How often have you heard it? “I’m spiritual but not religious.” More than a few times, I suspect. And it’s hard to know what to say to this self-designation. So, let’s think about it.
We’ve been discussing the issue of an impersonal God for the past two weeks from a theoretical point of view. Today provides an opportunity to look at it from practical angle. Increasingly in recent years, more and more people claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” I’ve wanted to subject this idea to analysis for some time, and I am happy that it fits in the series at this point.
It’s not easy to specify what people mean when they affirm the importance of spirituality but deny their need for religion. In many cases I get the impression that the person making the distinction doesn’t have a clear idea either. Perhaps their negation of religion is stronger and clearer in their minds than their affirmation of spirituality. Popular culture has largely succeeded in portraying religion and highly religious people as narrow-minded, ignorant, intolerant, judgmental, exclusive, and more than a little neurotic. When people deny being religious their main concern may be to make a statement about their own character by differentiating themselves from the cultural image of the religious person. For some people, the “spiritual but not religious” claim is simply a less obviously self-commending way of saying “I am a good person, tolerant and welcoming, unlike those bad people, who are judgmental and reactionary. You will like me.” They use the self-designation “spiritual” because the culture has settled on this term to designate an open, welcoming, tolerant, inclusive, progressive, sensitive, and slightly mystical attitude. You can be spiritual even if you are somewhat agnostic or incline toward atheism, as long as you possess those soft and sensitive qualities listed above. Popular culture rejects harsh and militant atheism for the same reason it rejects judgmental religion.
Why use the term “spiritual”? Popular use of this term derives ultimately from the New Testament’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. From its beginning, Christianity has understood God’s presence and action in the world as Trinitarian in form. Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being and their action is always united, but each is especially associated with certain activities: the Father with creation, the Son with salvation and the Spirit with transformation of the inner life of the believer. Because the Spirit’s work always points to the Father and the Son, the Spirit has been called the anonymous member of the Trinity. Perhaps more importantly for the subject we are discussing, the Spirit’s work is mysterious, internal, and experiential.
In Christian history, the Spirit is identified with the inner divine presence that is often manifested in wordless mystical experience of union with the divine, euphoric feelings joy, or loss of control of the body. The writings of Christian mystics are often called “spiritual writings” and the study of these writings is called “spiritual theology.” Spiritual authors record experiences of visions of Christ, overwhelming feelings of divine presence, inspirations from the Spirit, and other intense experiences of the divine. Sometimes mystics strayed outside the bounds of orthodox Christian doctrine, but mostly they were able to thrive alongside traditional teaching. But during the modern era, especially with the help of the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, Christian spirituality and pietism were for some people de-Christianized and assimilated to pantheism or vague nature mysticism.
When contemporary people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” they are unknowingly continuing this romantic tradition and its dislike of responsibility to the personal God of Christian faith. Christian religious practice focuses on a personal God, the God whose identity is delineated in the biblical narratives and in the life of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, the character and will of God are clear and determinate. God is not “whatever you understand him to be.” God demands our loyalty, love, and obedience. The first command of the Decalogue is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters.” And one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith is “Jesus in Lord.” Not a vague spirituality!
The contemporary move into “spirituality” attempts to escape the perceived negative aspects of belief in a personal God without giving up its positive aspects. Such concepts as truth, law, responsibility, discipleship, obedience, and other restrictive concepts strike many of our contemporaries as exclusive, judgmental, and harsh. And adopting a “spiritual” philosophy allows one to root one’s life in a mysterious universe friendly to human life and values without the drawback of responsibility to a personal God. Ultimately, however, such spirituality, apart from belief in a personal God, is merely divinization of the human spirit or even of the individual self. “Spirituality” resonates perfectly with contemporary therapeutic culture, which makes not salvation and truth but the momentary feeling of wellbeing its highest aspiration.