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?