Why ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’?

by Rev. Ellie Barrington - September 2, 2012 A reflection on James 1:22-27 and Mark 7:1-8 Listen to the audio recording

In today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, we hear Paul and Jesus challenging what they see as ‘religion gone wrong.’ Let’s hear these age old critiques of religion, with the ears of today. What rings familiar and current and useful to you for critiquing Christianity today?

Readings of James 1:22-27 and Mark 7:1-8

Our Bible passages show clearly that Jesus’ lifestyle publicly challenged those aspects of Judaism that were not in synch with his experience of God – his personal spirituality. He decried the hypocrisy of lip service – challenging those Pharisee Jewish leaders whom he saw as ‘hearers but not doers’ of God’s Word. He questioned religious behaviours defined and defiled by human judgment. And he outright rejected certain ritual traditions, like the extensive hand washing before meals, that he felt were human inventions rather than divine direction.

Jesus quotes Isaiah to condemn ‘lip service’, because he moved from his heart. (In his time, the heart was understood as the locus of will and choice. The word heart comes up three times in this section of Mark.) Jesus was all about integrity – being the same inside and out – his actions expressions of his heart. He lived always as a God-son.

That often meant breaking the religious rules in order to follow God’s Law of love and justice. Evidently, his lifestyle caused great offense among observant Jews. No doubt they were hurt, as well as angered, by his public denials of their religious traditions.

Jesus was critiquing his religion to reform it. He wanted his practice of religion to be fully aligned with his experience and relationship with God – his personal spirituality. Today, we can be ‘honest to Jesus’ by critiquing our Christian religion – according to his standards of honesty, integrity and God-centred heart-felt life choices.

Critique of religion and Christianity in our time comes from two directions. The atheist camp of Hutchins and Dawkins argues against the existence of God. But they are arguing against a supernatural God, who is like an all powerful puppeteer in the sky, an outdated idea of God that I don’t believe in either, so this critique isn’t especially useful.

More disturbing initially, but more useful to us, is the critique of religion and Christianity that is voiced by the ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks. Fully 40% of Canadians now define themselves this way – and many of them are our friends, family and colleagues, aren’t they? Surely you’ve been part of a conversation where church or religion comes up, and often in a rather disparaging way, someone declares that they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’

I’ve mentioned Diana Butler Bass’ new book “Christianity After Religion.” Her research finds that the self designation ‘spiritual but not religious’ is “both a critique of institutional religion and a longing for meaningful connection.” So for us it is fertile ground, because “those who seek ‘spirituality’ are often saying ‘I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor and my own life.’” But it must be personal, experiential and honest. Sbnr folks assume that can’t be found in ‘organized religion’.

What’s your response when someone declares them self ‘spiritual but not religious’? I usually smile and say that I am spiritual AND religious. If there is a follow-up question, I say I’m spiritual AND religious, because the way that we practice our religion in this Progressive Christian community strengthens and inspires my spiritual life. The wisdom, traditions, rituals, practices – and especially the community support of Trinity, deepens my real personal connection with the Holy and empowers me to live accordingly. Religion exists to support spirituality – our real relationships with the God who is All, lived out through all our relationships with others and Creation. And today, our religion is in the midst of being reformed, transformed and renewed – by Jesus’ standards of spirituality.

At Council on Tuesday night, we did Butler Bass’ word association exercise with ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious.’ (The evidence is posted on the doors of the Sanctuary.) Inside most North American churches, where she collected her extensive research data, the spiritual column usually looked inviting and the religion column foreboding. Jackie Hawley, a good lifelong Catholic we know, summed up the most common response to this exercise for me: “When I hear the word spiritual, I feel warm, relaxed and open. When I hear the word religious, I think I need to sit up straighter and keep my mouth shut!”

I was happy to see that amongst us on Trinity Council, not too many of our contributions paired a positive association in the spiritual column with its negatively weighted opposite under religion. Trinity folks do have a lot of positive associations with religion.

In the Progressive Christian movement today we are not keeping our mouths shut, and hopefully we are learning how to act from our opening hearts. To do this, we have to keep checking our right column religious against our left column spiritual, to be sure that they are compatible. So that everything we do in the name of religion supports us in living the Word – as spiritually connected beings.

Butler-Bass reviews the origins of the word religion. Its root is ligio – like ligament – to bind or connect. So re-ligion means to re-attach. Religion was a response to the human longing to reconnect our self to God and others. It was not a system of enforced belief, but a particular way of seeing and being in the world – subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust – an attitude toward the divine or nature.” Religion originally expressed the awe that people felt in the presence and power of the unknown. ..As Jesus told and showed us repeatedly, religion is something that arises within our hearts.

Today, we are getting re-attached to real experience of God in our hearts, as the centre of our connected religious lives. We are consciously opening ourselves to be channels of the transformative Spirit, that empowers us to re-connect with the Holy in our self, our neighbor and this wondrous Creation.

Our religion is hopefully, less and less a set of obligation and more and more an inspiration to live as Jesus lived. We know this when the contradictions between the religious and spiritual columns evaporate. When our ‘organized affiliation, beliefs and rituals express and support our experience, connections, questing and growth – in God and in goodness.

Butler Bass’ book is surprisingly hopeful. Amidst the 21st Century critique and crisis in Christianity, we are taking part along with other world religions in what scholars are calling a Great Turning back to God. She says it is in fact “a Great Returning – to an ancient understanding. We are finding our way back to the forgotten path of wonder and awe, through the wilderness of human chaos and change.”

May we continue Jesus’ courageous quest for religious reform. In every age and especially in our age, we must critique our Christianity to ensure that it supports spirituality with lived-service, not lip service. Re-connection and re-union with God and All is the ultimate goal of our re-ligio.


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