Spiritual, but not religious

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Many couples that I encounter when I am doing weddings and many people in society that I chat with tell me that they consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”  It is easy to hear such a self-categorization and take it as a cop-out of sorts.  It sounds like an excuse not to go to church and that is often how we in the church take it.  We are very quick and ready to accuse such people of being irreverent heathens.  But what does it really mean to be spiritual?  What does it mean to be religious?

In my own mind, I equate religion with church buildings, mosques, synagogues, temples, and the like.  I associate it with the rituals and practices of organized sacred institutions and the list of creeds and beliefs that we subscribe to.  Spirituality, on the other hand, seems to me more equatable with the search for or awareness of the divine.  In other words, I would opine that spirituality is the encounter of the sacred and religion is the material remnant that is created to commemorate those encounters.  If this is the case, then Abraham Heschel’s quote about religion (one of many) makes perfect sense to me:

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”
― Abraham Joshua HeschelGod in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

If Heschel is correct here, then the post-modern individual’s rejection of religion should come as no surprise.  We have numerous choices to find religion.  There are literally hundreds of churches and other places of worship in any area that we live in, but to today’s society, this is not good enough.  It is not what they are looking for.  So what is it they are looking for?  I think first and foremost we need to ask and have the discussion.  This time, it is the Church’s turn to listen.  For millennia the Church has been giving decrees and telling folks the way it’s gonna be, but isn’t it time that the church start listening to culture for a change?  I plan to have this discussion at my church very soon.

In the meantime, however, I have some idea of what is happening here.  At my own seminary (Northern Theological Seminary) most people are evangelical and set in their beliefs.  On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much searching.  At other seminaries that I have had the opportunity to study at, however, it is another story entirely.  Surely there are those who are already “convinced” that their beliefs are correct and feel no reason or inclination to seek.  I have encountered many people recently, however, who are in seminary and mentioned that they have been Buddhist, Jewish, Episcopalian, UCC, Southern Baptist, etc.  Sometimes this is one person undergoing all of these conversions!  Are these people just fickle and ridiculous?  Perhaps.  But I would rather think that they are searching for something profound that they don’t seem to be able to find.  Namely – God.

I don’t think that it is too unrealistic to see that, in many cases, the Church has divorced religion from spirituality at the expense of pushing rituals and doctrines that must be entertained at the intellectual (or not) level, but have not left room for a true encounter with the divine.  What would it look like if we had a genuine discussion with the “spiritual, but not religious” and then actually did something with what we learned?  What if we not only “allow” folks to be spiritual, but help and guide them in the process?  Perhaps, then, we could reconnect the spiritual aspects with the religious aspects once again giving meaning to the Church?  Then again, we could just stick with the status quo.  Let’s not forget though that like the old proverb says – if we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.

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3 Responses to “Spiritual, but not religious”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    My Mom was raised Catholic but became estranged from the Church, and so my brothers and I were not raised with any religiosity. But I have always felt, notwithstanding her avowed agnosticism (if not veiled atheism), that her cup runneth over with spirituality.

    She had the most fantastic dreams, and remembered them vividly, most of which were fantastic and supernatural. I remember one in particular in which she was walking through a house and visiting all of her loved ones door to door, room by room — including the last one in which she found herself, as a little girl. In others, she would be roaming in outer space, not adrift in the cosmos, but rather on journey to other planets, places. I used to marvel at her dream state, and the Jungian manner in which she would so adroitly analyzed them.

    I also saw time and again her empathy for others, including seeing her tear up after reading a book about the death squads in El Salvador on a Saturday afternoon. I asked her why she was so moved about the plight of people she never met and would never know? She answered something along the lines of, “Johnny, we are all the same people; what happens to them, happens to us.”

    I also remember well how she didn’t have any prejudice whatsoever; to the contrary, she introduced me to her friends (white and black, gay and straight) as equals, and so I learned by osmosis.

    All of which is to share that from my Mom I saw up close and personal someone who I felt was “spiritual, but not religious….”

    • Thanks for sharing this, John. I think if we are all honest we are really agnostics. This term has almost taken on a pejorative connotation, but this shouldn’t be the case. None of us knows “what lies beyond” and to embrace the mystery is to be an agnostic or even a mystic. If my only choice were to embrace the divine puppet master in the sky or nothing at all, I too would consider myself an atheist. Thankfully, I am able to adhere to another option that allows for the divine as the essence of everything, but not as the controlling force for every event that happens.

      It sounds to me like your mother would be well-deserving of the title “mystic” alongside the likes of Julian of Norwich or Theresa of Avila. I imagine that shedding the dogma and baggage of a stifling religion served her well. It allowed her to be aware of things that she couldn’t otherwise had she been locked in to an absolute system that has no place for mystery. Especially for someone like her, “spiritual, but not religious” is about as good as it gets – and that’s not a bad place to be.

  2. John Lovestrand Says:

    Thank you Brandyn. It is comforting to cross your path and to meet someone in your position (as Pastor) so open-minded and willing to share your own thoughts along these mystical lines. Your writings, like your sermons, are a revelation. My Mom would have appreciated you too, as her complaint was against the “clergy in name” only — those whom she perceived to be using the cloth to advance business interests {whom she dubbed, in a now-dated Dallas TV show reference, her guilty pleasure, “JR Ewing in a collar”. She had great admiration for the clergy who were the genuine article advocating for social justice. Though I used to tell her that I was not the “preacher” that she was — I cautioned her against trying to “convert” people when conversing — I am indeed my Mother’s son, and I remain influenced by her to this day.

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