Religion? Spirituality? Who Cares?

In the culture of the USA there is currently a busy discussion of the difference between being spiritual and being religious. The conversation reveals some fairly huge differences of opinion between people who claim a specific religious connection and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious as well as those who claim multiple simultaneous religious connections. Numerous statements in blogs, comments and articles online make it clear that there are people who practice what might be called identity spirituality regardless of their connections with religion. The practice of identity spirituality is quite similar to identity politics with one very notable difference: identity politics is divisive by design while identity spirituality resolves all differences by simply ignoring them.

In order to contrast identity spirituality with identity politics it is necessary for you to understand what identity politics is. The point of identity politics is to recruit members by identifying commonality of political interest. In fact, activists in identity politics don’t so much make recruitment calls as they project an image with which prospects can identify. The identity Latino is deceptively clear in most people’s minds—a person who speaks Spanish and looks white but not Anglo-Saxon. The reality is that neither the appearance nor the speech of an individual will reveal all the people who might properly be identified as Latino, and the projection of the true factors of identity is actually a call for membership. Identity groups are used in polls and surveys, where participants self-identify with demographic groups and answer questions designed to uncover trends and attitudes within demographic identities.

The practice of identity politics not only demands acceptance and respect for a group’s unique identity (example, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) but it also distinguishes the members of the group from individuals who might fraudulently claim the group’s identity without meeting its unique definition. This practice was displayed when Barack Obama first entered the Democrat presidential primaries. He was easily identified as a black man, yet he was scorned by such public figures as Al Sharpton, because he did not have “slave blood.” His racial identity with other black political figures was marred for his lack of identity with survivors of the civil rights rallies of the sixties. Further, identity politics seeks special consideration for itself as compensation both for past injustices and for the insult of having endured past injustice, a state of affairs that is extended by constantly finding ways to demonstrate that the injustice continues. A prime example is the use of the term racist in the context of events and statements where the obvious intent is not to further an important public conversation but rather to receive the benefit of sympathetic support in words, legislative action and voting power that is occasioned by any perception that real racism persists in public life.

Identity spirituality is a very different concept. People who practice identity spirituality shun identification with any group whatsoever. Yet, in common with identity politics, the practitioners choose the relationship based on an identity. Something in the religion or spiritual practice resonates with something in the individual. The defining element is that the practitioner chooses religious or spiritual practices on the basis of their resonance with the identity of the practitioner. It might even be a resonance with the individual’s search for personal identity.  A person who practices identity spirituality is comfortable saying, “I identify with whatever moves me.” Or he might say,I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” Practitioners of identity spirituality are open to anything that feels spiritual to them, whether it is Christian, Buddhist, or even science. They don’t belong to a religion; they collect spiritual ideas that that they appreciate. The individual shapes a spiritual experience the way a sculptor might craft a mobile. That simile was deliberate, because the choices are fluid and elusive, and most practitioners of identity spirituality prefer it that way. Unlike identity politics where walls are deliberately constructed to foil attempts to reconcile differences between groups, identity spirituality simply ignores any walls that exist between religious and spiritual groups and picks and chooses among spiritual components as if the world of religion and spirituality were a giant shopping mall.

This is a point on the plane of all degrees of religious and spiritual convictions where spirituality fades into agnosticism and atheism. It is a place where ideas that claim a sacred element can be merged with completely secular views. Secular thinkers accept that cosmological hypotheses describe the physical beginnings of the universe, a point in time when no human observer could have measured anything, yet they categorically reject any suggestion of a supernatural power. The practitioner of identity spirituality can comfortably merge an astrophysical cosmology with a Buddhist meditation in the lotus position and consider all of it to be her personal spirituality. This blend of mathematics and mysticism is a place where nothing is firm or solid or predictable. It is the place where Eckhart Tolle took all his readers – that place where a person is his own god. Whether a person says that he is his own god or says that he chooses bits and pieces from the teachings of many gods, the ultimate truth of his spiritual or religious experience is that he chooses elements that satisfy him in some way. The experience is all about the person who experiences it. He may not call himself his own god, but he acts in lieu of any god.

Christianity does not recruit adherents on the basis of identity. There may be people who join Christian churches because of some identity factor, but that is not the teaching of the faith.  People who choose to follow Christ are not identifying with him. They are receiving his forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but they are giving up self, the very thing practitioners of identity spirituality clutch most fervently. To receive Christ is to be indwelt by God himself. Yet through the mystery of the Trinity, God remains on his throne in heaven, in the eternal and infinite perfection of heaven, while living within each of us messy and sinful human beings in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t identify with Christ; they serve him. They worship him and learn from him and depend on him. This experience is a life, a way of life, that is not in any way confined to a worship ritual or a worship building.

One of the reasons often given for being spiritual but not religious is that religions are too rigid, too organized and too full of hypocrites. Practitioners of identity spirituality visit a worship service and then say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” consigning what Christians consider to be a time of focus on God to a time of focus on self. They complain about Christians whose religious principles forbid them to engage in contraception, sterilization and abortion, and they complain even more about Christians whose religious principles against participation extend to the funding of such activities for others. They complain that religions in church buildings are old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern life. Then they complain that Christians are trying to impose their faith on others by expressing it publicly outside the worship space. They say that they believe that people are born good, and they don’t want to hear that people are born sinful.

Is this deep disconnect between Christians and the practitioners of identity spirituality really different from the disconnect between Christians and secular thinkers? What do you think Christians have to say to people who are spiritual but not religious? Do you think Christians need to change the way they worship in order to attract more members? Do you think Christians are giving a rich testimony to Christ that wicked people simply reject? Do Christians themselves need to change in some way? Should we take a survey and find out what would entice people to want to be Christians? Why are more and more people saying that they have no use for Christ or Christians or Christianity? Why do statistics show that Christians are the most persecuted people on earth? What might that have to do with our inability to communicate to practitioners of identity spirituality?

Looking for a good Christian book? Read my review of Martin Roth’s The Coptic Martyr of Cairo

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