I’m Spiritual but not Religious

I’m Spiritual but not Religious. This is one of the most hackneyed self-descriptions we hear from many of our contemporaries. Most of us who are attached to churches as clergy or laity would say that it is impossible to be spiritual without any attachment to a spiritual tradition like Christianity or one of the other religions, or such a claim is at least hypocritical self-deceit. This may well be so for people who are worldly and secular but shrink from identifying with atheism and materialism.

It may do some people good to take a break from their involvement in religious practices, especially when they become distorted or if the person finds his emotional health being affected. An immediate disclaimer – I have no qualifications as a therapist and do not presume to offer a “solution” for every individual person seeking his or her way, often with great difficulty.

There is so much conflict in and between the churches that some are profoundly alienated and can fall prey to those who do claim to have a cut-and-dried solution. Cult gurus prey on such “seekers” and the process of alienation becomes that much more profound.

One thing I notice with some with whom I correspond is that they have suffered from ecclesial shenanigans to the point of falling victim to the old spiritual malaises known by the Desert Fathers, such as ἀκηδία. This example, in the minds of the monks of old, calls for asceticism and self-unpleasantness. It can also call for a change of life, travel and a new quest for being capable of a sense of wonder and freshness. At the same time, most of us have commitments in life and we just have to knuckle down to our lot in life. It is within those limits that we have to look for what is good and wonderful.

Some people just think too much about the wrong things, and those who are monks are brought back to the most fundamental things – observing the Rule, getting back into place and rediscovering the relationship with God. Most of us don’t have the framework of a monastery, and are left to our own devices. The choice most of us have is between materialism and a life that means something in a universal consciousness that transcends our desire for money, sex and power. Those of us who have a spiritual discipline through the religion we are attached to are fortunate, if the religious and spiritual aspects are in harmony.

Our universal consciousness – our participation in the essence of God by means we will never understand – is our first step. Our values are a part of this consciousness, and this will explain the fact that the morality of just about about every person who cares for others is constant and identical. It is wrong to kill, steal and tell lies, and it is right to help others in distress and make them happy. There are values other than morality like truth, beauty, love, compassion, empathy. Without this consciousness, in whatever way it manifests itself to each of us, we lose our desire to continue living.

Religious tradition is something that has become very difficult to relate to. Many of us have been born and brought up in a religious tradition or a Church. We went to school, sung in the choir, learnt to serve the liturgy and bring up the cruets at the right time. We read the Bible or parts of it, and read books by spiritual writers. Many of us have had none of that, born into godless families, unknown by people at the local church, synagogue or whatever, totally ignorant of the notion of being part of a religious community. Then it gets complicated. We also have formerly religious people who became alienated, and not always through their own fault.

Perhaps we church people can be smug and tell them to forget about spirituality and eat crow until they’re ready to submit and become tithe-paying church people! That was exactly the leaven of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned with such vigour in the Gospels. We lay unbearable burdens on their shoulders, and their death is our life. We become demons and cannibals! How can we wonder why people search elsewhere?

Finding balance between religious commitment and personal spirituality is difficult. It can be done by those who have suffered, reflected and experienced. We do what our Churches say we should do, and then we have our secret gardens where anything is possible and no one else can follow us. One example of the secret garden of some of us is γνώσις, secret knowledge that cannot form the structure of an exoteric religion, any more than anarchism can be a principle of politics and society. We learn about Gnosis through the Alexandrian Fathers and modern men like Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist who sought further than Freud, the spirit of man beyond the functions of the organic brain and nervous system. But, in our Churches, the emphasis is on the social dimension and our concern for other people and their good.

Another thing that puts people off religions, all religions, is that we kill and demolish each other. The beliefs of others, their conception of truth, threatens our own. We believe we are right and they are wrong and have to be corrected, by force if necessary. We compensate for our own doubts by becoming arrogant in our attempt to possess truth. Are any of us right? The question haunts us all. We can take our part in the killing, give it all up – and find we do the same thing in another philosophy of life or political ideology, or we try to find a new basis and foundation.

Jesus taught us to seek the Kingdom that is within, and then build the community on that basis, on the basis of the genius that only individual persons can possess. We grow our crops in the secret garden, and then offer the produce to the world with which a community can be based. Churches and communities come and go, but something remains, even among our friends and family members who stay away from churches because they have been hurt.

In the absolute, it is better for the world to be populated by spiritual seekers who are alienated from religious traditions than in a world of religious zealots who have not one shred of spirituality. There should be no dilemma, and I believe one should be both religious and spiritual, but we live in a very badly wounded world in which the Redemption by Christ seems harder and harder to discern.

