Spiritual but Not Religious?

Spiritual but Not Religious?

A Call for Conversation

Excerpt from Interweave’s Fall 2011 Newsletter

sunsetTalking to people who find God in sunsets is “boring,” opined the pastor, criticizing the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Their freelance spirituality is “comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture!” she declared.A college professor fired back, insisting many of her “spiritual” students were serious searchers turned-off by “boring churches.” Touché!

Perusing my Facebook wall posts, I knew yet another blog-spat was afoot. Some religious people cheered on the pastor. Other spiritual not religious types lambasted organized religion.  Because I believe that the “religious” vs. “spiritual”  issue is one of the defining conversations of the decade, I weighed in on this one with a very strong “All you guys need to listen to each other more deeply.”

Religious leaders need to hear what some of these seeming spiritual “grazers” have to say about why institutional religion puts them off. Conversely, “grazers” might benefit from considering the spiritual treasures hidden beneath the surface of the great historic religions. That hard, prickly, cactus-like surface grew around spiritual truths centuries ago in order to protect the sweet inner fruit of profound spiritual truth and practice.

United Church of Christ Pastor Lillian Daniel dismisses with wry disdain those who find their own thoughts “fascinating” while despising ancient tradition as “dull.” Glad she belongs to a religious tradition and congregation where she can wrestle with her life of faith in community, she finds the unaffiliated seekers too self-involved, too-self-important, too isolated—just as much of a stereotype as the many unfair stereotypes of the religious she deplores.

The best talk-back to the disdainful pastor came from Kate Blanchard, Assistant Professor at Alma College, who stands up for the disaffiliated spiritual kids who flock to her Religion classes. They really do want to engage real questions of belief, but few churches she knows are sufficiently inspiring or open to questioning to warrant her regular attendance, or that of her students. They are far from the vibrant community of spiritual conversation and mutual accountability Pastor Daniel seems to present as the ideal.

Frankly, I’ve got responses for them both. To Pastor Daniel I’d say, “Why don’t you engage those ‘boring’ people with questions about their convictions rather than pre-judging them?” And I’d challenge Professor Blanchard to make sure her students understand that religious traditions have been around for centuries and might have some wisdom to offer.

Why Not Have a Conversation?

Two experiences illustrate this for me. The first was with another disdainful minister. During the Q & A following a talk, one pastor challenged my call to engage the disaffiliated spiritual folks more deeply. “Do you really mean I’m supposed to take my sister-in-law’s interest in stone circles in Sedona and crystal healing seriously?” he blurted out with an all-too-typical pastoral hauteur.  “Just what are you saying I should do?” “Well,” I said, “have you ever asked her why this interests her, what she’s experiencing, how this is an experience of Spirit?  Who is God for her?  What about the church  doesn’t help her encounter Spirit?”

Those, young and old, who have given up on religious institutions but still seek a vital relationship to the holy have sometimes been distanced because their spiritual interests seem too out-of-the-box in religious circles (and are too often treated as such). A generous sense of the possibility that God might actually be in touch with people without the benefit of religion, and in a wide variety of ways, goes a long way toward making religion more welcoming to serious spiritual pilgrims looking for support and resources on their journey.

On the other hand, there was the young couple in pre-marital preparation with me who wanted every mention of Jesus dropped from their wedding ceremony. “Why?” I asked these kids, both baptized Christians raised in very liberal, tolerant churches. They launched into a list of religious failings: narrow-mindedness, exclusivism, not keeping up with the times, and the ever-popular “hypocrisy” (as if the religious had a monopoly on that).

I reminded them that not only was I a card-carrying Christian, but an official representative of the religion. “You’re O.K.” they said. “It’s just the others.” Their impressions were dominated not only by fervent, narrow-minded TV preachers but also the entertainment industry’s typical portrayal of the religious as, well, narrow-minded, exclusivistic, or downright crazy.

After listening to this for a while I challenged them rather fiercely by saying, “If you nice liberal young people lumped all African-Americans, or gay people, together in a single set of stereotypes like you do religious people you would actually be ashamed of yourselves. You grew up in intellectually open-minded churches with forward-thinking members who are legion in this country but who seldom get represented on Law and Order or in films. Why lump us all with the bigots?”

Truth be told, ignorance of The Other reigns supreme in much of this debate, and, as is the case in our polarized land, the purveyors of wit, sarcasm and scorn take up too much print space. The Methodist minister had little to no knowledge of native American spirituality, the traditional use of stones, crystals and herbs in healing of mind and spirit, and no idea of the symbolism and use of gems (aka crystals) in historic Christianity—as in the tradition of using amethyst for a Bishop’s ring. (Amethyst was believed—and is today by some—to have power to connect the physical and spiritual dimensions).

Spiritual not religious woman t-shirtOn the other hand, too many young (and older) people like this have dismissed their childhood religious training without investigating further to find out what the adult form of their faith looks like. Or they see only the sins of religious institutions, without setting these failures within the context of failure in every form of organized humanity: government, medicine, law, education, even family life.  Full disclosure: I’m a “spiritual and religious” type. I care about this conversation because Interweave has been a meeting place of both the “spiritual” and the “religious” for over three decades. Neither

contingent bores me. I find God in sunsets as well as churches, truth in Judaism as well as Christianity, spiritual practices in Buddhism as well as my own faith.  The “spiritual” contingent has been the “bread and butter” of Interweave.  But while many of them  have been religiously unaffiliated, seeking to put together their own unique package of spiritual beliefs and practices, the majority have been “spiritual but religiously affiliated.” Many have come because their church or synagogue gave them good religion, but no spiritual depth.

The simple truth is that both sides need each other. Religions arise out of the great spiritual insights and experiences of the founding generation, but over the decades and centuries they develop institutional forms and routine practices that usually dampen the original spiritual fire. That’s not a great thing, but the religious container helps preserve the fire itself, if only as banked coals, through history. Good ideas need social containers if they are to survive as anything more than sentences in a book.

The “wider spirituality” movement of our times, which includes a lot of the “spiritual but not religious,” has, in fact, rummaged through the treasures preserved by historic religions, mixing and matching ideas from many traditions. But also within many religious institutions and leaders there is a similar rediscovery of spiritual treasures and a willingness to color outside the lines of routine and often dull convention. So we’ve got some Catholics doing Zen meditation, Protestant feminists praying to Mary, Buddhists adopting Christian social action tactics.

Religious leaders like me need to support people in their spiritual journey, not try to maintain a monopoly on truth or imagine the Spirit can’t touch whomever it chooses. The non-affiliated might well consider that there are religious congregations where real searching is actually welcome; and if not, make sure they find or create a set of fellow travelers who can be companions and sounding-boards. Journeys go well with some fellow-travelers.

Both sides would benefit from less acerbic debate and more conversation. And by the way, Jesus got honorable mention in that wedding ceremony.

—Robert Corin Morris


(1) See “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” by Lillian Daniel, at http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/spiritual-but-not-religious.html).


(2) See “Spiritual But Not Religious? Come Talk to Me” by Kate Blanchard at http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/5128/spiritual_but_not_religious_come_talk_to_me