Originally posted September 2, 2011, at Praying With Evagrius. Republished with permission of the author.
An article made its way around Facebook that addressed the “spiritual but not religious” issue that seems so prevalent.
So I read the little reflection and laughed.
I have this conversation all the time. Sometimes this comes up when people see my collar; other times it emerges when people see the giant Jesus tattooed on my forearm.
Both of those symbols are signs that Jesus is so incredibly important to me. I have tried as hard as I can to base my life on his teachings, to emulate his grace, to demonstrate the love he has shown me to others.
In the midst of that, I have failed miserably. I know that I have not forgiven as I have been forgiven; I know that I have not loved as I have been loved. This is part of the daily struggle.
We don’t always ’get’ it
To be serious about Jesus and his teachings is to enter a world that is difficult. It requires incredible self-reflection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so clearly states, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”
It is too bad that even people in the church don’t quite get that. Inside of any given congregation you have varying levels of commitments to the teachings of Jesus and the scriptures, as well as various understandings of how that should be lived out.
I do not believe that everyone in the church really gets the notion of self-sacrifice and reflection, of service, of mercy and generosity. There are also those who tend to think of the church as a social or moral obligation and do not bother digging beyond the surface.
So let me say this and say it clearly: Being inside of the church doesn’t mean that you get it. In fact, church membership means nothing. Nothing! Trust me, I’ve been to one too many country-club churches in my time where it was all about appearance.
Searching for spiritual fulfillment
So I get why people want to have nothing to do with the church and will look for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. I really do, because I was one of those people. The problem with this “spiritual but not religious” is that I think 90 percent of the time it is disingenuous.
Like the author of the article, I’ve heard all about sunsets and beaches and forest trails and how God seems to be all over nature. You know what: It is true. I feel really close to God at the beach, where earth and water begin to divide. I also hear God in thunderstorms and waterfalls.
Ubiquity of Christ
I see God everywhere.
We have a term for that in Christianity: the ubiquity of Christ. It is an actual doctrine we believe that has been handed down through the ages. We also have an unofficial idea approved by some parts of the believing community that says that there are “thin places” where the distance between the physical and spiritual realms are “thinner” than in other places.
“Spiritual but not religious” means you might have a hunch; “spiritual and religious” (by religious I mean willingly connected to a historic tradition that contextualizes belief and practice) means you have context and history that affirms and grants assurance to these hunches.
Being part of a historic faith means standing in a long line of people who have struggled with the same questions I am struggling with now. I am not left to my moods or my whims or anything else.
I have a community that challenges me and pushes me and affirms me and loves me and wrestles with the same questions, sometimes coming up with different answers. A community where there can be disagreement and consciences are respected is a pretty awesome thing.
Buddhists take this notion of community (“sangha”) so seriously that it is considered one of the three jewels of Buddhism, along with the Buddha and Dharma. For Christians we are reminded by St. Cyprian that having God as our father means having the church as our mother.
Not impossible but rare
I don’t think it is impossible to be “spiritual but not religious.” I just think it is a rarity. My experience has been much like the experience of Lillian Daniel, who wrote the original article that generated this post.
The only difference is I seem to have this conversation at wedding receptions or just after memorial services, when a member of the family approaches to say he is spiritual but not religious. I sit and listen for a few moments, but my mind is right where Daniels’ mind is:
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
So to all my spiritual but not religious friends: If you are really interested spirituality, you will eventually need to find yourself a community. And I don’t mean necessarily going to church. Find a group that can support you as you seek to deepen your knowledge of the divine. Of course, if you do want a church, I know a nice one on the south side of Atlanta!
Find a link to Robb Harrell’s blog Praying With Evagrius at Lutheran Blogs.