Spiritual, but not Religious

I’ve heard this phrase hundreds of times in the past few years.  I was just thinking about it the other day while reflecting on my own “defection” from the RC Church back in the ’80s – only my mantra back then was, “I have faith, not religion.”  Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t.

The other day I was flipping through CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a book that really helped me turn a corner in my relationship with God.  He wrote a little about the spiritual vs. religious schtick.  He noted that many spiritual-minded people tend to disregard religion and theology on the basis that they are less experiential, more intellectual, and less “real” than standing on the Atlantic coast and experiencing it than it is to read and think about it or to look at a map of the Atlantic.  Well, rather than me writing about what Lewis said, here’s the quote in full:

In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.”

My cynical response to Lewis’s claim here is that a lot of people who claim to be spiritual-not-religious is that they just don’t want to be held accountable.  Yes, I know there are many sincere people who are skeptical of organized religion for legitimate reasons, too, but I don’t think that they constitute the majority of people who make this “spiritual” claim.

There’s an interesting-appearing article that I just ran across today here.  It’s by Richard Cimino and I’m excited to finish reading beyond the first page. 


10 Responses to “Spiritual, but not Religious”

  1. Wow, what a coincidence – I too wrote (albeit small) a post on this topic today.

    I think I am less cynical than yourself though. But the other question I have been pondering over this subject is what constitues ‘spiritual’? It may seem simple in definition, but when you start to think about it, there can be different interpretations.

    Interesting post:)

  2. Religious: “believing in and worshiping a superhuman controlling power or powers, esp. a personal God or gods” (Oxford Dictionary).

    Spiritual (2): “of or relating to religion or religious”

    Trying to distinguish the two is pure rhetoric. Those who hold themselves to be “spiritual” rather than “religious” are doing so in the name of spiritual elitism. People don’t want to be seen as merely “following the crowd” or falling in line with some big bad anti-individualist congregation, so they discard the “religion” and hold on to the “spiritual” – yet nothing has really changed.

  3. […] Some time ago I wrote an article on Religion and spirituality, and now have come across a rather good blog post that deals with the same topic: Spiritual, but not religious. […]

  4. I dunno. It seems to me that in my past I was able to clearly state that I was a spiritual agnostic, meaning that I believed in something bigger, or an energy, or something, but didn’t necessarily worship it.

    I’m older, and consider myself religious AND spiritual, in that I believe in a distinct God, and worship Him both privately and corporately.

    Does that make any sense to anyone but me?

  5. Thanks for this post. The analogy is really helpful for me thinking about a good way to explain theology to others.

  6. Hi, all. Thanks for the comments. Sorry that I’ve been remiss in responding. It’s been a busy few weeks.

    Evangelines: I liked your post, and enjoy your blog in general.

    Thinking Ape: I can see your point, and I agree that this is sometimes the case. It can be a kind of contrarianism. But for other people – maybe more of them, at least in my experience, it’s a way of saying, “I’m a good person, but I don’t want to really *do* anything to affirm that.” Hmm. Worthy of more thought, I believe.

    Khanya: Thanks for the pingback! Your blog is enjoyable!

    Don: Thanks for your reply. I’d like to hear more about that. Care to share?

    Coldfire: Good! I know that lots of “serious” theologians don’t like Lewis or find his apologetics somehow flawed, but he has been so influential (in a really good way) for so many people. I have nothing but admiration for him. He’s also much less academic than most “serious” theologians. Hmm, maybe that’s why I like him…

  7. I don’t agree with Lewis on this point. I think he’s being clever but a bit naive.

    History shows us that religion tends to squash spirituality in the name of spirituality.

    “Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.”

  8. Erdman: I see your point, but tend to disagree. First, I think that “raw” spirituality, untethered by any sort of theological thought, is necessarily incoherent. Can you think of any examples where this isn’t true? I’d be glad to be schooled on this but need to be shown where I’m wrong.

    But secondly, I don’t think it’s possible to escape theology entirely. We all carry a “map” – an embedded theology – that shapes how we worship (or choose not to). Now, you might make a distinction between religion and theology, but I think the difference is academic. Again, I’d be open to disagreement on this point.

    By the way, thanks to all for your comments so far. I’m humbled that so many people have stopped by my dusty little corner of the web. Pay no attention to the guy in the corner, mumbling and rocking back and forth. It’s just me, and I’m mostly harmless. 🙂

  9. Ha, ha!

    Well, to respond to your points, I really really do see a difference between religion and theology.

    I define theology very broadly as our reflections on existence in light of the existence of God. So, I don’t restrict theology to dogma or systematic theology. Dogma is usually used by the religious institutions to shackle our minds. I was recently talking to a rather bright young woman from a Lutheran background who said that her church experience as a Lutheran was that one needn’t theologically question anything because Luther basically got it right. Never mind the fact that Luther’s spiritual and theological mind was always active and dynamically engaged in questioning the status quo and searching for truth. So, what’s the most important thing: being a seeker like Luther? or just accepting his conclusions? The institution (religion) would simply have us accept Luther’s dogma b/c it is safe and easier to control. Spiritual seekers who are relentless in their pursuit of truth are difficult to contain and make folks feel unsettled.

    That brings me to my definition of religion, which is the institutionalization of spirituality such that the followers need only accept a particular body of beliefs and go through certain actions (do good deeds, go to church services, etc.) to be included within the institution. Religion often controls people, and as such it is a political institution that most often becomes corrupted with the proud and the powerful.

    Such hierarchies strike me as antithetical to Jesus’ message:
    “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.” Matthew 23:8 Here we find that Jesus levels the playing field a bit by evoking a family metaphor: Christ followers are family.

    “Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.”

  10. Thanks for those comments. Very valid points, all, but I still struggle with the religion conundrum. On the one hand, belief in the triune God calls us to gather in community, but inherent in that dynamic – given our fallen nature – we are essentially bound to develop hierarchies and screw up whatever initially decent motivations we had for gathering in the first place. But is the alternative highly personalized spirituality? That would seem to lead away from orthodoxy to individualized belief systems and chaos. While I don’t believe Jesus wants us to abuse our systems and institutions, I also don’t think he wants us to isolate ourselves from community.

    There’s surely a “third way.”

    I’d like to expand on this, because I know this is a pretty pollyanna-ish response, but I have to run. I’ll come back to it.

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