I often hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
The sentiment just wearies me. I wonder if what these people are, despite their sometimes angry claims to the contrary, is “religious but not spiritual.”
Let me explain.
I will admit my bias. I am a pastor, with a stake in the health of the institutional Church — and I am a vocal proponent of that Church. Despite its many failings over the centuries, far more good has been done than harm. Untold millions of people have been motivated to ethical and compassionate, if not truly sacrificial, action, small and large, because of Christian faith. The sum of tangible benevolence and intangible good will that has been generated across two millennia far surpasses the admittedly egregious exceptions to Christ’s rule of love.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say the Church is hopelessly flawed, and let’s further hypothesize the ultimate demise of the Church, which “spiritual but not religious” people seem to desire, explicitly or implicitly.
Even in such a perfectly Church-less society, what possible meaning could “spiritual but not religious” hold?
Give me any reasonable definition of “spiritual” that is not derivative of “religious,” and I will give you a “spirituality” that is not at all spiritual! One cannot be a “spiritual naturalist” or a “spiritual materialist.” Those descriptors belong to a purely mechanistic, godless world, whose proponents teach that all that exists is empirically verifiable (tangible, measurable) nature. There is no spirit, and, thus, no possibility of being “spiritual.” So, any sense of “Spirit” or “the spiritual,” however veiled or unknowable (agnostic), admits to the existence of the religion impulse.
By definition, religion is spiritual and spirituality is religious.
It is possible, then, to be “spiritual but dishonest,” or “spiritual but lazy,” or “spiritual but angry,” or “spiritual but fed-up” — and it is possible to be “unspiritual” — but it is intellectually dishonest to claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”
Merriam-Webster defines “religious” not only as relating to God and the domain of Church, but also as “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.” Synonyms are “fervent, zealous.” So, it is completely fair to acknowledge that the NFL is religion to many, as is golf, or booze, or Sunday mornings at Starbucks.
And the point is this — by claiming the word, but practicing so unfaithfully, the so-called “spiritual but not religious” just blackens the eye of those who are actually protecting and promoting the very spirituality they claim to be so important.
I ask you: Who will offer spirit, and a life of spirit, when the Church is gone? Who will make Sunday mornings quiet and lazy when we, “misguided” Church people, have given up “religion” and also begin to practice our lone ranger “spirituality” with you at Starbucks?
The final, sad and ironic thing about this so-called “spirituality,” is that it engenders the opposite of what true spirituality provides — and this false gospel will eventually sabotage the whole enterprise.
Religion, which shares a Latin root with our word “ligament,” binds people together. And spirituality, by admitting to the presence of some Other, necessarily depends upon relationship, not aloneness; community, not the rugged individual; us, not me — some form of Church community, not just a cup of joe at Starbucks.
So I appeal to those of you who are actually religious but not spiritual: be honest about your beliefs — or come home to the Church and help us preserve true spirituality.