Spiritual and Religious  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The phrase "I'm spiritual but not religious" has become one of the iconic hip expressions in 21st century America. It can be found in the mouths of a wide spectrum of folks, including but not limited to so-called bookstore Buddhists, Episcopalian Unitarians in drag, and de facto atheists/agnostics who are simply too pooped to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Abbot Andrew is the leader of St Gregory's Abbey, an Anglican community in Three Rivers, Michigan. In the summer 2008 Abbey Letter (the complete text of which can be found by visiting the site) he has a thing or three to say about "spiritual vs religious":

The Latin root for religion, religare, means "to bind". Religious practices live up to this meaning by making connections that bind people with each other and with God. Practices of spirituality are also capable of making these connections, but if spirituality is separated from religion, then whatever good they do for an individual's well-being, any connections they make with other human beings or God are tenuous at best. Basically, a person who is "spiritual but not religious" follows the spiritual quest alone. The extreme of this would be to live by Plotinus' famous phrase: "The alone to the Alone."

A condescending attitude comes across to me in the claim to be spiritual but not religious. It seems to suggest that religion is beneath one who is really spiritual. I'm sure that is not always the case with everyone who says this, but when I look back on my years of adolescence and early adulthood, I have to admit frankly that this sort of snobbishness was a large ingredient of my own outlook...Maybe my perception at the time that religious people usually weren't all that spiritual was true. I do see a lot more vital interest in spirituality in churches today than I remember seeing then, but there is also a real possibility that my snobbish attitude made it harder for me to see the spirituality that really was present in religious people...

A decisive factor that led to my becoming religious as well as spiritual was a dissatisfaction with the eclectic approach. I reached a point where I realized that, in order for my spirituality to be centered, it had to be rooted in a particular religious tradition. My settling on Christianity, however, was not made with the sense that one choice was as good as another. At the time of decision, Christ, who very definitely willed certain things, such as fellowship with me, became very real to me. God's grace and my choice to to give myself freely to the particular Personhood of Christ were so inextricably entwined that there is no way I can separate one from the other. "Particular" is the key word here. The missing ingredient in spirituality without religion is particularity. Before this conversion, it seemed that believing in an impersonal "god", whose manifestation on earth was not limited to one holy person, preserved my individuality. The irony is, that it is the making of particular choices in terms of friends, a community, and God that has enhanced my own particular individuality.

One of the particularities of Christianity is that the Holy Spirit makes spirituality religious by binding people and God together. The Holy Spirit is more than "the bond of love" between the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is a Person who actively brings the Father and the Son together and also actively brings each one of us, in our own particularity, to the Father and the Son and to each other in that same bond of Love. That Holy Spirit inspires us to love everybody, not in general but in particular. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit give us the impossible task of relating personally with billions of people. Rather, the Holy Spirit inspires us to follow Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors. Our neighbors are the particular people who happen to be present in our lives. With the Holy Spirit binding us together with God in this way, there is no room for binding together by way of collective violence. This is how the Holy Spirit makes religion spiritual.

Living spiritually and religiously requires that we face the challenge of living with our own particularity and the particularity of others. We cannot meet this challenge without commitment: commitment to God and commitment to our neighbors. It is easy to be tempted to shrink from this challenge. I had something of a relapse into being more spiritual than religious when I first considered a monastic vocation. I thought I could relate to God and grow spiritually with little reference to to the other members of the community if they weren't enough to my liking. But I learned very quickly that only by committing myself to the particular monks in this place could I grow spiritually. This is why Benedict puts so much emphasis on commitment in his Rule. Benedict has only disapproval for wandering monastics who hop from place to place without ever settling down. Such people are committed neither to God nor to other people. The Benedictine vow of stability of place is precisely a vow of commitment to God and to the particular people in a particular place, and the land and the trees, to say nothing of the cats. This kind of commitment may not sound as spiritual as attaining "cosmic consciousness', but it is by living with particular people who give us daily opportunities to make little sacrifices that we receive clear indications of when we are living in the Bond of Love of the Holy Spirit and when we are not....

It is true that I made a caricature of people who are spiritual but not religious at the beginning of this article. I know that many such people honestly struggle to participate in connections that the Holy Spirit is forging. Likewise, the notion that religious people are not spiritual is a caricature that blinds one to many of the ways the Holy Spirit breathes life into corporate activities. Both caricatures are harmful when they are used to denigrate other people. These caricatures are of some use, however, if they are turned toward ourselves and used as monitors for religious and spiritual growth. Is there real binding in our spirituality? Does the fire of the Holy Spirit breathe through our prayer and our acts of service to others? When the answer to both these questions is Yes, our hearts are inflamed as we walk with Jesus as did the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at Wednesday, June 04, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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