Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Religious But Not Spiritual

I recently joined an interesting Facebook group called "I am religious but not spiritual." The group's motto says: "The most important thing in life is to have an institutional relationship with God."

Tongue-in-cheek as this group perhaps is, the title and the motto are nonetheless deeply counter-cultural things to say in an age when approximately 1 out of 5 persons in the United States identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious."

The satirical website Stuff White People Like makes short shrift of that identification:

White people will often say they are “spiritual” but not religious. Which usually means that they will believe any religion that doesn’t involve Jesus.

Popular choices include Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah and, to a lesser extent, Scientology. A few even dip into Islam, but it’s much more rare since you have to give stuff up and actually go to Mosque.

Mostly they are into religion that fits really well into their homes or wardrobe and doesn’t require them to do very much.



Joe Rawls said...

The "spiritual but not religious" types seem to forget that spirituality always emerges from an institutional religious context, even when it's been ripped from same. I'm reminded of an orange; the "religious" rind keeps the "spiritual" juice and pulp from drying up before it can be savored by the seeker. Plus, there are ways of making the rind edible.

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting observations, Joe.

Without unpacking this in great detail at this time (and frankly thinking "out loud" as I type - which can be risky), I also think that the culturally popular "spiritual but not religious" identification smacks of the flight from commitment to anything or anyone in particular other than my own subjective preferences and desires. It's the perfect motto in a consumer culture and a logical corollary to Burger King's "Have it your way."

I also think it runs the very real risk of embracing a rejection of the Incarnation, which holds together the scandal of particularity (this Jewish male from 1st Century Palestine named Jesus is both fully human and fully divine - and no one else is - and he is the way to God) with the conviction that created matter (physical stuff like the human body - including blood, sweat and feces) is very good, and in way that makes both affirmations inseparable.

In short, I think that the "spiritual but not religious" identification runs the very real risk of embracing neo-Gnostic narcissism, consumerism, and hatred of the human body and the physical world in its fullness.

In addition to the theological issues, Stuff White People Like has succinctly but brilliantly put its satirical finger on the ways in which this embrace shows signs of class and race privilege.

You may find this brief article - "Spiritual, Not Religious" - an interesting read along these lines.

The Underground Pewster said...

In the last piece you referenced we read of the "spiritual but not religious" notion as follows,

"It tells us that the human person is spiritually thirsty, whether or not there is any water to drink, and whether or not we even recognize what water is. My belief that organized religion cannot tell me what to worship does not change the fact that, because I am human, I must worship."

After reading this week's lectionary about various forms of "blindness," I am left asking, "What blinds such persons to the 'spirtuality' of a new life in Christ as offered in Christianity?" Is it the messages they get from "organized" religion, or is it the cultural stereotypes of the "religious," or is it the current crop of messengers that they are rejecting.
Is it not part of Christian formation and education to help these people to see Him as we do?

Where have we gone wrong?

Bryan Owen said...

Underground Pewster,

I think you're asking some of the important and difficult questions that all of the mainline churches need to address. It could be that for some, it is, indeed, disillusionment with the current leadership. But we also have to bear in mind that we now have whole generations of people (GenXers and GenYers) who - in many cases - have never been inside a church or attended a Christian worship service. They're not interested in institutional affiliation - they want experience. And their knowledge of what Christianity is all about is often filtered through the lens of how the Church gets portrayed in the media (typically not an attractive picture!).

And then there are those of us "on the inside" of the institutional Church - most of us mainliners are deeply uncomfortable talking about our personal religious journeys, afraid to talk about Jesus in our lives, and scared to death of evangelism. Add to that the crisis in Christian formation affecting not only the Episcopal Church but other mainline churches as well, and we've got a recipe for disaster.

I don't think we can wait for top-down solutions. Change comes from the grassroots - from committed clergy and lay leadership in the local parish who are willing to learn about and implement theologically sound approaches to evangelism that (a) can reach the unchurched who so heavily identify as "spiritual but not religious" while simultaneously being (b) faithful to both Jesus Christ and our Anglican heritage.

Those are just some of my initial thoughts.