Spiritual But Not Religious

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  September 7, 2013

            “I am spiritual but not religious.” It is a phrase that is uttered frequently and people use it to justify not participating in church. It is both an attitude that reflects our narcissistic culture and one the church needs to listen to very prayerfully.

            From a practical standpoint, “spiritual but not religious” allows people to affirm a genuine belief in God, without participating in, or joining a particular religious tradition. To a large extent, this attitude reflects a powerful sense of narcissism that is very much a part of our American culture. Increasingly, we are taught to believe that life is “all about me” and in everything we do we are to do what’s best for ourselves.  

            “Spiritual but not religious” frequently flies in the face of religion, religious doctrine, and religious practice—and for good reason! Religions tend to focus on shared experience, accountability to the community, responsibility to others, and the importance of working for the common good. Christianity is no different. Jesus Christ did not call a bunch of lone ranger followers to simply believe in him but stick to their selves without any connection to a greater whole that is the Body of Christ. It does not mix with spiritual narcissism.

            For the self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” a realistic, yet also somewhat unfair, characterization is the person who can find God in a sunset, a walk in the mountains, or in the beauty of creation. Honestly, even the most devout Christians do the same. As God is the author of all creation, there is no sin or shame in seeking the Divine imprint in all that God has so wondrously created. In fact, some of the most beautiful poetry relating God’s majesty to the magnificence of creation is found in the Biblical book of Psalms.

            Finding God in the beauty of creation, however, also sells God short. It is fundamentally easy to see God in the beauty of a sunset and stop there with the short-sighted belief that that is the culmination of a spiritual experience. Authentic faith demands more.

            Unfortunately, even religion can sell God short. While the traditionally religious may not quit at finding God in sunset, we can run the equally dangerous mistake of seeking God only in the rituals, doctrines, and rules that govern our religious institutions. It has even been said in churches more often than is realized, “I don’t care what the Bible says, our church is governed by the Constitution and By-Laws and that is what we must follow!”

            The nice thing about finding God in sunsets and unbreakable rules is that it makes an easy-to-handle god that does not interfere much with the messiness of life. A sunset is beautiful and powerlessly intangible. It does not force you to examine your life or expose your growth points. The rules of religion are nice because they so clearly define what is right and wrong, but never help us to engage the uncertainties of living in community with one another.

            The Bible calls us to engage community as people of faith and that necessarily requires us to wrestle with the challenges of people who believe differently from us, who struggle with cancer or depression, who have to choose between paying bills or giving to the church, who are confused about their sexuality, struggle at work, fight to overcome addictions, and remain fearful of the skeletons in their past. This is where Christ meets the people of faith and it is also the truly hard work of being the church. It is why “spiritual but not religious” is everybody’s problem!