Many religious people live through alienation to find God and their inner selves. That is why some of us are attracted to the mountains, the desert and the sea. We don’t find churches at sea, but the emptiness we need to scour out our souls and see what really matters. Some people need psychological help to make these distinctions. A few priests and monks have these abilities too, but being a good judge of character is not given to everyone. Psychological help is usually very expensive and as often ineffective because of being based on the wrong things. We need to know about our secret gardens and spend time in them. For me, there is nothing better than having a tiller in one hand, the other hand on the mainsheet and surfing in a full reach or running before the wind on a moderate sea swell – and with everything well with the boat and its rigging, we can be still and know that God is God. Those who don’t sail will have their thing that enables them to do their “gardening”. It might actually be gardening in a real garden, pulling out the nettles and putting in the broad beans in a nice neat row.

I don’t think we need be afraid that bad religion will discredit spiritual life, as the latter is so much a part of our being. There are good people in churches as there are bad. We all have a foot in each camp through sin and shortcoming. We have clergy who fall short monstrously, yet there are others who do their duty with heroism and courage. Certainly, invariably, someone is a good member of one’s Church through tending the garden and partaking of its beauty.

That’s where the difference lies. I’m much less concerned about people who say they are spiritual but not religious than about church people who manifestly have no spirituality, let alone the qualities of love, empathy, beauty and self-sacrifice.

I invite you to read Israel’s No: Jews and Jesus in an Unredeemed World and offer comments. I have for years been dogged by the idea of an unredeemed world and unredeemed Christians, and find this article to be profound, yet Christian tradition teaches us that the Mystery of Christ changed everything. I haven’t yet had the time to read this essay fully, but it promises to be a good reflection to provoke us. Is the world unredeemed? Was there some limit to the Redemption? Is the Redemption (Atonement) begun but not complete?

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6 Responses to I’m Spiritual but not Religious

  1. For a long time I winced at the phrase “spiritual but not religious”, but perhaps my distaste for that identification stemmed from the fact that I haven’t been truly part of a religious community since my early teens. I’ve attended Mass routinely of my own choice since I was 19, but I have to admit it was almost always in a solitary way, with only occasional but awkward and uncomfortable interaction with the university chaplain and other students, whose style and presentation of the faith was simply lacking in intellectual credibility for me. I’ve basically been a solitary and anonymous practitioner of Catholicism for a few years now, aside from occasional Mass attendance or praying with the Rosary with my grandparents and my mother. Is this really what the religious or devout life is like? Probably not. There is simply no community–no real community apart from the imaginary Catholicism in my head with its lofty notions of “Church” as the eidetic Community–that I feel truly suited to or that I could commit myself to with honesty and integrity.

    Should I call myself “religious” any longer, if asked? My Sunday attendance is dwindling. In fact, I think it is possibly better to attend very rarely. The anxiety that comes from trying to subjugate the world around me to a Catholic/ Christian narrative is probably not worth it. The only way I can fruitfully live with the symbols of Christian faith are if I reduce them to their universal spiritual significance– that is, quite apart from terms and notions like special revelation, custodians of the truth, evangelization, the Magisterium as “expert of humanity” – and see in Christianity a symbolic system emerging from human reality which articulates the perennial truths that were and always are available to reflective man. Albeit, this is not to say that historical contingency does not afford it some insights over others– some significant particularity–but then it would have to be willing to acknowledge others potentially having an advantage over it in other respects as well.

    In the end, it’s quite possible to be spiritual without a formal commitment to a religious tradition. It might even be the healthiest choice for many today, given the fact that a coherent Catholic/ Christian world view is almost impossible to hold without a natural or wilful ignorance of contemporary cultural and political reality. It’s not a mistake that the Christian pundits are trying their hardest to form as deep a causal link between Christian dogma and civilization as possible. The credibility and dignity of structuring their life around their system’s demands depends on it. Christian faith without the matrix of some version of Christendom or another is– what? It will not sound much different than a schizophrenic man shouting into the wind on the street corner. They will fail in convincing us of this purported link, not because there isn’t a deep connection between western civilization, culture and Christianity, but because dogma was only ever a surface level phenomenon, or an effect, of a undergirding spiritual engagement that they largely fail to tap into.

