"Spiritual But Not Religious..."

(Last month I wrote a post entitled "It Sounds Good But..." in which I spoke, briefly, on the need to exercise appropriate judgment in the face of bad ideas that sound good. If that topic had become a series then this post would belong in it.)

I am sure that you, like me, have heard the phrase "spiritual but not religious." It appears on book covers, in magazine articles, and on the lips of people near and far. It embodies the pernicious idea of a divide between the 'religious,' epitomized in dead institutions with their rites, rituals, dogmas, and creeds, and the 'spiritual', visible and vibrant in our personal lives through heartfelt, passionate, subjective and real experiences. It has become a trend, a near automatically assumed position, to be 'spiritual' but not 'religious'. After all, who wants to wade through the legalism, hypocrisy, politics, and conflicts of an 'institution'? 

What you may not know (and really, why would you?) is that this idea has deep roots. In 1902 William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience which explored precisely this divide. He defined religion as either personal or institutional and completely denigrated the latter. (Side-Note: I had to read this book because I took a degree in Religious Studies) Now, over 100 years later, we are still operating with the divide James set up; we have merely renamed it.

I am sympathetic to this desire. After all, the church is no easy place to stay. Institutions have many problems, the church as much as any: loss of mission and vision as the institution becomes an end in itself, with preservation the highest goal; the stifling of creativity in the name of tradition and continuity; abuse of power, or other kinds of abuse; and this is just to name a few (on top of those listed earlier). Disillusionment is inevitable if we come to the church without a proper understanding of grace. Sin is also inevitable, and therein lies the rub. For it is precisely sin on an institutional level which expresses itself in the problems I have listed, and the hard fact is that no matter where you go you cannot avoid sin. Further, it is precisely (and only) grace which can see us through this difficulty. This is merely one of the reasons that being spiritual but not religious is not only an impossible idea, but a nonsensical statement. 

100 years after William James published Varieties Charles Taylor, a brilliant Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, published Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited in which he responds to James saying, as I have just done, that it is simply absurd to make this division. 

The problem, philosophically speaking, is that all experience requires vocabulary and this vocabulary is inevitably given to us by a community. There is no individual religious experience, no matter how physically alone we are in the moment. You must have both theological formulation and communal experience to have a religious transformation. The very idea of a personal religion, or spirituality, is only possible in a society which champions individualism to the point of all but denying the interconnectedness in which we actually live. 

For Christianity specifically, the problems of this divide go much deeper. In making 'true religion' a matter of 'the heart' or of merely personal experience we have created a false dichotomy between religion as personal and private and the rest of our life as public and communal. The most damaging fallout from this idea is consumer Christianity, in which individuals come to church to 'be fed.' In this way many evangelicals, and other Christians, have managed to turn what little communal experience we have left (worshiping together and hearing the word together on a Sunday morning) into yet another individual experience. The constant misunderstandings of, and misuses of, the sacrament of The Lord's Supper in many evangelical settings certainly do not help.

If you want to speak more theologically, the idea of being spiritual but not religious is nonsense because as a Christian you are, and must be, a member of the body of Christ. Though we mean the 'church universal' when we speak of the body of Christ you cannot, as a Christian, avoid the local church as the visible and tangible outgrowth of the universal church. If you do, you have, and will continue to have, serious problems.  As I have said before you simply cannot follow Jesus and reject His body.

Perhaps most distressing, however, is the total and utter lack of understanding as to what it means to be spiritual as a Christian which this whole idea of 'spiritual but not religious' displays. The center of Christianity is grace: the grace of God displayed in the person of Jesus the Christ and that same grace lived in and through the Christian community. Hence James 1:27 "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." I have news for you: you don't do those things best on your own. Hence Jesus words in John 13:35 "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". Hence Paul's words in Galatians 6:10 "... let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

The church is to be a place characterized by grace. This is what makes us attractive and this is how we are to live; grace in that we are forgiven, grace in our love, and grace in how we deal with the inevitable sin that comes up within the church and without. Of course, many churches have not done a good job of being places of grace or displaying that grace towards their brothers and sisters in Christ and in the local church (let alone those outside of the church), but you do not become more 'spiritual' or (more importantly) more truly Christian by leaving said institutions; you do it be learning to be more gracious within them, and helping to make them places of grace.

Being 'spiritual but not religious' is impossible, and doubly so when we are speaking of the faith of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

(Please understand that this in no way means you should stay in a particular local church; there are numerous valid reasons for leaving a local church. It does mean you cannot abandon church or the institutions therein. It also is not meant to limit the grace of God in that just as anyone can be saved with God, so all things are possible when it comes to individuals making mistakes in this area. I am only asserting that biblically and theologically speaking this divide is foolish and mistaken.)


Teresa Liang said...

Great post Andrew. I just was wondering if you could explain this thought more "The constant misunderstandings of, and misuses of, the sacrament of The Lord's Supper in many evangelical settings certainly do not help." Wasn't sure what exactly you're refering to.


Andrew said...

Sure, I meant two things by that. The Lords Supper is a sacrament of remembrance but also of community formation; it is supposed to be a meal that brings us together. We often understand the first part, but forget the second.

Then, we misuse it by making it a tool of exclusion. We misread 1 Corinthians 11:27 to exclude people when that is not the point of the text at all. I have read some very convincing theology that holds out the Lord's Supper as a converting sacrament; that is a sacrament that helps welcome people into our community.

Does that help?

ASW said...

Good read! Thanks!

Andrew said...

Thanks :)