Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Spiritual, But Not Religious?" Maybe You Should Think Again

I know you've heard someone say it before- "Oh, I'm not religious, but I am spiritual." They say it with such pride. Heck, I've even said it in the past, trying weakly to differentiate myself from "religious, church folk" who are judgmental, hypocritical and embarrassing to the faith. But lately, I've realized just how non-committal that phrase sounds. I mean, what does, "I'm spiritual" even actually mean, anyway? There are people with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds who all claim to be "spiritual". Some people are even Agnostics- unsure if there is a Higher Power- yet refer to themselves as spiritual!

I understand the folks who don't want to be called "religious" since it often has negative connotations tied to the word. Others, though, are "spiritual" simply because they don't want to commit to any one faith tradition. They want it all. The problem with this I've found, is to everything in practice becomes very little, if nothing. I once dated a guy in college who I labeled a "Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Everything". Although he was raised Baptist, he had fallen away from any church, and chose to cherry-pick through what he deemed the best of them all. And the strange thing is, although he thought Jesus was awesome, he never actually read the Gospels. He respected the Koran, but never attended a mosque or read more than a few Hadiths. While trying to claim it all, he did nothing and believed very little. Needless to say, the relationship fizzled out pretty quickly.

Over on Busted Halo, I stumbled on this article by the Reverend James Martin, a Catholic priest. Here's an excerpt from his piece:

"Everybody seems to be spiritual these days — from your college roommate, to the person in the office cubicle next to yours, to every other celebrity interviewed. But if “spiritual” is fashionable, “religious” is unfashionable. This is usually expressed as follow: “I’m spiritual but just not religious.” It’s even referred to by the acronym SBNR.

The thinking goes like this: being “religious” means abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. (Which would have surprised many thinking believers, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Dorothy Day and Reinhold Niebuhr.) Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial — so goes the thinking — stifling the growth of the human spirit. (Which would have surprised St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Or worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world...

There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organizations, and therefore prone to sin. And frankly, people within religious organizations know this better than those outside of them.

Some say that on balance religion is found wanting. Still, I would stack up against the negatives some positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic Charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King again. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo...

Still, it’s not surprising that, given all the problems with organized religion, many people would say, “I’m not religious.” They say: “I’m serious about living a moral life, maybe even one that centers on God, but I’m my own person.”

“Spiritual” on the other hand, implies that, freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God. The term may also imply that you have sampled a variety of religious beliefs that you have integrated into your life. You meditate at a Buddhist temple, participate in Seders with Jewish friends at Passover, sing in a gospel choir at a local Baptist church (great again), and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church (also great).

You find what works for you, but don’t subscribe to any one church: that would be too confining. Besides, there’s no one creed that represents exactly what you believe.

But there’s a problem. While “spiritual” is obviously healthy, “not religious” may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it’s not just a question of you and God.

Because this would mean that you’re relating to God alone. And that means that there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.

We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. And not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to recognize when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or even wrong.

Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success — a popular idea today. Were she part of a mainstream Christian community, though, she would be reminded that suffering is part of the life of even the most devout Christian. Without the wisdom of a community, she may gravitate towards a skewed view of Christianity. Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.

This reminds me of a passage from a book called Habits of the Heart, written by Robert Bellah, sociologist of religion, and other colleagues, in which they interviewed a woman named Sheila, about her religious beliefs. “I believe in God,” she said. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”

More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.

Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.

By the same token, religious institutions need themselves to be called to account. And here the prophets among us, who are able to see the failures, weaknesses and plain old sinfulness of institutional religion, play a critical role. Like individuals who are never challenged, religious communities can often get things tragically wrong, convinced that they are doing “God’s will.” (Think of the Salem witch trials, among other examples.) They might even encourage us to become complacent in our judgments. Unreflective religion can sometimes incite people to make even worse mistakes than they would on their own. Thus, those prophetic voices calling their communities to continual self-critique are always difficult for the institution to hear, but nonetheless necessary...

Religion provides us with something else we need: stories of other believers, who help us understand God better than we could on our own...

Religion also reflects the social dimension of human nature. Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.

Experiencing God also comes through personal interactions within the community. Sure, God communicates through private, intimate moments — as in prayer or reading of sacred texts — but sometimes God enters into relationships with us through others in a faith community. Finding God often happens in the midst of a community — with a “we” as often as an “I.” For many people this is a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Or more broadly, religion...

Overall, being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other. Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community."

To read the article in its entirety, click here.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I always thought the "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion" slogan was b.s. Of course it's a religion! I can't stand it when people cave in to society by adopting euphemisms for unpopular ideas. Just make the ideas (Christian religion) popular again! In fact, I've gotten to where I hardly ever use terms like "faith" or "spiritual" but instead refer to "religion" or "religious" people. I like to fight the power that way.

Alisha De Freitas said...

I think we think we sound more "seeker sensitive" when we say it's all "relationship". But in reality, as you pointed out, it's both. Religion might not be cool today, but Christianity is a religion. It's also our faith, and should be the worldview from which we gain perspective.

Looking at a good chunk of the New Testament, we see from Paul's writings the necessity of structure for the church and how Christians are all part of the Body of Christ. We need each other. And our churches (whatever denom or group to which we belong) need us to. It's interdependent. So it's a relationship. It should never be "Sheilaism"!

I agree with you. We just need to reclaim the term. I'm proud to be a CHRISTian!

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