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Spiritual but not Religious

A lot of ink is spilled on the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”  While this phrase is used in different ways, most people use the phrase “spiritual” to refer to their personal relationship with God and “religious” to refer to a manner of organizing or institutionalizing this relationship.  The phrase sounds pious and, I believe, even contains an element with which I agree.  However, overall, it is a bad way of viewing our relationship with God.  Here’s why.

I’m going to provide an extended quote with which I wholeheartedly agree.  While there are other concerns with the phrase that are not brought up in this quotation, I think he nails what he says:

“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, alone, are relating to God.  And that means there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.

We all tend to think we’re correct about most things, and spiritual matters are no exception.  Not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience.  It also means less chance to see that you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture or even that you are wrong.

Let’s 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 toward a skewed view of Christianity.  Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop Christ 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, a 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 the spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique, or a 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 may degenerate into selfishness.

Religion can provide a check to 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 to be called to account.  And here the prophets among us, who are able to see the failures, weaknesses, and plain old selfishness 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, but nonetheless necessary…

It’s a healthy tension: the wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth.  As with many aspects of spiritual life, you need to find life in the tension.”

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  1. mikewittmer
    July 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    This is a great post. I frequently hear the “spiritual but not religious” to mean the “Sheilaism,” a sort of Do It Yourself spirituality where the individual tends to usurp the role of God. I don’t see how this is much better than naturalism. Is there much difference in thinking I am God and believing that there is no God?

  2. Brian McLaughlin
    July 29, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I think the author’s comparison to New Age nails it. There is no God…just me.

    It really is an amazing quote, including the need for prophets to challenge the institutions. And all of this from a priest!!!

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