    In a culture where it’s almost impossible to live within a singular life-narrative, how can the salvation history survive as the central tale by which we order our lives? How can there be “The Good Book” when the very concept of “book” is falling to the wayside? The reach of inclusivity and the power of negativity make a “Greatest Story Ever Told” quite problematic and impossible to tell without understanding it as a mythos. Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote that the scandal, thrill and risk of the Christian story is that it stakes everything on the pin-prick of a single, particular historical moment. It is this aspect of the project that I think is failing. The particularism of Christianity is impossible to sustain in today’s conditions without succumbing to the temptation to destroy the voices, personalities and questions whose sheer presence taint/ pollute such a Christian-narrative/ mind.

    For my part, I’ve been reading Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, various poets, taking long walks and trying to get my life together in the wake of the sad realization that there is no Catholic world for me to inhabit. My spirituality is emphatically and inescapably Western in its intellectual content, because that is the entire matrix of my life. What is spirituality but our deliberately conscious mind and deeds in interaction with the cultural sources– and the best ones at that– that make up our world, a particular world we did not choose to enter, but simply found ourselves within?

    • Your thoughts are indeed profound, and from your own blog:

      Traditional Catholicism was not a world of optional, voluntarily embraced belief. It was a socio-cultural matrix. No re-reform of the liturgy can save it. We’re all Protestants now. Technology, the images of, the struggle for the custom-made life are the matrix of the new religion that binds us all together today.

      We are trying to construct our own matrices to try to keep the old traditional Catholicism (or our image of it) going. It was certainly not a church of converts, but something you belonged to as to your feudal Lord and your village. Perhaps you would write another comment to offer ideas for some future of Christianity – or if Christianity is another “failed god”, what can replace it? Soma?

  2. Stephen K says:

    Thank you, Father, for linking to yet another source for reflection, and to you, JordanStFrancis, for sharing your perspective. I find I can understand much of – and feel somewhat in sympathy with – what you say. I must agree that my own experience of being spiritual – or seeking that plane – is firmly embedded in the practice or pre-occupation with religious demands and a focus on the recognisable religions. Therefore I find it hard to imagine what being spiritual but not being somehow religious is like, but I have no reason to doubt that it is possible. Perhaps religion is a particular approach to spirituality, perhaps the easiest to grasp if difficult to get right.

    But on the subject of the article: this was interesting to me because it highlights just how slippery it is to be satisfied that “all bases are covered”. Is it true that there is no pin-point in history that changed things (it seems like that) on a scale larger than locally? Or is it true that the pin-point occurs in the life of each person, and that that is the better way to conceive of it: in other words Jesus lived and died (but so did everyone else) but we come to hear about him and in various ways may feel encaptured by him and so the rest of our lives is affected in a Christian context. Others come to hear about the Buddha, and the same thing happens to them. Etc. The only universality is within each of us, not over all of us. Or, as my friend ed might say, it is and is not.

    All these questions aside, I do not mean to say that we have to act solipsistically; we need each other emotionally; we are social; our instinct and evolved survival stratgey is to collaborate and communicate and share. Thus the spiritual dimension is both interior and extrovert; contemplative and active.

    Well, I think the Jewish “no” because nothing has changed has a lot of cogency in the broad; in the particular and individual, I cannot easily imagine that I would not be worse if I didn’t have the ‘bug’ of wondering what sense to make of my life in religious terms of one kind or another (principally Christian). And if Jesus is pointing us to truth, it doesn’t take much effort to recognise recurrent themes almost everywhere. The mind and heart have to be yet still more and more open, each day passing.

  3. wow, Father – I mean WOW! This is the finest article I have read on this subject. In fact, it is the most well balanced on this spiritual vs. religious topic I have encountered. This is something I have been dealing with most of my adult life and now I see I have not been alone. I have always believed that those who say they are spiritual but not religious were simply excluding themselves from Atheism and feeling good about themselves. I must now re-evaluate my own decisions and conclusions. Thank you Father Anthony.

  4. Thank you father for your response to my comment. Perhaps you can bear with me with this lengthy reply.

    I certainly wouldn’t say that Christianity is a failed god. It has endured too long, borne too much, I think, to ever be considered a failure. It’s not like some modern political vision that crashed and burned as quickly as it rose, thereby only revealing a sort of misstep for the future to avoid. It is one of the great articulations of man’s spiritual situation.

