Why don’t we who are steeped in religion fess up? That is, confess that many of us are “religious, but not spiritual.”
When I was a teenager, because I was turned off to God by what I observed in people in my church, I chose to be atheist. Religion led me away from God. After three years of embracing atheism and realizing that wasn’t my truth, I returned full force to Christian religious practice and religious dogma.
During my college years, as I began meeting a range of individuals, across religious traditions and none, from whom I felt wondrous, loving spirit, I began asking God and myself if my religious practices were the only ways for people to live powerful spiritual lives.
In my twenties, as I continued to be turned off by “good church folks” and other religious practitioners, yet enlivened by my encounters with God, I became among the many who proclaim themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”
Given my proud commitment to this proclamation, I did not welcome the constant push from God for me to become an ordained Christian minister. It took almost twenty years of my kicking and screaming before I finally said yes. Think about it, how could I proudly proclaim that “I hang out with those religious types, but I’m not really one of them,” if I were one of their leaders?
Thank you, Professor Kate Blanchard for your article, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Come Talk to Me“ in Religion Dispatches, in which you fess up to being spiritual but not religious. Your article inspired me urge us religious types to be honest and ask ourselves what it is about the teachings, practices, and culture of organized religion that has people running away in droves?
Often, “religious” folks cast blame upon the “spiritual but not religious” folks, saying such things as, “they just want a cafeteria-style spirituality, “ “they just don’t want the responsibilities that come with commitment,” “they just want God to answer their prayers without being expected to bring anything in return,” and so on. But let’s dig deeper and more honestly than that.
What does this expression, “spiritual, but not religious” really tell us? Based on my own use of this expression, I suggest that it tells two things. One, a self-identification as “spiritual” reflects a belief in the existence of and connection to a life force that is bigger than and transcends the physical, rational, and temporal aspects of our lives. A self-identification as spiritual is also an affirmation of a recognition of one’s soul to live a life that is a unique and authentic expression of God, the Divine, the Universe. The proclamation of spiritual is far from being soft, or empty, or meaningless. It is a celebration of the spiritual beings that we are before, during, and after our physical experiences.
Two, a self-definition as “not religious” reveals a rejection of the social norms and structures of organized religion that prescribe how individuals should live, act, speak, eat, engage in sex, and love in a one-size-fits-all approach that suggests a God who created diversity but does not allow for it. “Not religious” is a refusal to live with constant judgment and condemnation of others. “Not religious” is an intentional choice to live with honesty about one’s brokenness rather than the conventional religious approach to pretend as if all is well even when one’s family, finances, worklife, or health are falling apart.
What does all of this mean for me as an ordained Christian minister? Too often, I have seen religious people develop programs, structures, policies, and theologies that shape God in their image. Too often, religious people attempt to control the direction of their place of worship, prayer, and study and insist that God bless their plan. Many religious people pray only when they gather together in community. There is more emphasis on religious dogmas than spiritual deliverance. Some religious people do not want their leaders to be led by the Spirit because it is too disorienting when the Spirit really takes control of our personal lives and our institutions. In short, many of us are “religious, but not spiritual.”
Religious but not spiritual was what Jesus Christ sought to awaken the community from in his day. Religious but not spiritual is prevalent today. Much of how religion, across traditions, is being practiced and promoted today leaves people emotionally broken, spiritually malnourished, and vulnerable to manipulations of terror (religious, social, economic, and political).
I am not suggesting that there are no redeeming (pun intended) qualities about being religious. I do not want us to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Religious practice, both individually and in community, offers experiences with the Divine that uplift, heal and renew. Religious teachings guide and empower people enabling them in ways to transform their lives that they could not otherwise do. Religion is an incredible resource of hope.
It is my prayer and my hope that we would create an end to the practice of religion that locks God in gilded sepulchers and that leaves any of God’s children beaten up and left to die. I pray that there would be more inspiration and opportunities for people to be both spiritual and religious in ways that bring life, renew hope and restore peace.
Really allowing the spirit to direct our lives and our religious institutions can be a scary proposition. We never know where the Spirit will take us. The Spirit might change the direction of our lives and our institutions. Or lead us into the belly of a great fish like Jonah. To forgiveness of our enemies and those whose politics are different from our own. To honesty and transparency about our own brokenness, and thus to healing.
Imagine what being spiritual and religious might do in our lives. Prof. Blanchard, let’s meet for tea, and perhaps some others might join us and imagine together.