I’ve expressed several times in these blogs my skepticism about declarations by some of our contemporaries that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
Much of the skepticism results from the false dichotomy this entails, as if the spiritual and religious are mutually exclusive. Spirituality, after all, is the whole point of being religious. With the exception of some forms of Buddhism, all the major religions aim to bring people closer to God, who is “spiritual.”
St. Paul, among the earliest leaders of Christianity, wrote that he is imparting a teaching “not taught by human wisdom but taught by the spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.”
But Daniel Horan, Franciscan priest, theologian and author, wrote in a recent edition of the National Catholic Reporter: “What if our starting point in thinking about what it means to be a person in communion with God, oneself and the world was not reduced to external expressions of institutional belonging, but instead began with attention to humans’ inherent capacity for God?”
Intrinsic Desire for the Devine
He quotes spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser, who wrote that St. Augustine of Hippo said that spirituality “is another way of describing the intrinsic desire or passion we have been created with for the divine.
“Hence,” continuing with Rolheiser, “spirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing certain spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest.
“It is far more basic than that. Long before we do anything religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.”
I would not presume to reduce spirituality to practices such as “external expressions of institutional belonging” but agree with Horan that it is “a starting point.” I believe that this basic longing for the divine is often antecedent to religious faith and that the desire for union with God is often not identified as such by many people who experience this longing.
On the Practical Level
My skepticism is on the practical level, knowing how hard it is to maintain one’s spirituality without the aid of religion – its centuries of experience with the spiritual, its models of spirituality, its long history of faithfulness to God, the ultimate spiritual reality.
Jesus’ parable about the seed acknowledges this.
“A sower went out to sow his seed,” the parable begins. It then describes how some seed fell on a path and was trampled on and eaten by birds; some fell on rock and soon withered from lack of moisture; some fell among thorns which choked it. Finally, some fell into good soil and grew, “yielding a hundredfold.” The lesson is obvious.
The search for God, in my opinion, is not simply a matter of feeling a desire for God, as important as that may be. Feelings by themselves are unreliable, and feelings about God and the longing for God are often so tied to cultural and social concerns that they often quickly fade with them. No, spirituality is not a good do-it-yourself project.
‘Religious but Not Spiritual’
It’s true that religious institutions are often to blame for the number of people who say they want to be spiritual but not religious. The scandal of the abuse of minors and its cover-up by the clergy of my own Catholic faith is a good example. What’s more, churches, and I assume synagogues, often fail to adequately help people in their spiritual journeys. Many young people, especially, say they fail to find God there. And they are turned off by people who are “religious but not spiritual.”
However, many such people, in my view, are poorly informed about the meaning of church or synagogue teachings and practices and depend instead on stereotypes about religion.
“Spiritual, but not religious” may not be as awful as I have written and as many “religious” people think, but I believe it’s insufficient in the search for God. But let’s hope that as Horan writes, it’s “a great sign of possibility and hope.”