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On being religious but not spiritual

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A vast gap between myself and many of my peers seems to exist where religion and spirituality are concerned. To wit, I prefer the former to the latter. Even more so as I mature (I am in my late 20's). I realize this approach has its limitations and weaknesses. But at least I am certain that religion exists.

Furthermore, I like religion and being religious. (I also like being irreligious but that's another story--or maybe it isn't.)

This does not mean that I do not or cannot call the spiritual-but-not-religious my neighbors, friends, and Christian brethren; to the contrary. I just have real difficulty understanding them when they describe themselves in these terms. I just don't know what people mean by being spiritual, i.e. spirituality. I know about the supernatural; I know about spiritual beings like angels; I know about spiritual gifts, and thus about the Holy Spirit and all therewith connected and indwelt and infused that we commonly call "spiritual." Also, I know that some spirits are of God while others are not, between which we can and must differentiate on the basis of whether a given spirit confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. I know that on such a basis it is possible to distinguish between true and false spirits. Indeed, I have learned about these things mostly in the regular course of being religious.

On being spiritual, though, I am not so clear. Frankly, I am clueless. I know (thanks to religion for drilling it into my thick skull) that I am commanded to love God and love my neighbor. But what such dictates have to do with spirituality is beyond me. Does being spiritual have to do with anything other than feeling non-hypocritical? I think it may; I just don't know.

Let me suppose that being spiritual not only is possible but is the Good Thing my friends seem to think it is. Very well. And let me assume, friends, you will not hold it against me for being in simple ignorance of the phrase's precise meaning. How then am I, the untutored, would-be Spiritualite, to learn the ins and outs of spirituality? Perhaps in the course of due time, as the ethos of being spiritual continues to gain favor, its adherents will do me a favor and erect some kind of corporeal, corporate apparatus by which its central doctrines may be articulated, proclaimed, reinforced, and carried out. Without being religious, of course.

Edited by du Garbandier

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Let me suppose that being spiritual not only is possible but is the Good Thing my friends seem to think it is. Very well. And let me assume, friends, you will not hold it against me for being in simple ignorance of the phrase's precise meaning.

I understand the frustration with the 'spiritual-but-not-religious' thing, definitely.

But suppose that I have a deeper problem than yours, suppose that I do not even understand religion, because I don't know the meanings of the words religious people use.

I have no idea what is meant by 'spirit', as in 'a spirit'. You suggest that religion has something to do with spirits - with good and bad spirits, with the Holy Spirit; as opposed to with 'being spiritual'. So let me ask you: what is a spirit?

(I am in simple ignorance; I hope that you won't hold it against me.)

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I understand the frustration with the 'spiritual-but-not-religious' thing, definitely.

But suppose that I have a deeper problem than yours, suppose that I do not even understand religion, because I don't know the meanings of the words religious people use.

I have no idea what is meant by 'spirit', as in 'a spirit'. You suggest that religion has something to do with spirits - with good and bad spirits, with the Holy Spirit; as opposed to with 'being spiritual'. So let me ask you: what is a spirit?

(I am in simple ignorance; I hope that you won't hold it against me.)

Well, I was probably being unclear but I don't mean to suggest that "religion" itself has or hasn't anything to do with spirits. I should refrain from saying anything about "religion" in general. The bit about true and false spirits comes directly from the Christian bible, namely from I John 4:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The word "spirit" here seems to connote something like "spiritual forces that influence human behavior and thought." These are the influences which lead people into or away from the truth. Also referred to is "he who is in you," whom I take to be the Holy Spirit. At the time I understand there was a popular teaching that Jesus was divine in appearance only. Here, scripture offers believers a doctrinal way of testing and discerning whether the influences that drive what is taught are of God or not.

I note that this is precisely what the ethos of being spiritual does not offer unless it stoops to collude with religion on the level of dogma and doctrine: that is, what we have here is a reliable way of acknowledging that while some spirits are good, others are bad, as well as a way of discerning between the good and the bad (as you put it).

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Yesterday Roger Ebert tweeted:

I am informed by a comment on my blog: "Religion is to spirituality what porn is to sex."

I was tempted to reply that I've always had the opposite feeling -- that when people say "I'm not religious but I'm very spiritual," they might just as well be saying "I'm not married but I'm very sexual" -- but I didn't see Ebert's tweet until several hours later, and by then he had posted so many more tweets that my reply wouldn't have had any obvious reference point (a huge problem in Twitter -- which, incidentally, doesn't exist in Facebook).

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Ok, let me feign a little more confusion:

You say you don't think that on its own the idea of 'being spiritual' has any meaning - it has to stoop down and collude with religion - but you define 'spirit' by saying that it means a 'spiritual force...'. If the idea of just 'being spiritual' doesn't mean much; why does describing something as a 'spiritual force' get us anywhere?

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A vast gap between myself and many of my peers seems to exist where religion and spirituality are concerned. To wit, I prefer the former to the latter. Even more so as I mature (I am in my late 20's). I realize this approach has its limitations and weaknesses. But at least I am certain that religion exists.

Furthermore, I like religion and being religious. (I also like being irreligious but that's another story--or maybe it isn't.)

