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On being ‘spiritual, not religious’

One of the odd things people often say these days is that they are spiritual but not religious. In fairness, what they are communicating is an awareness of a depth to which they are called, and perhaps also a skepticism or worry about the vagaries of organized religion.

But the expression reveals a theological puzzlement. Anthropologically, all communicable mammals — which I assume includes all of us — are spiritual beings. Spirit is what animates us. So to say breathlessly that I am spiritual but not religious is like saying breathlessly that, unlike some unnamed others, you have a nose or a mouth — or that you have discovered yourself to be one of those who can breathe. All humans are spiritual — and so are all dogs and cats and even my friend’s pet rat, Rupert, for that matter. Saying “I am spiritual” is really not saying anything interesting.

What is interesting is what we are doing about that spirituality. You have legs. Are you walking with them in a productive way? You have spirit. Are you on the trail to spiritual growth, or are you stagnating?

Some of us are racing along growing in grace as we grow with God. Some of us are the walking wounded, limping right now because of wounds sustained in our work life, in our family life, in our love life. And some of us are simply at a standstill in our spiritual life, wanting to grow but unwilling for a variety of good reasons to take those steps necessary to get past the trailhead and on to the trail that leads to a flourishing spiritual life. When someone tells me that they are spiritual but not religious, the only interesting thing they have communicated is that they either are at a standstill in their spiritual journey, or they have not even gotten beyond the trailhead, or they are at this moment in their lives skeptical of the signs and tokens and structures that others have erected to mark the trail for those who follow.

Complaining about “organized religion” is another way of pointing to the signs and tokens and structures marking the trail of our spiritual journey and expressing concern about whether they mark the trail well. Sometimes our skepticism says more about us than about those signs and tokens. Sometimes the problem is that they point to a trail too steep, too narrow, too filled with risks for us right now, and so the real problem is that we don’t like or are afraid of or simply aren’t ready for the trail itself. Sometimes our complaint really reveals that we have unrealistic expectations. The trail is messy and confusing at times and we think it should be straight and easy. For many who tell me they are spiritual but not religious, their substantive point can be reduced to a complaint that the church is too filled with fallible humans.

But sometimes the problem is in fact with the signs and tokens themselves, the structures others have created to mark the way to our spiritual flourishing. Many of us are at a standstill on the trail because we are waiting. Waiting in the hope that someone will come along to fix the signs, to redirect us by pointing away from the false trails, by showing us the true and reliable paths to the spiritual maturity that God intends for all. There is indeed a waiting that is a listening. But such a waiting is necessarily on the trail, and not off it. It is a “blow break,” a juncture, a catching of the breath while we pause to discern the right direction.

Wizened old sojourners know that there is no avoiding the brambles, dry spaces, and steep slopes en route the summit. Nor is there avoiding the messiness of life as the church, which is what serious folks seem to have in view when they speak of being spiritual but not religious. There is no avoiding moments of muddle, no avoiding the disorderly dialectical discourse which is our intrinsically human way of recognizing and performing the good. Tension inherently marks the journeys of the most creative pilgrims. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos notes in discussing his purchase of the Washington Post,

In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is [through] team effort. There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge. It takes time. Nothing happens quickly in this mode. You develop theories and hypotheses, but you don’t know if readers will respond. You do as many experiments as rapidly as possible. ‘Quickly’ in my mind would be years.

Religion is not messy because the trail is false but because those en route the spiritual summit are human. The mountain abounds with life, causing the trail to shift with time and seasons. The way is often rough, steep, slow, and mystifying. We ought to expect tension and dissonance as we sort which paths are right for our particular contingent in our particular time.

Which brings me back to the meme that “I am spiritual, not religious.” The first clause simply asserts solidarity with my friend’s pet rat, Rupert. The second locates the speaker as either trembling at the trailhead or pausing in puzzlement before the signs and tokens that mark the way. Whichever the case, the path to spiritual flourishing proceeds upward. One has to move forward, eventually. I imagine, in his own way, even Rupert knows that.


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