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Spiritual but not Religious, Part 1

August 27, 2013

Several years ago, my husband went through a kind of existential crisis.  One day, he said, he came to realize that he didn’t really have a spiritual life.  He had a religious life: he read the Bible, prayed, went to church, lived a pious life.  He had studied religion in college and graduate school, could read the Greek and Hebrew, was well versed in the latest theology.  He was a respected lay leader in our church.  But on that day, the truth of his life came to him: he didn’t really have a relationship with God that was fully real, that was his, that went beyond the outward motions.

This caught me off guard.  We had been married for many years, often had deep talks about our faith, and certainly had an outwardly religious life; he seemed to me to be spiritual.  Yet he had a sense that there was something he lacked.  Something wasn’t adding up for him.  Clearly there was a discrepancy between the way he experienced his spiritual life within himself and the way it appeared outwardly.  And it naturally made me examine my own life.  Did I have a spiritual life?  What did that even mean?  I thought I had a spiritual life.  But then again, I thought he did too.  As I began to explore the questions, I too began a new part of my faith journey.

One thing I have learned in the years since that time is that no matter how much time we spend in church or involved in religious systems, no matter how much we engage in causes for social justice, no matter how deeply involved we are in caring for the marginalized in society, it doesn’t mean we actually have a spiritual life.  There is something about the spiritual life that is personal and internal; there is a component that involves inner work and being quiet before God.  Be still, and know that I am God.  But that doesn’t mean we just have a personal Jesus.  I tend to push against the notion of a ‘personal relationship’ with God for several reasons.  For one, it just seems so incredibly selfish — as if the lens of my own life and experience is the only way through which God is understood.  By focusing on a ‘personal relationship’ with God, it seems, I runs the risk of merely creating God in my own image, or perhaps in the image of who I think I should be or who I think God should be.  A ‘personal relationship with God’ is way too easy — who wouldn’t be able to live a good life if all it meant was only to live in the presence of God and contemplate life and all its meaning?  Just me and God, going for long walks and drinking coffee in the morning?  None of those pesky moral questions arise then, do they?  Like how I treat people, or how I spend money, or what I do with my time.  Just me and God.  (Notice who often ends up coming first in this relationship — me, not God.)  God becomes what is familiar, what is convenient, what is least likely to push me or make demands on me or require me to actually change.

Of course, the real acting out of what it means to have a relationship with God is learning to live with and love God in others — not just the face in the mirror, but the sometimes angry face in traffic, the indifferent face in the store, the empty or restless or adoring face in worship, the irritating face of someone who pushes all my buttons.  Over and over, the gospel calls us to be in relationship with God by being in relationship with God’s good creation — friend and foe, comfortable companion and awkward stranger, thoughtful disciple and irrational zealot.  I’m struck by how often I will judge (bad on me) someone’s appearance of spirituality, only to find that there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.   So what was it that my husband was lacking?  Community?  Solitude?  The integration of the two?

I also came to realize that, though we often measure ourselves in comparison to others, our spiritual lives are our own.  We cannot really know what another person is experiencing in their own spiritual life. We cannot and must not spend our energy trying to emulate someone else’s spirituality.  Too often, we in the religious world live within a kind of spiritual olympics, competing with one another over who can be the best, win the race, out-serve everyone else.  How many times have I been inspired by my own faith heroes and wondered how I can make my spiritual life more like theirs, only to realize and actually hear the message they keep offering:  live into who God made you to be; embrace it and learn to live in that skin, which will transform how you relate to everything and everyone else.  This is not to say that we live our lives in isolation, just ‘finding ourselves’ and being true to ourselves.  The fact is that we must learn to live in the tension of solitude and silence and stillness before God all the while living in community, because both are essential for us to come to understand what our spiritual lives are telling us.

What, then, is a spiritual life?  It is certainly common to hear people speak of things spiritual.  I have a close friend who, as a child, attended church regularly.  She went on to attend a well know and well respected religious college.  But in her adulthood, she drifted from church structures and from religion in any organized form.  She tells me often, ‘I’m a spiritual person but not a religious person.  I don’t think the two have much to do with each other.’  In exploring this concept with her, I’ve found that she holds a view that seems common to many people in our society these days:  spiritual but not religious.  Being a spiritual person seems to mean various things, like having a vague, sometimes unformed desire for a connection the Transcendent, or having a well formed and rich inner life which reaches toward the Holy; being a religious person seems to mean being tied to structures and institutions.  Spiritual equals longing for something more, however that may look.  So how, then, does my friend feed this spiritual longing?  Or does she?  As I learned from my husband’s experience, the absence of the external religious structures of religion in one’s life doesn’t mean that the spiritual longing will be fed some other way.  Instead, being spiritual is a call to have a spiritual  life.  So is being a spiritual person different than having a spiritual life?

As a Christian, part of having a spiritual life is opening a space in the day to day rhythm of life for God’s Spirit.  And, strangely enough, the opening isn’t just done through our own effort.  In The Source of Life, Jürgen Moltmann points out that “the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up, becomes wholly and entirely living, and is endowed with the energies of life.”  It is this awakening, then, that brings a person into spirituality.  Moltmann goes on to point out that the Holy Spirit acts both from without and from within.  “We continually experience the Holy Spirit as both a divine counterpart to whom we call,” he says, “and a divine presence in which we call – as the space we live in.”   This dual role of the Spirit is God’s action and our response, two parts of the same whole.

