"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."
That's a phrase we hear a lot now and I'll admit, I'm not a fan of it. Not that I'm a proponent of blind adherence to a doctrinal system or that I'm against personal spiritual quests. Far from it. I've just heard this phrase used too many times and found my BS-meter going off quite loudly.
I once went to a presentation given by the father of a student killed in the Columbine HS massacre back in 1999. He talked about his faith and his church and I really enjoyed the presentation. But then he closed with (exact quotes): "I don't consider myself a religious person, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. So if you'd like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, pray this prayer with me..." C'mon. You're not just talking about spirituality here, you're talking about religion, too. Be honest about it.
There's a couple presuppositions that go into the "religious but not spiritual" statement that I think go largely unexamined. First is the presupposition that religion is bad. Why? Why is religion such a bad thing? I think we're still operating with a colloquial definition of religion that is basically borrowed from Martin Luther's scathing (and generally correct) critiques of the abuse of papal power in the sixteenth century.
Religion is only a bad thing if we let it be. Being religious does not have to mean that one unquestioningly accepts everything that one's tradition teaches. Being religious does not necessarily make one a fanatic who would strap a bomb to their chest to go blow infidels to the hell to which they're already going.
Being religious can and should mean that one has committed to a relationship with a religious tradition. Like any relationship, there are things that one likes and things that one dislikes about the partner in the relationship. One's annoyance (and occasional anger) at the partner's flaws is outweighed by the love one has for the partner. One is committed to work through these issues and compromise to find a point at which both can be happy. Being religious in the best sense means that you should, in fact, have points of disagreement with your tradition.
The other largely unexamined presupposition is the meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is largely an individual undertaking. One's spirituality largely concerns the emotions and beliefs that one has. Spirituality is the realm of intimacy with the divine. These are great things but we can't stop there.
For one thing, where does one get all these lovely ideas about God that aids one's spirituality? From a religious tradition, of course! Religious traditions are the vehicles by which one generation passes on religious and spiritual knowledge to the next generation. That generation makes its own contributions and passes the whole package on to the next generation.
If I may shamelessly borrow a phrase from Jim Wallis, God is personal, but never private.
If one was only religious but had no element of spirituality then one would not truly be encountering God, they would only have a relationship with a doctrinal system. (Sidenote: I believe this is the exact problem with Christian fundamentalism, but that will be the subject of another blog posting)
Conversely, if one is spiritual but has no engagement with a religious tradition or community then one's view of God will only be as big as themselves. If, instead, one engages with a community, one gets not only the insights of their individual spiritual pursuits, but has the opportunity to have them challenged and enriched by the spiritual experiences of others. We are able to accomplish more as a community than we could as a group of individuals who never engaged the great spiritual questions together. In a religious community the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
I consider myself a spiritual person. I am also unapologetically religious. For it is in the meeting of both religion and spirituality that we truly encounter God.