Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
March 25, 2011
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
We’ve all heard it. A great many people who will have nothing to do with any organized religion say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I always wonder what they mean by that claim. Whatever they mean when they say I’m spiritual but not religious, the claim certainly makes some major assumptions, namely, that spirituality and religion are not the same thing, that they are two separate things, and that it is possible to separate them. The claim implies that it is possible to be spiritual without being religious and that it is also possible to be religious without being spiritual. People do indeed separate religion and spirituality all the time, and the most common form of that separation is for people to claim spirituality and to reject religion.
All of which of course raises the questions: What do those terms mean, and just what is the relationship between spirituality and religion? Those questions came up for me recently in a new way when I started reading a new book by Diana Butler Bass with the provocative title: Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Bass’ book helps us address those questions in a couple of helpful ways. First of all she helps us understand what the terms spiritual and religious mean. Or rather, she helps us understand what most people today take them to mean, whatever their technical definitions might be. One way she does is that is by telling about a word association exercise she often does with groups she is addressing. She asks people what words come to mind when they hear the term spiritual and when they hear the term religious. She says that the many different groups with which she has done this exercise tend to come up with quite similar lists of words. Here are some of the words her groups often come up with:
For spiritual: Experience, connection, transcendence, seeking, prayer, wisdom, inner life, inclusive.
For religious: Institution, rules, order, dogma, authority, beliefs, hierarchy, boundaries, certainty.
While not all of the associations people have with the term “spiritual” are positive—some see spirituality as self-indulgent for example—and not all the associations with religion are negative—order and boundaries are necessary and beneficial in many aspects of life—on the whole people associate things they see as positive with spirituality and things they see as negative with religion. Clearly, those of us who value religion and have devoted our lives to it have a public relations problem to say the least.
Bass’ thesis is actually that we are entering into a time when fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as spiritual but not religious and more and more people are identifying themselves as spiritual and religious. I don’t know if she’s right about that or not. She certainly cites a lot of public opinion research to support that thesis. Whether Bass is right about that or not, her thesis is both provocative and, for me at least, hopeful. It suggests that there is value both to what people identify as spirituality and to what people identify as religion. Let’s take a closer look at the “and” of Butler’s thesis and see what we find.
It certainly seems clear that spirituality is primarily an inner thing with us humans. It is about our inner life, the life of our psyches, the life of our souls. Spirituality speaks to us at the depth of our being, in those deep, hidden places where our longing for connection with God first arises. Spirituality is a response to a yearning of our spirits to be reunited with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Spirituality is about prayer, meditation, silence, yearning, listening. Our two scripture readings this morning point in the direction of spirituality rather than religion in their words about God’s law being written on our hearts and the Psalmist’s prayer for a clean heart and a new spirit.
And it is pretty clear that religion is primarily an external thing, or at least it has become that over the centuries. Religion, as most people today understand it, is about correct beliefs, dogmas, and doctrines, rules of behavior, institutions, buildings, committees, denominational loyalties. Looked at that way, spirituality certainly seems to be a good thing and religion certainly seems to be a bad thing.
But you know, it really isn’t that simple. You see, nothing in life, or at least not much in life, is either entirely good or entirely bad. Good things have their shadow side, and bad things can nonetheless contain a kernel of the good, can have things about them that in themselves are actually good not bad. So it is with spirituality and religion. I take it for granted that on the whole spirituality is a very good thing, but what might some of the bad things about spirituality be? Spirituality, when it is done as a purely personal matter, which is how most people who claim to be spiritual but not religious do it, can be mere self-indulgence. That gets taken as true and good which merely makes us feel good. Because it is inner directed, spirituality can easily become self-centered. Because it is so individualistic it can wander off in directions that actually are spiritually harmful and disordered rather than helpful and healthy. There is a danger in unguided spirituality that, I suspect, most of the people who say they are spiritual but not religious don’t recognize.
I take it for granted that most of the bad things people say about religion are true of most organized religion today and that they are indeed bad, but what might some of the good things about religion be? Religion provides structure that can guide spirituality in helpful, healthy directions. Religion provides a grounding tradition for spirituality, a tradition that has learned over the course of many centuries what is healthy spirituality and what is not. Religion provides community, a community in which we can share the spiritual journey, a community that can hold us when we struggle and that can correct us when we stray off course. When I hear someone say that they are spiritual but not religious and that they find their connection to God in nature I always want to say: So, are the deer going to visit you when you’re in the hospital? Religion gives us time-tested symbols and myths that have worked at the level of the human spirit to connect countless generations of seekers with God. Yes, religion can be hidebound, rigid, exclusionary, improperly judgmental, and all the bad things people associate with it, but let us not forget that religion also has its virtues. Religion also has gifts to give us that we miss when we reject religion in favor of an ungrounded, individualistic spirituality.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us living in the “and.” It leaves us living in the “and” of spiritual and religious. For me, the only legitimate purpose of any religion is to connect people with God. All religions are true to the extent that they do that, and all religions, our own included, are false to the extent that they connect people to something other than God. If, as I have maintained for quite some time now, the legitimate purpose of religion is to connect people to God, then religion is precisely a spirituality. A religion is a human construct that, when it is at its best, when it is functioning the way it should, when it is authentic and legitimate, holds together the virtues of spirituality and the virtues of religion while protecting against the vices of both. Religion properly understood, as opposed to religion the way it mostly is in the world, is the “and” that Bass says we are moving into.
Or at least it can be. Holding together the virtues of spirituality and the virtues of religion is not an easy thing to do. Churches, which are the primary institutional expression of religion, are human organizations; and all human organizations are constantly tempted to make themselves their primary concern rather than the purpose for which they were founded. Thus denominations and even individual churches become more concerned with their own survival than with the work God calls them to do in the world. They become conservative in the technical sense of the word, resisting all change even when change is necessary if they are to fulfill their divine calling. Religion can suffocate spirituality. On the other hand, spirituality can undermine religion. Spirituality can be so individualistic that it draws people out of community rather than into it. Spirituality can lead to spiritual arrogance that results in conflict and undermines the church.
No, holding spirituality and religion together, living in the “and,” isn’t easy. Bass says that “and” of spirituality and religion is where we are heading. I don’t know if she is right about that or not, but I am convinced that it is where we need to be. We humans need the deep movings of the Spirit in our spirits that spirituality can provide. We humans also need the structure, the order, the grounding that religion can provide. I like to think that here at Monroe Congregational UCC is do a better than average job of holding spirituality and religion together, of living in the and, or at least avoiding most of the shadow side of religion; but I also know we can do better. Today we begin our second decade together. As we enter that decade, I pray that we will grow together in living in the and. May it be so. Amen.