Religious but Not Spiritual
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’ve heard that phrase from many, Christians and non-Christians alike. Robert C. Fuller, professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University describes those who identify as spiritual but not religious,“[They] feel a tension between their personal spirituality and membership in a conventional spiritual religious organization…For them spirituality has to do with private reflection and private experience–not public ritual.”1 There is a trend in America towards this private spirituality over organized religion. There is definite appeal in this kind of attitude towards God or an unnamed higher power. One can acknowledge God’s existence, or possible existence as a skeptic or agnostic, without bearing the burden of performing all the religious acts that accompany traditional belief.
I find myself, however, on the opposite side of this trend. I consider myself to be religious but not spiritual. I suppose I’m just not a very spiritual person. I don’t feel a spiritual energy, a spiritual connection, or a spiritual anything – especially when held in tension with the concrete, empirical, and measurable. I chronically struggle with the notion of a supernatural Being that moves within the course of human history. If there is a God at work in this world, where is the proof? As a Christian I believe in the Holy Spirit, who guides, teaches, and sustains us. But how do I know when the Spirit is at work? How do I know the Spirit is trying to tell me something or if it’s just my own duty to justice or my training to pursue good?
The answer to these questions, for me at least, is that I don’t know. I can’t come up with the answers to these questions of spirituality on my own. Anything I come up with on my own will be precisely that: my own. This personalized spirituality appeals to my penchant for individualism and autonomy, two virtues of this age that reflect the zeitgeist of solipsism that has infiltrated our culture. There’s nothing wrong with autonomy and independence. I like that I can watch “New Girl” at my convenience and eat Wendy’s at 2 in the morning. But the downside of individualism is a bias towards egocentrism: the view that life revolves principally around oneself.
The reality of our predicament as humans denies the egocentric attitude. We are connected to and depend upon one another in vast and complicated networks. We are connected not only to other human beings but also to our environment – the earth we tread and everything that shares our global habitat. To be blind to the world beyond oneself is at best irresponsibly naïve and at worst willfully selfish.
Religion is an institution that helps me think beyond myself. Active and intentional participation within a community of people who acknowledge their codependence brings a healthy measure of balance to my life, moving me away from my tendency towards egocentrism. The Bible states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). True religion moves one beyond oneself to care for those in need: the socially disadvantaged, the economically struggling, and all those broken physically or emotionally.
Organized Christian religion is far from achieving the goal of care for the downtrodden. The church is not perfect, just like every human organization. Does the church sometimes hurt people? Does the church sometimes participate in the oppression of the marginalized? Does the church do silly, backwards, and even sinister things? Yes, yes, and yes. And while there is no excuse for that, we must remember that the church is made up of imperfect humans. I could ask the same questions of our government that exists to protect and serve its people. Our government has hurt people, participated in the oppression of the marginalized, and has legislated silly, backwards, and even sinister things. We live in a human world full of imperfect human beings, and this side of eternity, humans will continue to be imperfect. Yet still we cling to the hope that together, we can make a difference in the world. The systems and organizations may be imperfect and broken, but that does not mean they are useless.
Religion helps us have faith that we can move mountains. We’re not moving literal mountains; the Rockies are fine just where they are. The obstacles I’m referring to are the mountains of social inequality and economic disparity. Religion helps us see beyond ourselves. For all its flaws, religion moves us beyond a private, personalized, individualized spirituality into a codependent community of admittedly flawed people who are working together to make the world a better place.
Can these things be accomplished by an individualistic spirituality, morality, and ethic? Perhaps. But in my experience I’ve learned that when people work together, the lever needed to move the world is shorter than when individuals try to play superman.
There are many reasons why organized religion is not the devil himself, and this is just one reason I choose to participate in organized religion. Religion is much more than good deeds and helping other people. Religion requires faith and belief in Something beyond oneself. And while I don’t have all the answers to the spiritual questions, I cling to faith. When I pit my own reasoning against the mysteries of the supernatural and the Unknown, I come up frustrated and unable to arrive at satisfactory answers. As non-omniscient humans, we live within a certain fog of unknown towards the supernatural. There is so much that we cannot empirically measure, prove, or see. But rather than being paralyzed by my lack of spirituality, or spiritual-connectedness, I choose to engage in moving against the silence I can see. I choose to have faith in a God who has established a community that is working together to change the world and committed to breaking the silence imposed on the oppressed, the hurting, and the broken.
1 Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 4
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