to draw it to your attention. The title is “Travels of the mind” and it is available at http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/TravelsOfTheMind.html
    If you have any question I am most willing to discuss about this topic.
    Ettore Grillo

    • January 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I did not go back to the origin of piety as you have done but as it was being used in the context to which I referred. I am quite hesitant to agree about the need to depend on persons endowed with superior minds for my spiritual quest. As the Scriptures teach, I think I want to follow those who follow Christ and possess a humble spirit and life.

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