Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm Religious, Not Spiritual, and I Like it That Way

I know, it's usually said the other way. It's pretty fashionable these days to claim spirituality, not religion. Spiritual is deep. Religion is mechanical and superficial. Spiritual is authentic. Religion is foppery. Spiritual is of God. Religion is a human creation. I get it.

There certainly is a critique to be made concerning religion. There is such a thing as bad religion and plenty of examples to go around. I would even say that there are few things more dangerous than bad religion. The fact that most acts of terror are done under the shade of some religious tree is nearly enough for me to quit the whole thing.

But there's also such a thing as bad spirituality. And the examples are plentiful here as well. When someone tells me that they are spiritual, but not religious, I usually suspect some sort of idiosyncratic and wildly syncretistic view of what that means, and I'm often not disappointed. My experience in congregational ministry has been that the most difficult people are often the ones who present themselves just a little ahead of everyone else on the spirituality scale.

Let me be quick to say that there are good spiritualities. This is less a complaint about spirituality and more a way of commending religion. Religion can be good as well. And given its power, evident in the easy targets of our scorn, it seems to me that it is particularly important not to give up on religion.

Jesus didn't. True, he attacked bad religion. But he also encouraged the saying of a set prayer, taught his followers to fast and give alms appropriately, and to keep the law as an expression of God's good ordering of life. We could probably find this kind of understanding of religion throughout the New Testament. I will simply add that James had a definition of good religion--to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Too often, I find this definition of pure and undefiled religion missing from the lives of self-styled spiritualists.

I know this is not what most people have in mind when they critique religion. When they claim being spiritual over being religious, they are often being critical of the "formal" aspects of religion--liturgies, especially set liturgies, that suffer from lack of spontaneity or feeling. So, I want to say a good word for religion here as well.

Religion says my experience of God is mediated. It doesn't begin and end with me. Religion says that my relationship with God requires others. It requires words that aren't my own, and times and spaces that I don't designate. It involves a story that didn't originate with me, that is being passed down to me.

What passes for spirituality often says just the opposite. Spirituality says my relationship with God is direct and unmediated. Its just about me and God. This is why I don't need a religious community or times of worship or sacraments.  Or if I do, they are only necessary to the extent that they support my personal relationship with God. Spirituality, in this sense, deepens the very thing we need to overcome--the conviction that the world begins and ends with me.

Now, I think I could define religion and spirituality in ways so that they are seen as complimentary and not as things that could be divided into choices. But if you had to push me into a choice, am I religious or spiritual, I think I'd go for religious.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that "spirituality" is focused entirely on the self, whereas "religion" forces us to focus on the divine other. Which is to say...I'm on board. Religious, not spiritual.

Travis said...

Your post reminds me of a sermon I listened to recently from Lillian Daniel at Duke Chapel. The video (I listened to the podcast) is here: (if you want to skip all the "religious" liturgical stuffiness, just fast-forward to 26:40 for the sermon ;-)

Her point is, I think, that when you try to craft a g/God and a faith a part from "religion" and the religious community, your g/God and your faith tend to be very self-centered. Despite it's faults, religion has more of a chance of solving the problems of our world than simply being "spiritual". I think those who seek to be spiritual only, are reacting to their sad experiences with bad religion. So, they throw out all religion and replace it with a non-religious faith which may do less harm than the bad religion their rejecting, but certainly can't do a lot of Good.

Cheryl Russell said...

I have often said I am spiritually religious. I guess one could also be religiously spiritual! :) Whatever side you lean, I think the emphasis should be on relationship with the Triune. Enjoyed the post!

The Hamzinger said...

I wouldn't want to diminish a spiritual religi-osity (I figure to take this stuff wherever I can get it) but given my CoC upbringing I'd say you've articulated the key difference quite well here, sir.

Anonymous said...

aw crap, now I have to rethink a bunch of stuff.

happytheman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
happytheman said...

some of centering practices i have is attending services, practicing simple disciplines, loving my neighbor. Though they may seem petty to some, it's where i find balance when all hell is breaking loose.

Kwiyani Files said...

Hey Mark, great stuff.

Part of me wants to say this whole thing of "religious" and "spiritual," however you relate the two, is another erroneous Western construct. I understand the folk that prefer religion to spirituality, but what is the purpose of religion if not to get in touch with the transcendent (whatever that is)? And in this way, religion leads to a spirituality of some kind.

The spiritual folk are reacting to some form of religion, especially Christianity. And they end up creating their own "religions," for instance, the individualistic mysticism we see in sheilaism in Robert Bellah's "Habits of the Heart." But spirituality needs rituals (eg, candles, or the Eucharist) that require community--something the spiritual-but-not-religious folk would rather do in isolation.

I am thus convinced that it is not possible to be religious without being spiritual, but also not possible to be spiritual without being religious in some way.

Doug P. said...

Good thoughts Mark!

Mark Love said...

Great comments, friends. And of course, Harvey, you're right. I think the question around religion/spirituality is the place the other occupies in the scheme of things. All of life has a ritual, meaning-making, "religious" dimension. And of course, as you note, religion is inescapably tied to notions of transcendence and therefore potentially spiritual. As I say at the end of the piece, there is a way to make these two interrelated. I'm just tired of religion being an easy whipping boy for people who really don't want transcendence, but a deeper sense of their own self-importance.

Its great to hear from you, btw. Hopefully, I'll see you in May!

Anonymous said...

I get this and I like this. I am still fighting a too-strong anti-religion bias to embrace thoroughly.

My "perhaps" thought is that it is not always religion that the spiritual are reacting against but the religious. If the religious cannot practice religion without condescension, arrogance, and exclusivity, there will always be this divide of spiritual against religious.

It may be easy in these discussions to just substitute out the whipping boy. I think the burden remains on the religious to practice religion with humility, love and mercy. So for now, I think religion will remain a whipping boy for me...

thepriesthood said...

I dig this.

I'm curious to know how these thoughts could interact with Bonhoeffer's thoughts on "religionless Christianity." I only have assumptions as to what this means to Bonhoeffer, but I recently ordered his work Letters and Papers from Prison and will be exploring that material for the first time. Peter Rollins new book Insurrection seeks to flesh out Bonhoeffer's thoughts on religionless Christianity even more, so I think this conversation will be getting lots of traction in the coming months.

As SA hinted at, it seems like almost every critique of spiritual but not religious could also apply to religious but not spiritual. Religious performance can just as easily create a pride that is difficult to work with. Pride in one's external performance of religion, although not as vogue as some spiritual enlightenment, can be just as toxic. Religion can be just as selfish of an enterprise as spirituality. I'm with Harvey--it has to be both/and. One leads to the other, and the other leads to the one. One without the other can get off center.

Sara G said...

A twelve year old I know recently told me that I'm the most religious person he knows. "Like you go to church every week." I took it as a compliment.