I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain. Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?
My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?
What is “not religious”?
In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.
The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.
Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”
What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?
First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.
Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.
Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?
Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.
The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.
Whose fault is this?
Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.
While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious” not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?
Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.
Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.
 We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!
Photo from: here
14 thoughts on “Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful””
Reblogged this on preachtruthyoumoron and commented:
Love this guy!
Glad you made the trip. Must have been a real mountain topper. I’ve longed for such a journey yet wondered myself how I might respond. Age has crept upon me unaware. Fifteen miles a day for ten days is a robust challenge.
I’ve heard very few self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” It does identify a person’s being. I was pleased when the Psychiatric Diagnostic Statistical Manual added spirituality as a category to be used in diagnosis. I’m saddened it has been removed from the latest edition. The word “spiritual” can be ambiguous.
In several decades I’ve had only three different persons of the Jewish tradition state they were “not religious.” When I asked what they meant, they said, “I don’t go to temple.” (No institutional religion.) Others in a different tradition simply said, “I don’t go to church.” Perhaps this phrase “spiritual but not religious” developed to defend oneself from the craziness of salesmanship style evangelism. Enough about that. That’s another blog in itself.
It is easy to chat with everyday people on trains, in stores, even at church social events. Some do not consider “spirituality” an accepted topic of conversation. Yet when there is privacy, they feel safe, and I show willingness to listen, many ease into dialogue about their personal concerns and uncertainties about God.
Perhaps we simply need to learn to create cozy listing relationships where persons can open their hearts.
Hello Raymond. Greetings to you, good doctor.
It seems to me that we have been very bad in conservative”organized religion” at creating room for dialogue.
In the progressive church we are often good at listening and not so good at providing any boundaries to the dialogue. In the progressive church we are often so open as to create no challenge to engagement. It is a tough balance to be roomy yet intellectually challenging. Or we might just help people have a personal connection with God. 🙂
Love your last sentence. That’s why we are here.
I’m not anti-institution. For any group to hang together there must be connection and leadership. Otherwise a group disintegrates.
I grow sad to see we spend so much energy keeping the institution glued together. Maybe through working together on our institutions we also work on our selves and snags. I’m heartened God has not given up on us.
One of my favorite books is “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. He quotes his Mother’s instructions to him as a child: “When you’ve got an answer, it’s time to find better questions.” Something to consider.
A great quote!
Always appreciate the depth of your thought processes, Matt. Yes, Jesus calls us to be Spiritual AND Religious…..! Thank you for reasoning together with us.
Thank you, Elizabeth. Hope you are well!
A great explanation of a subject I’ve been pondering for some time. You clarified a lot for me. Thanks Matt.
I’d ask if you’d seen The Babylon Bee but we are friends on FB so it is entirely not possible that you’ve missed it. They had one on this the other day. Then the one about the minefields today. Christian #firstworldproblems this is. (Oh, and hi, Betty!)
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Testing… I just tried to reply and it wouldn’t let me! If it works I will try again.
It is odd. I try to approve your “Test” and WordPress un “approves” it. Very odd. Sorry!
(I wish I could do a pouty face emoji) I guess they don’t like me…. Try contacting them and tell them they have a bug they need to fix – or to stop “hating” on me. 😉