This does not mean that I do not or cannot call the spiritual-but-not-religious my neighbors, friends, and Christian brethren; to the contrary. I just have real difficulty understanding them when they describe themselves in these terms. I just don't know what people mean by being spiritual, i.e. spirituality. I know about the supernatural; I know about spiritual beings like angels; I know about spiritual gifts, and thus about the Holy Spirit and all therewith connected and indwelt and infused that we commonly call "spiritual." Also, I know that some spirits are of God while others are not, between which we can and must differentiate on the basis of whether a given spirit confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. I know that on such a basis it is possible to distinguish between true and false spirits. Indeed, I have learned about these things mostly in the regular course of being religious.

On being spiritual, though, I am not so clear. Frankly, I am clueless. I know (thanks to religion for drilling it into my thick skull) that I am commanded to love God and love my neighbor. But what such dictates have to do with spirituality is beyond me. Does being spiritual have to do with anything other than feeling non-hypocritical? I think it may; I just don't know.

Let me suppose that being spiritual not only is possible but is the Good Thing my friends seem to think it is. Very well. And let me assume, friends, you will not hold it against me for being in simple ignorance of the phrase's precise meaning. How then am I, the untutored, would-be Spiritualite, to learn the ins and outs of spirituality? Perhaps in the course of due time, as the ethos of being spiritual continues to gain favor, its adherents will do me a favor and erect some kind of corporeal, corporate apparatus by which its central doctrines may be articulated, proclaimed, reinforced, and carried out. Without being religious, of course.

Religious people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Spiritual people are nice and tolerant. Usually that's what the distinctions come down to. Often those who make such distinctions are correct.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Religious people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Spiritual people are nice and tolerant. Usually that's what the distinctions come down to. Often those who make such distinctions are correct.

About the religious people, anyway. <_<

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Religious people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Spiritual people are nice and tolerant. Usually that's what the distinctions come down to. Often those who make such distinctions are correct.

About the religious people, anyway. <_<

Yes, I realize the inherent contradictions there. But I encounter this thinking all the time, and, regardless of logical consistency, that's often what it comes down to. Sadly, the Church has historically given people plenty of ammunition against religion. And countless amazing stories of selfless sacrifice and love for the world, including the "worldly." But those stories never seem to get mentioned in discussions of spirituality.

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Hmmm. What if we said:

"Married people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Sexual people are nice and tolerant."

Sometimes fits. Sometimes doesn't. And there's a whole host of issues that formulations like this don't even begin to address.

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Ok, let me feign a little more confusion:

You say you don't think that on its own the idea of 'being spiritual' has any meaning - it has to stoop down and collude with religion - but you define 'spirit' by saying that it means a 'spiritual force...'. If the idea of just 'being spiritual' doesn't mean much; why does describing something as a 'spiritual force' get us anywhere?

I'm not defining "spirit"--that is what I'd like to see from the spiritual-but-not-religious, whose whole rationale of self-categorization seems to rest on the existence of something called "spirituality"--but I'm only offering my understanding of how the word is used in a particular passage of scripture. The influence of the Holy Spirit in scripture's use of the word seems clear. But more broadly, a "spiritual force" is simply that which influences people either towards or away from the truth of Christ and to lead others away and toward likewise. The point is not to dwell on the precise nature of these influences but to observe that from a Christian perspective they can be tested and discerned according to the Christology given in I John (and elsewhere), an advantage which the spiritual-but-not-religious person, at least on the strict basis of being spiritual-but-not-religious, does not have when it comes to scrutinizing just which spirits said person is influenced by or possessed of.

Also, since I do not know you, you have the advantage of me in that I have no idea of what you may or may not be feigning...

Religious people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Spiritual people are nice and tolerant. Usually that's what the distinctions come down to. Often those who make such distinctions are correct.

The faults, malignancies, and downright atrocities of the religious are well-known. What's not so clear is what any of this has to do with "spirituality" or "being spiritual." Would you say that as you understand it, "being spiritual" is a synonym for "being nice and tolerant"?

Edited by du Garbandier

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du Garbandier,

I think my discomfort with the use of words in the first post is something like this:

The criticism you apply to those* who boost 'spirituality' and dismiss 'religion' seems a little unfair to me when it comes to the problem of definition. I imagine that many people will feel that they know intuitively, without being able to say exactly, what they mean by 'spiritual'. If pressed, they might be able to say more about it, but it's not a hard and fast definition, precisely because of the kind of thing it tries to invoke is not hard and fast. But the same thing applies to any particular religious discourse. People use words - like 'spirit' - without being able to define very well or clearly what they mean (without repetition, at least, like saying a spirit refers to a spiritual force), but the words still seem to do something, and people kind of get what they're saying.

I should clarify, I think your basic point is true in practice: spirituality only really gets anywhere where there are specific practices, with certain rationale behind them; in other words, in needs to be embodied. And so I agree that there is a dependence there, spirituality is dependant on something that is very hard not to call 'religion', but I tend to think the dependance works the other way as wel.

