This is a repost of an essay from 2016 that generated quite a bit of … conversation! … when it first appeared in Ministry Matters, United Methodism’s largest online conversation platform. With a hint of nostalgia, here it is again:
I’m spiritual, not religious.
We hear it from skeptical family members, from tweed-jacketed professors, from latte-slurping elites, and we fall all over ourselves to agree, to affirm and to identify. In fact, on more than one occasion, when people respond to the news of what I do for a living with the spiritual not religious dictum, I have answered back with a bright-eyed, “that’s great! Same with me!”
Because is not Jesus the end of religion? Isn’t religion for people who are afraid of going to hell while spirituality is for people who have been there? Don’t we want to walk by the Spirit? When people tell us they are spiritual-not-religious, doesn’t that mean we need to change our churches to fill that gap and meet that need? Doesn’t the whole S-N-R parlance suggest that our family members, professors and sophisticates yearn for the liberating truth of Spirit-fueled faith rather than the shackles of man-made religion? It seems this modern phraseology and modern urges are prime territory for Acts 17, understand the culture, more U2 songs in church please!, relational evangelism.
In fact, let’s say it all together now, with feeling: I’M SPIRITUAL, NOT RELIGIOUS.
Except now I know that the spiritual-not-religious line is a canard at best, a load of bull at worst. Think of what someone — whether connected to church or not — is really saying when they claim that they are spiritual-not-religious:
I’m in this alone. I have a connection with God/Divinity that is unique to me. I will not be bound by rules that I find inconvenient or unappealing. My knowledge of sacred text will be limited to: “Don’t judge me!” (That IS in the bible, isn’t it?) I am unwilling to submit myself to the idea that there is a community of people who have wisdom, strength and hope that I need to make life work. I don’t have to hang around with hypocrites. Newer is better and younger is smarter. Best of all, I can make God into my image and thus never have to wrestle with the implications of what it means that I am made in his. My highest responsibility is to be true to me.
That entire list — as well as the premises behind it — is antithetical to New Testament faith and to the historic Christian religion. Yes, religion.
Do you know where the word religion comes from? From the same root word as ligament (look close, you’ll see it). And what do ligaments do? Ligaments are connective tissue linking bone to bone. Ligaments purposely link one part of the body with another part of the body. Ligaments are the ultimate antidote to body isolation; they instead call out: “You can’t do this thing alone! We’re in it together.”
And that’s what religion offers that mere spirituality never can.
When I say without apology that I am religious, I am saying:
I’m connected to a community without which I would make a mess of my life. That community is a gift to me and gifted by me, and I am accountable to it. I’m connected to history. I didn’t invent this Jesus story. Who would ever dream something like that up? No, I inherited his story. I am accountable not only to the story itself but to all those generations who passed it on until it landed in my lap, miraculously so, in January of 1979. I’m connected to all those hypocrites in my community and in my history. Thank God. Because there’s always room for one more. My community and my history mediate my direct connection with God. He breaks through on occasion in moments of splendid solitude, but I hear his word best in our patterned routines of gathering, praising, lamenting, loving and serving. My highest responsibility is to be true to my calling as a follower of the One who acted decisively in history. Being true to that calling may or may not result in personal satisfaction. I recognize that my religion consists of habits and practices that are not always convenient or even interesting … but they are always necessary.
I suppose what it means is this: It is only when I am sufficiently religious that I can be authentically spiritual.