How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or said it yourself? I think I know what is meant by this, but it doesn’t work for me.
Defining yourself this way suggests to me that you think spiritual and religious are opposites in some Myers Briggs-like personality preference test. If they were, they would be followed by an explanation of their difference such as, “Spiritual types are adventurous and open minded, leery of commitment, especially commitments to authority systems, prefer marijuana to wine, private devotions (if they choose, it’s optional) to community worship and like to sleep in on weekends. Religious types like structure in their lives, prefer clothing that covers up skin, don’t use profanity in public, i.e., show their feelings, wear religious jewelry, prefer kneeling to dancing, hymns to ballads and monarchy to democracy.” At least these might be the definitions used by self-defined spiritual types. Use your imagination to craft religious types’ descriptions.
It doesn’t work for me because it suggests that one is either spiritual or religious. I know many people who are both, as I think I am.
After being in a church since I was 16, I’ve grown to understand that religion is spiritual at its core. The root meaning of the word “religion” means “to bind.” To either-or “spiritual” types, this may seem to mean tied up or down. For me, being religious is choosing to bind myself, i.e., choosing to belong to God and to a community of faith. Spiritual longing led me to choose to be religious and religious practice is a good part of that longing’s satisfaction.
All religions are formed in response to a spiritual itch born of inner longing and transcendent experiences. Given our human need to belong, this is often followed by the choice to join or form a community with others who confess to the itch. In community they find or develop ways of worship, learning, loving, serving and playing that scratch it.
But I get something of what “spiritual not religious” folk find distasteful with what they think being religious is. It’s what I too find unappealing about what seems too often to pass as religion. It is the “be like me and be saved” with its either-or, heaven or hell approach to truth, its conviction that belief in the correct doctrine, theirs, is the ticket to the great light show after the end of breath.
If my favorite prophet Micah and my God-revealing man Jesus had to choose to identify as religious or spiritual with this definition of being religious, they would choose spiritual. Micah 6:8 “What does our God require of us but to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with our God.” And Jesus’ teachings, over and over, call for living love and letting the devil take the dogma.
There is a common denominator in the ways of thinking and doing I find spiritually and religiously inadequate. Maybe you’ve already picked it out. It is either-or thinking. I am more and more drawn to see and understand the way to life that fosters inner peace and peace with justice in the world as the spiritual way of the mystics in all the major religious traditions. It is the way of both-and rather than either–or.
After I retired from pastoral ministry, a job that kept me in the church world most of my waking hours, I entered the larger world wondering if anyone out there was seeking as I was seeking, was interested in spirituality as mystery inspired unity with all life through Love, another good name for God. I found at least as many people outside the church sharing this interest as those I knew in the churches. As I heard their stories, I understood their alienation from church. Since then, I’ve tried to bridge the gap. This means open the doors of the churches to see and affirm the spiritual seekers who choose not to go to church and to help those seekers outside the churches on their spiritual ways. In the process, I hope that they can see that church is first and foremost about the Spirit they find their lives moved by and drawn to. My best efforts in this cause have been groups and classes that seek to understand and practice spiritual life.
My good friend the Rev. Ellie Mercer and I are putting together another class for seekers in and out of our churches. We are calling it “Learning to See As the Mystics See.” We’ll meet Tuesday evenings in the Yarmouth First Parish – they have generously made rooms available to us – for eight weeks beginning Feb. 18. Email me if you are interested or have questions. We already have more than enough seekers signed up to do the class but have not reached our upper limit of 40.
Bill Gregory can be reached at: