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Spiritual but not religious?

6 June 2010

Are there dangers in being ‘spiritual but not religious’? –

‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’

It’s a trendy phrase people often use to describe their belief that they don’t need organized religion to live a life of faith.

But for Jesuit priest James Martin, the phrase also hints at something else: egotism.

‘Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,’ says Martin, an editor at America, a national Catholic magazine based in New York City. ‘If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?’

One of the words that has always made me uneasy is “spirituality”, because I’ve never been quite sure what it means. I think it means different things to different people, so it’s a slippery concept, difficult to grasp. On the face of it it seems to be a translation of the Russian dushevnost, but I don’t think that is quite accurate. Russia has a thousand years of Orthodoxy behind it, and I think dushevnost has different connotations from those it has in the West.

Back in the 1960s I attended an Anglican theological college, St Chad’s, in Durham, England, which was also a constituent college of the University of Durham. On one occasion I attended a meeting of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, a group that promoted fellowship and understanding between Anglicans and Orthodox. This is what I wrote in my diary at the time (14 Oct 1966)

… went to the Junior Common Room, where there was a meeting of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius — an introduction to the Eastern Church by Benedikz and Father Bates. Father Bates, it appears, spends his holidays in Greek monasteries. The thing lasted three hours, and was incredibly dull. However, their theme this year was “God and Caesar”, and they are having a conference on that theme in about six months time — so perhaps things might improve, or at least something fruitful may be learned at the cost of boredom. Father Bates, and the English generally, seem to find the
Eastern Orthodox Church quaint, foreign, and rather amusing. They roared with laughter at the description of the way a priest baptised a child in St Oswald’s, and washed the olive oil off his hands in the font afterwards, and then got all deadly earnest and serious over obscure points of spirituality.

The English seemed to have a fascination with Orthodox “spirituality”, and Father Hugh Bates always hinted darkly at mysteries which could not be spoken about — perhaps they included breathing exercises, navel-gazing and the like. But they seemed to despise the practical features of Orthodoxy from an exalted peak of English superiority. And one way of expressing it is that they wanted spirituality without religion. But one thing I have learned about Orthodoxy is that the “spiritual” and the material belong together. The messiness of olive oil at baptism is an essential part of Orthodox “spirituality”, or rather dushevnost. You can’t separate them. You can’t have one without the other, as the English seemed to want to. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy go together. It’s a seamless garment.

To be fair, however, I should also point out that I had then been in England for only nine months, and most of that time I had spent driving buses in London. I had been at St Chad’s College for two weeks, and there were perhaps some aspects of English culture that I had missed. But at the time that meeting turned me off “spirtuality”.

At the same time, I was not very keen on “religion”, though much of that depends on how you define it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity” was taken up by British theologians, and (it seemed to me) much distorted in the process. It has since been taken up by some Americans, and turned into a modernist ideological cliché — “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship”.

I think Father Alexander Schmemann got that right when he wrote

What is the fatal mistake of Christian history? is it not that logically, methodologically, one derives Christianity from religion, as the “particular” from the “general”, which means that Christianity is reduced to religion, even when it is affirmed as fulfillment, as the accomplishment of religion. Whereas Christianity, in its essence, is not so much the fulfillment as the denial and destruction of religion, the revelation about it as the fall, and the result and the main expression of original sin. Now our times are returning to religion, but not to Christianity, and Guyana (Jim Jones), Moon, etc., are some of the symptoms. One will ask, ‘Is it not the denial of religion, i.e. of sacredness and meditation, the quintessence of Reformation from Luther to Calvin to Karl Barth?’ No. And the proof of this ‘no’ is that the radical sects (like Jones’) are invariably born from within, from the depths of Protestantism. Why? Because, I think, Protestantism, intending to purify Christianity from pagan contagion, in fact was the annhilation of the eschatology of Christianity. Christ did not eliminate death and suffering, but trampled them, i.e. radically changed them from within, made victory our of defeat, ‘converted’ them; in so doing, He ‘converted’ religion, but did not destroy it. Converted it, not only by filling it with an eschatological content, , but by revealing religion, making it the sacrament of the Kingdom of God. The sin of religion — more exactly, religion as a sin — is not in the feeling and experience of the sacred, but in the immanentization of the sacred, in identifying it with the created world. The world is created as communion with God, as ascent to God; it is created for spiritualization but it is not ‘god’ and therefore spiritualization is always also the overcoming of the world, the liberation from it. Thus, the world is a ‘sacrament’. The fatal mistake of Protestantism is that having justifiably rebelled against the immanentization of Christianity during the Middle Ages of Catholicism, it rejected the ‘sacrament,’ not only religion as sin and fall, but also the religious nature of creation itself. The mistake consists in saying that the Church is the totality of the ‘saved ones,’ but saved individually (‘I am saved’), so that each salvation does not mean anything for the world, does not accomplish anything in the world, the salvation of the world is not accomplished in the salvation of each man. The Church, in other worlds, becomes a sect — a sect obsessed with salvation as such, without relation either to the world or to the Kingdom of God. By renouncing cosmology, Protestantism actually renouces eschatology, since man has no other symbol, no other sacrament, i.e., no other knowledge of the Kingdom of God, than the world; so a man’s salvation is always also the salvation of the world, the knowledge of the Church as the presence of ‘new creation’. This experience of ‘being saved’ — since in fact it has no content except being saved — is unavoidably being filled with any content. The one who is saved must ‘save’. A sect is always active and always maximalistic, a sect lives in the excitement of being saved and saving. Since either being saved or being a savior has no cosmic or eschatological horizon, no spiritual depth, no spiritual knowledge of the world or of the Kingdom of God, the goal, the object of salvation, becomes the evil of the sin that one has to be saved from, whose annihilation will produce salvation. It can be alcohol or tobacco or capitalism or Communism; it can be literally anything! On that level a sect leads to morality, social gospel, or ‘prayer breakfasts’ for bankers, who, if they feel they are saved, will become better bankers, better capitalists, etc. ‘The Cause!’ Finally, on that level, a sect is transformed into an agency (churches, synagogues, other agencies) — philanthropic, humanitarian, anti-racist etc. Even on that level, a sect carries the foundation for radicalism. While identifying evil with something concrete, tangible and usually very evil, while absolutizing this concrete evil, a sect easily mobilizes people against and not for. The experience itself of being saved, of tracing a clear line between the saved ones, i.e. the good ones, , and the not-saved ones, i.e. the evil ones, makes the life of a sect, so to say, negative, directed at accusing and condemning. Even a continuous feeling of guilt, characteristic of contemporary Protestantism; a continuous public repentance offered to the third world, or to minorities, or to the poor, is born of the need to have a clear conscience — the basic sign of ‘being saved’. By denouncing not one’s self, but the Church, or white society, or something else, the one that is saved feels that he is good.

