Tag Archives: Spiritual But Not Religious

How to Pretend to be Spiritual

One of the high-profile mantras of contemporary culture is to be “spiritual but not religious.” This announcement is delivered with serious humility and meekness, assuring the hearer that there will be no invitation, not even a subtle suggestion, to join in the quest. The speaker righteously disavows any intent to proselytize, choosing to leave everyone else to his own search for meaning, deliberately explaining that there is no “right or wrong” in anyone’s choices. This speaker is not like those religious fanatics who love God and invite everyone else to love Him, too. This speaker is no threat to anyone’s status quo.

Christians are taken aback by such a concept. It is hard to argue with someone about an idea so malleable. The discussion is a lot like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. There is no core belief to dispute, no fundamental truth to refute. There is no substance to such an avowal.

Christians think that the person who takes this step might be on a quest for something meaningful, but to believe that “spiritual but not religious” is a quest for meaning would be a big mistake. To choose to be “spiritual but not religious” is to choose deliberately to avoid the complications of meaning or truth. This choice is, rather, a choice not to allow meaning or truth to interfere with self-worship. In other words, someone who is “spiritual but not religious” is engaged in a chiffon-like secularism. Its very softness confuses Christians who expect secularists to be hardened defenders of reason alone. This “spiritual” quest is the same thing as the secular search for truth; you know you have found it if it makes you feel good. It is Satan’s way of providing something for everyone.

Satan’s strategy is always to pander to the human ego. All the temptations to which human beings succumb are about choosing self over anything else. The temptations Christ is reported to have defused were all about self. I’m hungry—I’ll turn rocks into food. I want attention – I’ll jump off a tower without a parachute and float to the ground. I love power – I’ll do what it takes, even make a deal with the devil, to become the most powerful human being on earth. The temptation to become “spiritual but not religious” is no different.

How, you ask wonderingly, is it egotistical and self-serving to be “spiritual” when you are choosing not to be “religious” with all the ritual and hierarchy associated with religion?

The answer is that this choice is not about God or gods at all; it is entirely about personal gratification.

Those who choose “spirituality” alone most commonly reject Christianity. Often they are actually drawn to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. (I know, I know. Buddhists claim it is a way of life, not a religion. Well, every religion either shapes a way of life or it is worthless. The rejection of Christianity is about rejecting the way a Christian is taught to live.)  They act as if to be vaguely “spiritual” is much more mature and sophisticated than to be soiled by participating in the life of the church. They cast aspersions on the whole idea that people who put their faith in Christ gather in groups, engage in shared worship, depend on the Bible, and organize in work and service. Most of all, they join in the secular outrage at Christians who believe that every moment of their lives is to be lived in submission to Christ. The idea of a relationship that permeates and transcends every moment of life is alien, and the idea of submission in that relationship is repugnant to those who want their own feelings to be more important than anything else. They cannot imagine deep happiness that is not about personal gratification.

Of course, the rejection of Christianity is justified by pointing to people who claim the name of Christ and live in complete denial of everything Christ taught. The rejection of Christ is excused because there are plenty of Christians who are not very Christ-like. Those who choose to be “spiritual but not religious” claim that they want purity, not hypocrisy, and they don’t want to associate with any hypocrites as part of their pure spiritual quest. The rejection of Christianity, or of any “religiousness” whatsoever is not rejection of anything that any religion actually stands for. It is rejection of people who don’t live up to their religious claims.

It sounds almost righteous to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  The problem is that being “spiritual but not religious” is simply another way to be completely secular.  It sets up a life with “sacred” elements and “secular” elements. It makes for an interesting cultural phenomenon. A secularist completely scorns the idea of Christianity, because the secularist rejects anything not measurable in time and space. Which means, of course, that the secularist equally scorns the “spiritual but not religious.” He will, however, tolerate the “spiritual” ones more comfortably than the Christians, because the “spiritual but not religious” are completely willing to keep their spirituality in the spiritual part of their lives while keeping a high barrier between the sacred and the secular. Secular thinkers have no problem with someone who worships himself or herself, because the secular thinker understands that world view. The “spiritual but not religious” are more comfortable with secular thinkers than with Christians for the same reason. Both worship self, and both believe that spirituality is a private matter.

Christians are viewed like sand in the cultural cogs, because they bring their spirituality into everything. Why? A Christian is actually a little temple of the Holy Spirit, walking around carrying eternity and infinity wherever he goes. A Christian lives at the intersection of time and eternity, space and infinity. For the Christian, the notion of being “spiritual but not religious” has no meaning, because a Christian is the same in all settings. (Of course I know that we are all sinful saints as well as saintly sinners. So this statement must be understood as the teaching, not as a perfect reality. It is this teaching that drives Christians to assert that a business is only one of many ways the Christian serves Christ.) The standard for Christian behavior is set by eternal and infinite standards, not by how the Christian feels about something at some time. This is why a Christian engaged in commerce is not engaged in secular activity; such a thing is impossible for him. The Christian is a completely spiritual being.

