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Spirituality outside the context of religion


Question & Answer

Mike from SanFrancisco asks:


I am interested in spirituality but not in religion but isn’t spirituality the same as religion?

Answer: By Rev. Matthew Fox

Recently I had a thoughtful discussion with a thirty-something who wanted to talk about spirituality but seemed to see it exclusively in the context of religion. And, like many of his generation, he was no longer connected to religion as such. He had a hard time seeing spirituality in his everyday world and yet he was working hard in preparing himself for a new profession, namely one in alternative (Chinese) medicine. I tried to get him to think of that as a spiritual calling; as a vocation of service. At first he was very hesitant.

Then I asked him, “What is your favorite painting?” Immediately he responded that it was Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes. “Why?” I asked. “Because it was so ordinary a subject,” he remarked; “Shoes take us places every day; I identified with those shoes. I just love that painting.”

He was getting it. Spirituality is our everyday experiences of depth and deeper meaning and the connection that they carry. Spirituality is present wherever we undergo or observe deeply. In this instance it came alive for this individual who is moved to observe or consider the shoes, the maker of the shoes, the wearer of the shoes and the fact that shoes take us places including to work, and to our loved ones and to home. Thus the artist painting the shoes and the young adult seeing this painting 140 year later—all of it comes alive and is triggered in Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes and the young man’s memory and appreciation of that painting.

Rabbi Heschel says that the role of ritual is “to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives.” An artist does that. Even our shoes carry radiance worth keeping alive in our lives. Often the first question about spirituality comes to this: “What makes you most come alive?” In this story, it was Van Gogh’s painting of his shoes. And you?

~ Rev. Matthew Fox

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 32 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 60 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship. His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the FleshTransforming Evil in Soul and Society, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved and Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest

A new school, adopting the pedagogy Fox created and practiced for over 35 years, is opening in Boulder, Colorado this September.  Called the Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality it is being run by graduates of his doctoral program and will offer MA, D Min and Doctor of Spirituality degrees.  See

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