On a low level, this radicalism comes out in to the open and is the logical conclusion of the sect. If Protestantism is individualizing salvation, and making it a personal salvation by emptying it of any cosmic and eschatological content,  it makes man endlessly lonely, torn apart, separated from the world, from history, from the kingdom of God. Thus, paradoxically, the sect becomes a rescue from solitude, but at the cost of diluting one’s personality in the sect, in the cult. A sect is united around a savior, around the leader. His power is rooted in the sect’s weakness. He determines ‘the Cause’, he leads the fight, he knows. Turn your will to him! So, in a world totally secularized, i.e. totally desacramentalized, totally ‘de-eschatologized’, saviors appear, Moon, Jones, etc. And nine hundred people obediently stand in line next to a barrel of arsenic, to die! All is tied together, all leads to all. ‘Beware how dangerously you walk.’

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 June 2010 9:07 am

    Thank you Steve, words of sanity and depth. Just what I needed as I prepare to celebrate baptism and communion this morning. I had already decided to concentrate on the sacrament and to celebrate interconnectedness. I was just mulling over my time in a New Age Fair yesterday with a Christian group, my main concern is that we are simply also “selling” our(?) product!

  2. Richard Fairhead permalink
    8 June 2010 12:27 am

    Being spiritual but not religious‘ is not the phrase I grew up with, but being ‘Christian but not religious‘ was one of the slogans of Evangelical Christians in the deep south of the UK. It was something I associated with as I didn’t like religious stuff. By that I mean I didn’t like things that were repeated again and again (except drinking coffee and eating), I particularly didn’t enjoy church services with boring songs and structured phrases that were repeated week after week. And I hated long talks.

    When I decided to follow Jesus I got hooked into an Evangelical and later a Charismatic sub-culture. The Charismatic was better in that it didn’t have so much direct repetition. But… more recently I have come to see that both structured Evangelical and Charismatic churches do tend to have repetitious meetings, and the long boring talks are still there.

    At the same time, I was not very keen on “religion”, though much of that depends on how you
    define it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity” was taken up by British
    theologians, and (it seemed to me) much distorted in the process. It has since been taken up by
    some Americans, and turned into a modernist ideological cliché — “Christianity isn’t a religion,
    it’s a relationship”.

    The trouble is Christianity IS a religion as far as I can see. However, I am coming to realize that it’s not Christianity that isn’t a religion, it’s following Jesus. That is a relationship.

    There are two words that feel right about following Jesus: relationship and community. Words like religion and spiritual don’t. Why? Well I think spiritual tends to make me think of people that are so heavenly minded they are no earthly use, whereas my perception of Jesus is that He is most certainly down to earth (so to speak) and that the Judaic concept of God being incarnate in Jesus was much less religious than any of the examples of Christianity I have observed.

    I remember well discussions at the International Association of Missiological Studies Documentation, Archives and Bibliography group about various words – church and spirituality being two words that seemed to evoke lots of discussion.

    Église and church and spiritualité and spirituality seemed to demonstrate effectively that you could never translate words between languages. The underlying concepts didn’t match. It was only when you tried to create a thesaurus that the broader and narrower terms showed up the radical differences.

    Am I spiritual? I don’t think so. In some ways I hope not. Am I religious? I don’t think so and I truly hope not. Am I a follower of Jesus? Yes, I have decided to follow Him and to live in community with others who also follow Him. But I cannot stand it when they get all religious and have these meetings they call ‘church’.

  3. Maria Guzenko permalink
    10 June 2010 9:41 pm

    Interesting, as usual, and out of my league intellectually, as usual, too, but I did my best to understand it.
    I agree that ‘spirituality’ is a vague term.
    I’m actually writing this to suggest a better Russian term – I think what you might be looking for is “duhovnost'”. “Dushevnost” is more like “cordiality”, sitting around with your friends, feeling like you belone, etc., but not really spiritual matters.

  4. Maria Guzenko permalink
    10 June 2010 9:41 pm

    Correction: belong*

  5. Richard Fairhead permalink
    10 June 2010 9:48 pm

    Actually I am both happy and enjoy talking with people about spiritual matters – by that I mean talking about our common relationship with Jesus or how we relate to our heavenly Father. What I struggle with is singing songs and listening to talks.



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