Those who reject religion and claim to be “spiritual” without any real focus other than themselves are fooling only themselves. It is an empty enterprise to attempt to connect with something that is ultimately only oneself. To be spiritual without any spiritual identity is destructive, even if it does make someone feel good for a while. Incense, candles, and sacred rocks will be cold company when Satan unleashes evil in someone’s life. Long ago in a comic strip now defunct, a swamp possum named Pogo saw through the fakery of this kind of thinking. He said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

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What Do We Say to Identity Spirituality?

Identity spirituality, which was discussed in yesterday’s post, is the ultimate religion of self. It poses as spirituality, but it takes shape as actions and words and ideas gathered together to fit an individual’s tastes. The world is full of religious and spiritual ideas, and identity spirituality simply collects the ones that feel good. This version of spirituality does not lift someone up or transform or ask for sacrifice. The practice of identity spirituality may masquerade as a stage in the evolution of human beings toward some higher form, but it is always self-satisfying and it always points to the human who invented it. What do Christians have to say to people who believe that they are their own gods?

We first must remember that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. People who want to find their own god within themselves can be reminded that Jesus truly was that person they all want to be. He really was both God and man. More than that, in his humanity he fully experienced all the trials and tribulations we experience. Pain, anger, fear, humiliation, disappointment, and so forth. We read in Mark 1:12 that “[Jesus] was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” The way Mark describes that experience is the most horrific of the three tellings. It vividly calls up an image of loneliness and that would feel like abandonment if not for the angels. It is the image many of us have actually experienced. The layoff notice. The terminal diagnosis. The end of a marriage. The child killed in an accident. The fervent dream the completely eludes any hope of fulfilling it. Almost every human being can recall some moment when he felt as if he were surrounded by rabid dogs because of a mistake or a failure that transformed former colleagues and friends into vicious enemies. It can feel like being in the wilderness with wild animals, under assault for so long it seems like a month of manic Mondays. We can share with the identity spiritualist that Christ can identify with them in the muck and the mire and the misery of being human.

The way Matthew talks about those forty days is a bit different. Matthew provides three examples of Satan’s attack. Those three examples cover the gamut of the challenge of being human, and they show us that Jesus knows exactly what it is to be human.

In the first temptation, Satan suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. It was a test many people don’t pass. The executive in the top echelons of his company’s financial controls has immense power, but Satan has lured many such individuals to divert money away from the company and into their own pockets. Individuals such as Napoleon or Marshal Petain or Fidel Castro acquire huge power by promising to serve oppressed people, but they cannot resist Satan’s temptation to serve themselves first, betraying the trust of their followers by using the power ceded to them by the people against the very people who loved them. Jesus was tempted by the possibility of making bread out of rocks. He was hungry. He wanted food. But Jesus, as fully man as he was fully God, chose not to use God’s rich power to serve himself. The behavior of Jesus is exactly opposite to the notion of choosing among all the religious options and picking the one that serves your inner self the best. Jesus chose not to serve self at all, but rather to serve God. As a completely human being, he did not do something no human can do, but he did something that is very hard for humans, no matter how clearly they see the right thing to do. We can tell an identity spiritualist that it is not only right to put self last, but it is also possible.

In the next temptation, Satan appealed to the spoiled child in everyone. We all like attention. We preen when people are admiring us and applauding our accomplishments. Satan tempted Jesus to do something so dramatic that all the world would look up and clap, scream, whistle and whoop it up. He asked Jesus to be like the grandchild at Thanksgiving who dashes around the living room full of relatives as fast as he can screaming, “See how fast I can run!” never mind that lamps and vases are falling like winter snow in every direction. He asked Jesus to be the showoff who jumps off the platform at the top of the slide instead of sliding down when it comes his turn. He asked Jesus to be the big man at work who finesses sales the company can’t possibly deliver and collects payoffs under the table in order to become the Sales Engineer of the Year. Jesus was born for the specific purpose of saving all the people of the earth. A dive off the pinnacle of the temple would certainly get people’s attention, and then he could tell all of them how to put God and other people first in their lives. Jesus rejected the temptation to call attention to himself rather than to the kingdom of God.

Finally, Satan went to the bottom line: statistics. Sales numbers. Profit. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. A good way to envision this sight is to think of a huge world-sized yearbook. Jesus would not likely have been swayed by a vision that looked like a globe, but a vision of individuals, especially those suffering from hunger, disease and loneliness. One image of suffering humanity after another paraded past by the author of all that suffering. And the images were coupled with a real temptation: if Jesus would simply worship Satan, Jesus could have all those people for himself. These were the people Jesus had come for. These were the ones he cared for. Would it be a bad thing just to kneel before Satan one time?

It is the same argument that might be offered up in the back seat of Dad’s Chevrolet on prom night. Don’t you want to know what it is like? What could it hurt to do it just once?

Hey, it’s not cheating if everybody is doing it. If you don’t make our report look good, then we will be the only department that doesn’t get a full budget allocation for next year.

The world is full of such opportunities, and Jesus, who said NO to this temptation, knows how much we all want the shortcuts to happiness.

