Spiritual, Not Religious – Further Thought


“She does it religiously.” Whatever “it” may be, she does it regularly rather than occasionally, and she does it faithfully with an apparent sense of commitment and purpose. This use of the word “religiously” implies a discipline.

My previous post led a friend to question whether I might have been too hard on my fellow Christians and too easy on those who reject “organized religion” in favor of a spirituality which may, for some or many, be far less than a discipline of life and mind. My friend is right, of course, that Christians have not all been smugly closed-minded and judgmental toward people who have struggled to fit into the churches without abandoning their own uniqueness and integrity. Neither are those who proclaim themselves spiritual without religion all nearly so concerned with being spiritual as with being simply not religious. I suspect, though, that the Christians who would be least offended by my call for the humility of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity would be those already least dismissive of the irreligious. Likewise, I suspect the non-religious who most seriously seek spirituality might be less easily dismissive of religion than their fellow “unbelievers” who more honestly just don’t want to be bothered with the quest for meaning in life or with the struggle for a more humane human community.

I do not, however, think the main concern should be with suspicions about the each other’s possible lack of integrity and serious-mindedness. Rather, let us look to our own houses.

In the United States, especially, Christianity is having a very hard time accepting its minority status, loss of prestige, and waning power over public opinion, morality, and custom. The churches were pleased to be the benevolent authority, but the role of servant seems less gratifying despite being the one to which Jesus has called all who would follow him. Ministers and priests used to be the men (always) with the answers, a pretentious role that made for considerable private distress and self-doubt for those who thought most deeply and cared about the people most strongly. It was a terrible burden to be the one who was supposed to be able to explain everything satisfactorily, who should be able to make sense even of the tragically unfair and the cruelly senseless. Thankfully, those who have been able to take some of the authoritarian out of Christian faith and ministerial calling have been delivered from the pretense but, of course, must now deal with grief as grief and with faith as trust rather than certitude.

Because, I think, the point of saying, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” is to close the door on judgment by the religious, whether and to what degree the person is serious about being spiritual, and because Jesus has told us not to pass judgment upon each other, we do better to question our own motives and commitments than to assume triviality in others. If we share the questions about life’s meaning, we will, I believe, get further together than if we declare life’s meaning known and spelled out with “take it or leave it” authority. More and more people are choosing to leave it. So, with the apostle Paul, we might do well to acknowledge with some humility that our knowledge is partial and our prophecy imperfect, that we do indeed on this side of the resurrection see life only as through a glass dimly. Then perhaps we can walk together in trust with hope, letting questions be questions and people be themselves.