Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Talking with the Spiritual But Not Religious

This one surfaces on a fairly regular basis, this saying.  I'll be talking with someone, and my identity as a pastor will come up, and they'll say, "You know, I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious."

I know what they mean by it, and I'm totally sympathetic.  What they mean is that they hate the institutional, political, power-centered character of most faith organizations.  They hate the carping, cutting, I'm-right-and-you're-wrongness of so much of faith discourse.

Here, perhaps I'm more innately nine-ish than some pastors who've been worn down by that statement.  I take a statement of spirituality as a positive thing, a sense of yearning that I share.  It's a great opening, and a place of commonality.

What I wonder, though, is what that means for the life of the SBNR person I'm talking to.

Let's get all definitional about this, why don't we?  What does it mean, if you are "spiritual?"  Let's pop out our handy-dandy online thesaurus, and crank through some of the many synonyms.  Some are cool.  "Sacred."  "Divine."  "Holy."

Others?  Well others are less so.  "Incorporeal." "Disembodied." "Unphysical." "Nonphysical." "Intangible."  Oh, and this troubling one: "Immaterial."

And then, given that "religious" has to do with religion, here's a clear definition of that term from
Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional or ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
The difference between the two?  Both have to do with belief in the nature of things.  But one is enfleshed and enacted.  It makes demands on our lives.  It shapes our behaviors towards others.  The other is often not.

And that's the place where the the conversation between myself and the Spiritual One goes.

If you are a spiritual person, how does that spirituality shape and inform the way you live your life?  I do not ask it with snark.  I don't get all judgey.  We Jesus folk aren't supposed to do that, eh?  It's a simple thing, a worthwhile part of the conversation.

Here is a part of your identity, something meaningful, something vital, something important.  How are you living your spirituality out?

That's the question.  "How are you living your spirituality out?"

Then, I just listen.  Often, what I hear is a lament.  "I wish I had time to develop that in myself."  "I'm just so distracted."  "I'm just so angry and stressed at work."  "I feel like I've lost track of that part of me."

And there, there's space to talk.  Because a belief that is "immaterial" to your existence is a place of dissonance and frustration, and my job as a pastor is to walk with those souls as they find  more gracious and resonant pastures.

Other times, I hear how it has played out in healing a relationship or creating a healthy sense of self.  Other times, I hear how it drives someone to make a difference in their community.  Or how they make a point of taking time for disciplines of contemplation and meditation.

And I will smile, and tell them my own stories of similar things, and affirm them in their journey.

I do not mention, because it seems more than a little smug, that they are in point of fact "religious."

A rose by any other name, as they say.


  1. Often, it seems that popular culture redefines terms that carry a stigma, when it doesn't contribute to their image. I agree. i'd even go so far as to say, the most extreme SBNR people i've met have been the most devout followers of their "own" religion.

  2. I think many people who claim to be SBNR have created their own religions. I too am spiritual but not religious and I try to stay away from creating a religion of my own. Or from following a spiritual religion created by someone else.

    To me the main and most important difference between religion and spirituality is that religion has the tendency to become dogmatic while spirituality encourages you to be open.

    To answer your question of how do you include spirituality in your daily life, I do meditate but it's not a ritual. I don't do it in a specified way at a specified time. I do it not just for the sake of doing it, which is inherent in rituals. I do it to experience the effects of meditation. I have been trying different methods, trying to find the one that works best for me and I'm trying to be patient and get better at holding my mind still. But it's hardly a ritual.

    Other than that, I just try to be aware of myself at all times. Aware of my ego and my emotions. I try to make every decision of my life spiritually. I seek knowledge, all kinds of it and I try to stay open to every point of view. It's hard but I try. I try to be truly spiritual and not religious.

    Do I have certain beliefs about the universe and how it works, sure. Do I think I'm absolutely right and try to make others see my way, no. I just ask people to be open and explore spirituality on their own.

    That is the biggest difference for me. Spirituality has to be explored on your own. No one can tell you or show it to you. You have to walk the path alone. Religion on the other hand says, come with us on this path. It is the right one.

    That's my biggest problem with religion. The fact that it has been used and abused by so many people since it's inception isn't even the main problem.

    There is spirituality in every religion. Every religious person is spiritual to certain extent. And sadly most spiritual people are very religious. But I still believe the two are not the same thing.

    P.S. Looking back at this comment I'm trying to defend my beliefs which is very religious of me. I should probably not comment at all. If I'm truly spiritual I won't let my ego be hurt by your article and I won't feel the need to raise my point. But I'm still beginning and not that spiritual right now. But my failure at being spiritual shouldn't be considered proof of your statement that spirituality is just another name for religion.

  3. Aditya:There absolutely has to be spirituality in every religion, if it is to be religion and not simply a set of empty, meaningless social patterns and norms. And while we are mostly left to explore our spirituality on our own, it is not...and I speak here as a mystic with a strong hermitish tendency...something that should permanently isolate us. The deeper into our journey we go, the more we find our souls singing in harmony with others. And in their songs, there are tunes and ways of being that can enrich our own.

    Religion that brings us closer to our Maker also brings us into encounter with other beings who walk the same way, many of whom we can learn from and delight in.

    Your point about "defending" it is a good one. If we find ourselves continually lashing out, it's a pretty good sign we're doing something very very wrong.

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  5. We find this criticism of moderates in Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." (This was an open letter written on April 16, 1963.) In that letter, while defending the acts of civil disobedience by himself and his organization, King expresses some surprisingly harsh criticism of religious and political moderates.guarantor