Being spiritual is an openness to the Transcendent, to the presence and call of God’s Spirit; having a spiritual life is doing something about it.  These days, it seems to me, many people feel the hunger inside for the Holy.  Yet oftentimes, we are reluctant to do anything about it.  We are like a person who is hungry but doesn’t eat.  And this constant hunger leaves us wanting, restless, yearning.  Perhaps this is why there are many books published about spirituality, why people aren’t afraid to speak of being spiritual but are unwilling to engage in practices or communities to nourish spirituality.  We have settled for being spiritual without truly exploring what that means, without allowing the yearning to lead us forward.  It is like a lingering question with no answer.

Often, people refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious, like my friend does.  What does it mean to be religious, then?  Being religious means adhering to a religion, having an outlook, a worldview that is shaped by that religion. So what is religion itself?  Of course, volumes have been written to answer this question; an exhaustive answer cannot be had here.  But a general understanding will suffice.  Joan Chittister explores the relationship of religion and spirituality in her writings.  Religion, she says, “is about what we believe and why we believe it.  It is about tradition, the institution, the system.”  She goes on to define spirituality as being “about the hunger of the human heart.  It seeks not only a way to exist, but a reason to exist beyond the biological or the institutional or even the traditional. …It seeks to make real the things of the spirit.”  Chittister spends a good bit of time contrasting the two and points out that they are related but not the same.  She sees religion as external and spirituality as internal (such a division might be useful but I tend toward integration rather than bifurcation).  She says that “spirituality is not what we do to satisfy the requirements of a religion; it is the way we come into contact with the Holy.”  Throughout her analysis, Chittister tends to see the limitations of religion that sometimes stand in the way of spirituality.  She rightly points out that “God is greater than religion.”   Perhaps this is why people sometimes say they believe in God but not religion.  When I hear people say this, I wonder if we in the Christian world have allowed religion to get in the way.  By emphasizing the rite, the organization, the structure without including the work of the Holy Spirit, we sometimes allow the wrong ideas to dominate the conversation.  Certainly things are done in the name of religion that most members of said religion find appalling, like acts of terror or prejudice.  It is important to reclaim the positive role and work of religion.  “Religion gives us the structures that weld the habits and disciplines of the soul into one integrated whole,” says Chittister.

Is it possible that, at times, spirituality can get in the way of God?  In reaction to religion, we can turn to spirituality as an antidote for the perceived arbitrary and irrelevant systems of religion.  But that very spirituality can become an end in itself.  When we completely remove all form, all sense of definition, of boundary, we run the risk of becoming an amorphous blob.  In our quest to remain unbound we can miss the Holy, the Transcendent.  Spirituality in a vacuum fails to bring us to a whole and full knowing of ourselves and of the Mysteries.  Moltmann points out that we can relegate spirituality to the extraordinary experience, divorcing everyday life from what he calls vitality.  We create binaries in which spirit is removed from flesh.  “The one is inward, the other external,” he says, “the one profound, the other superficial; the one reflective, the other thoughtless.  But the result is that ‘spirituality’ sets up an antithesis that splits life into two and quenches its vitality.”    Chittister, too, sees God embodied within us, both body and spirit; God’s creative power holds the whole of us.  “Holiness requires the cultivation of the soul, not the derogation of the body,” she point out.   Moltmann affirms this, saying, “The life-giving Spirit must be experienced holistically, with body and soul and all our powers,”

How, then, did my husband respond to his realization?  How did I answer the question of my own spiritual life?  He changed his habits, being quiet before God, through practices like prayer and meditation.  By being still before God, he found a new spirituality that grounded him and enriched his religious understanding at the same time.  And it led him into a transformed understanding of what it means to be in relationship with others.  I think he embraces all of life as a whole and sees the fusion of things rather than the reduction of them (or maybe all things are reduced to what they hold in common — but that’s another discussion of semantics and wholeness and particularity and unity).  Moltmann talks about this too, noting that the “new spirituality comprehends the whole of life, not just the religious sides that used to be called ‘the life of faith’ or ‘prayer life’.  The whole of life as it is lived is seized by God’s vital power and is lived ‘before God’, because it lives ‘out of God’.”   This vital power, from God, is what my husband sought and found, what he continues to dwell in and live into.  For myself, I found that my journey is my own, that I did, in fact, have a spiritual life.  Spiritual and religious are intertwined in my life; for me, it is about wholeheartedness.  And it is a continual process, a daily opening before God, allowing the Holy Spirit to work in me, answering Her call as I continue to listen.  “The God of creation goes on creating us,” observes Chittister.  “The danger is that we ourselves are inclined to call our creation over before its time.”  That is who I am:  God’s constant creation.  And so I join with Moltmann is his eloquent prayer:

God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

triune God,

unite with yourself your torn and divided world

and let us all be one in you,

one with your whole creation,

which praises and glorifies you

and in you is happy.


Quotes from Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life:  The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), pages 11, 70, 80, 81, 145.

Quotes from Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (Lanham, Maryland:  Sheed & Ward, 2004), page 18-21, 23, 181, 197.

From → On Faith

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