How do we respond to the lure of identity spirituality? We respond with the message Jesus gave to a man whose identity was spirituality in the extreme – Nicodemus the Pharisee. Being a Pharisee was all about satisfying self while scorning other people who did not deserve to be noticed. Pharisees performed all their good deeds in public where everyone could see how religious they were. And Pharisees sold out the entire nation of Israel in order to be the only legitimately spiritual people in any room.

Jesus’ message to the Pharisee is Jesus’ answer to everyone who thinks he can be his own god. Jesus spoke of the real God, the one God, his own Father in heaven, and said,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:13-17

Can Christians Avoid Demographic Despair?

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24 

Who are the nones, and what is important to them? And who are the spiritual but not religious? Contemporary surveys and polls and books and articles probe these demographic terms. You can read comment and opinion on these topics in most newspapers and news sites on the web. As the numbers who fall into these categories increase, many people ask what causes a person to believe that a religious connection is a detriment rather than a benefit to a fulfilling life, and why would someone find the abstract notion of spirituality more satisfying than being part of a religious fellowship? Christians ask specifically why many people reared in Christian families disconnect from Christianity as adults, and why any Christian would find something in yoga or a Buddhist trance that is superior to a relationship with Christ? What is going on in our culture that is driving these choices?

In a recent article, Phillip Goldberg cautions readers that those who claim none and those who claim spiritual but not religious may well have personal connections with any number of religious traditions even though they do not identify with any single religious group. Thus, either none or spiritual but not religious may actually mean that they draw from several religious sources without feeling affiliation or obligation to any religion. Christians looking around for an explanation of the statistics should be aware of this fact.

US Christians have been accustomed to see most Christian children retain their childhood religious connections. I belong to a church where there are numerous four-generation families among the members. Nevertheless, the census of 2010 and recent surveys of a religious nature reveal that numbers and proportions of Christians are declining while the numbers and proportions of people who claim no religious connection are climbing. Generally declining birth rates suggest that the proportional influence of Christianity might decline in the culture purely as a consequence of fewer children in Christian families. What’s more, most Christians believe that the credibility of Christianity is declining along with the demographics.

Christians know another truth rarely discussed in the demographic analysis – many people who self-identify as Christian have exceedingly tenuous connections with the faith. They read the Bible only occasionally and seldom attend worship. They don’t know enough about the Bible to name the first five books, and they aren’t sure if the Bible is relevant to modern life anyway. For all they know, it was Abraham who parted the Red Sea, and the Good Samaritan was probably one of Jesus’ disciples. Even people who claim to be Christian do not necessarily influence the culture with Christian teachings and values.

Christians despairingly conclude from these numbers that church membership will continue to decline. They mournfully engage in assembled hand-wringing. In fact, for some strange reason Christians believe that if they understood these numbers better, they might be able to craft a solution that would reverse the trend.

I don’t think so.

I see an important message in these numbers that has nothing to do with specific demographic categories. The message I see is this: Christians are not recognized as significantly different from any other group or religion, and when they do distinguish themselves, too often they attract attention for not living consistent with the faith they claim. In other words, Christians, including me, are not known for denying self and acting like Christ. We worry and worry that we don’t have the right plan or we don’t have the right process or we don’t have the right location, but none of these things is the problem.

When Christ roamed around Galilee and Judea, people flocked to him. It was like the best spring revival ever. Still, when push came to shove, when political and religious power combined against Christ, it became evident that not many of those people had been truly changed by meeting Christ. A lot of them were like the nine lepers who ran away and never came back to thank Jesus for healing them. They just took what felt good and ran with it. The same thing happens today. Some people meet Christ and are never the same, while others meet Christ and simply add him to their collection of spiritual heroes.

We must not despair about these things. Jesus never promised us that we would overwhelm the world. He promised that he would go with us into the world and give us the words of testimony we need. He promised that when persecution came, whether in the form of dismissive scorn or in the form of horrific torture, he would never abandon us. The book of Revelation makes it very clear that through all of time, the numbers of the faithful will not be the dominant demographic, try though we will to reach the whole world for Christ. John’s blinding vision of the future confirms what Jesus said about how few will find that narrow gate and the rocky path to life. In fact, I am always stunned to read about the people who would rather call down boulders on their head than turn to Christ. We who live in a blessed, fulfilling relationship with Christ simply cannot expect that every person with whom we share our blessings will join us on that road. It does not mean that we stop sharing, but it should mean we stop wringing our hands. It does not mean that we stop praying for everyone in the path of that rockslide, but it does mean that we trust God and his guidance for the outcome.

What can we do about the numbers? Absolutely nothing. Focusing on the numbers will distract us from what we need to do. What then do we do? We can do the one thing Christ asked us to do: Keep sharing the love of Christ. Trust that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of those who respond. Make disciples, baptize disciples, and teach the disciples what Jesus taught. How do we do that? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24

If you think things sometimes look bleak for Christianity in the US, read about Somalia at Living on Tilt the newspaper.