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.