    I don’t know what I can say about the future of Christianity. I am lacking a great deal of experience and only speak from my private concerns. It does seem to me that culture is the problem. If it is to believed that culture itself in the Western world is in a state of undeath- like the living dead or a vampire- I’m unsure of what solution Christianity can really offer or what can be offered to it. People would have it once again constitute the governing values/ symbols/ narratives, thereby infusing its system once again with the pulse of social life, but this can’t be done at present without grave evil. A society predicated on (at least the appearance of) nearly unlimited choice can perhaps have no real cultural substance. If my friends or my family do not pray with me, do not observe the same holy days or regard the same things as sacred, how is the life of the Christ Story going to do its work in me? Wouldn’t it be something like speaking a language only I know? A language of one is a kind of damnation. Religion, like communication, must happen between. So we must build our own communities. Yet these communities too are inserted into that same society of choice. Could we be anything other than a sect surviving on the food of constant recruits, always needing the energy and persuasion of salesman, needing to always convince ourselves and others? Where the life blood in the body of traditional Christianity was societal life, the evangelical ethos is really the way of the future. It’s an ethos I fear can not bear the Catholic breadth or depth.

    I think of the problem this way. Consider a fresco of the Last Judgment. There are naked bodies, tortured faces, hell fire and suffering. Of course there’s light, elevation, redemption, power and force. A number of people might be looking at this fresco. Some will recall probable psychological and emotional abuse when the fear of Hell haunted their young imaginations and be confirmed in their suspicion that something is barbaric about Catholicism. Some will simply think it’s scary and say as much. It might interest them, but it will not provoke them to pray. It is not a site of the appearance of a spiritual truth about themselves or others. There is a reason these kind of things are no longer depicted in the Catholic parish down the street. It is perhaps okay in the Vatican as a fascinating artefact of a former time, and may even carry some residue of the holy there, but the holy as remnant of a mysterious time and surely not of man’s present. I think even Hans Kung said that the Last Day will not be accompanied by the Dies Irae.

    For myself, I am seeing this as an articulation of a truth of man’s present. The struggle of trying to navigate the moral order is here. We see that decisions can’t be undone. The whole notion of the Last Day is present in embryo in the existential awareness as soon as a boy realizes, say, that there will not be another October 26, 1993. “Yesterday will never come again” and therefore the whole force of my life is being gathered up toward some final outcome, and there is no guarantee but the one I strive for. But then, this is really a naturalistic understanding and not sufficient for orthodox ears.

    Another perspective, dogmatically orthodox, will see this as a prophecy. This day will come in time. It is, in the first place, an external truth that will occur and, while it might bear some relation to the order of the spirit inside of me, this painting means nothing if the supernatural is not possible. The painting is a proposition, an object of belief and assent. So while this painting is the site of a truth, it is a truth that is confronting me from without, it belongs to the future.

    How do we deal with these multiple perspectives when there is nothing to weld them together, no cultural authority? Isn’t it the case that the first perspective, the one that could not see in this image the site of a present truth, arose in some measure on account of the third? The reification of the event that is always potentially happening in man’s life means that event, when freed from the force of authority that demanded it somehow be integrated into the imagination, can be cast aside and one can choose some other option guilt free. So, the second perspective? But where would the image of Last Judgement have come from, if none had ever believed that it referred to a reality with some historical substance? Do I have to feign a belief in the supernatural in order to secure the inner content of the image whose truth, it would seem at first blush, is really a natural one? It’s dilemma. Somehow multiple perspectives have to be re-joined.

    In the past, I have no doubt that not everyone saw the same thing in a holy image or, at the least, were faced with the same inner dispute about history, internality, externality, nature and super-nature. The cultural authority was able to impose the facile explanation. As long as this explanation was not opposed, as an explanation it actually needed to have little bearing on my comprehension of its truth. Reform, among other things, is really the ruin of all of this because the custodians of the cult decide that the meaning they see as essential is not in sufficient focus, and so it needs to be brought into better view. For example, I think the Eucharist means a great deal less now than in the past in anything but the heads of a few theologians since we became “more Eucharistic” by trashing Benediction.

    I see the fragmenting of the multiplicity of ways of digesting spiritual truths in the wake of an absence of cultural authority to be the fundamental threat for the survival of Christianity.

    If there is a way forward, perhaps it will involve Christianity having to give up its claim that it is the narrative to end all narratives and its story understood as the symbolization of man’s general spiritual situation– a symbolization as it was handed to us from a particular point in history, from a particular community (the Apostolic Church) whose contact with the beyond of our ordinary horizon (in Christ’s death) endowed them to become new men and women, to become possessed by an agency perhaps too great to be understood any longer as human, for it overwhelmed the concerns that keep man in fear and order his life and society around the feeling of incompletion. In the symbolization of their experience– which appeared even to them beyond rationally formulated language precisely for its overwhelming quality– what was then might be passed on to us now. Is this transition possible? Would it gut the religion even further of its core? I don’t know. What does someone like me do who wants the supernatural, at least the meaning it implies, but some how can not find himself ordering his life around it? Some thoughts anyways.

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