And I'm not sure that the lack of ability to define what is meant by 'spirit' or 'spirituality' in a hard and fast way is necessarily a good criticism - especially since defining the word 'God' is pretty difficult. I mean, I imagine that most people who are interested could probably say what spirituality is not - i.e. it's not just about agreeing with a belief, it's not just identifying with a particular religious group. I guess you can say that religious practice gives meaning or concretion to a particular word in a way that a definition cannot, and that's another reason why we need religion, to give a 'thick' sense of what we mean by what we say. But people who say they like spirituality are not necessarily thinking of something entirely without specific form, are they? If someone thinks that meditation is a good idea, they have a fairly specific idea of what 'meditation' means, even if they don't like what they think of as 'religion.'

Hmmm. Maybe this discussion needs more grounding in specific examples, otherwise we're just arguing about what we think 'people' somewhere, at some point, might be thinking.

Finally, I should add that 'Dull in a new way' is a fantastic sentence, although now I think about it, it doesn't have a subject, so isn't a sentence. But still.

* whoever they are... I'm not sure if you're mainly talking about people you've encountered, or general trends, and if the latter, which people or groups you would count as examples of this trend; I think I might know the kind of approach you might be talking about, but since we're not talking specifics it's hard to say.

Edited by stu

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Religious people are whiney and mean, and like to pick fights with one another and exclude people based on arcane rules that nobody but them cares about. Spiritual people are nice and tolerant. Usually that's what the distinctions come down to. Often those who make such distinctions are correct.

The faults, malignancies, and downright atrocities of the religious are well-known. What's not so clear is what any of this has to do with "spirituality" or "being spiritual." Would you say that as you understand it, "being spiritual" is a synonym for "being nice and tolerant"?

I think the way most people use the term, "spiritual" implies a deep interest in and passion for the things of God (sometimes God as Christians understand God; sometimes not) without the corresponding interest in the perceived doctrinal minutiae and cultural baggage of organized "religion." It's an attempt to distance oneself from those faults, malignancies and downright atrocities. This isn't an either/or phenomenon, of course, and clearly people who are religious can be and often are spiritual, and people who are spiritual retain some vestiges of religion in their attempts to give form to what they experience and believe.

But yes, I suspect that being "nice and tolerant" has something to do with it, as does the notion of accepting and loving others as they are without the need to pass through some sort of doctrinal/lifestyle quality gate before being allowed into the club. I also think there are different levels of "spirituality" at work here, and it's probably inaccurate to lump "spiritual" (as opposed to "religious") people together. When I was a part of a Presbyterian Church, I didn't give a rip about being Presbyterian. I wanted to be a Christian, and, as best I could tell, the local Presbyterian Church was endeavoring to teach about and assist people with being Christians. But there were people there -- religious people, I might add -- who were deeply offended that I tended to ignore (I wasn't malicious about it; I just didn't care) the particular denominational trappings. One could have accused me of being "spiritual" rather than "religious" in such a setting, and the charge would probably stick, but my theology was entirely orthodox, and that's a very different scenario from someone who has a vague, amorphous notion of God and sees God in a sunset.

I do think that most people who bother to label themselves as "spiritual," though, are typically doing so in opposition to the common understanding of "religious." I have no real problem with it, provided they are also willing to dialogue about issues like what happens when people die, and how one deals with the fact that one is an asshole. I hope they become followers of Jesus. I hope they maintain both a healthy respect for and a healthy distance from religion. Once one becomes a Christian, it's impossible to avoid the latter. But one can hold one's nose.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I suspect that a great many people who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" mean something much more closely interchangeable than they would suspect to the sentiments of a great many people in the past (or in many cases the present) who have described themselves as good Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus or what-all else.

In particular, I think for many people these labels are largely an affirmation of socially sanctioned piety and manners. The underlying meaning in both cases I take to be something like "I am a good person; I recognize what is good and true in relation to unseen or ultimate reality, or to values or ideas that are more than mundane; I wish to live a fully human life, to take my proper place in the world in relation to other people and unseen or ultimate reality; I wish for the approval that truly matters, that of the divine and of those who also have divine acceptance."

The main difference between the two, I think, is how we take it (which in practice means for most people how society tells us) we are to go about living in view of these supra-mundane values, how we live a fully human life, or find our place in the world in relation to other people and ultimate reality, or meet with divine acceptance.

Historically, and in some cultures and subcultures today, socially sanctioned piety and manners has dictated that the way is found through fidelity to an authoritative guidance of a received system of tradition and religious hierarchy. By contrast, our more individualistic culture, socially sanctioned piety and manners encourages us to find our way apart from such authoritative guidance, according to the dictates of our own discernment, feelings, preferences or whatever.

That would be my first stab at distinguishing between "religious" and "spiritual": To be "spiritual" means to seek fulfillment in relation to unseen or ultimate reality, or to supra-mundane ideas or values, apart from any authoritative guidance from a received system of tradition and religious hierarchy, while to be "religious" means to seek the same goods through the authoritative guidance of a received system of tradition and religious hierarchy.

Note that the "religious" ethos presupposes fidelity as a cardinal virtue: You will find the way above all by being faithful. The assumed cardinal virtue of the "spiritual" ethos is personal authenticity: You will find the way above all by being true to yourself.

The subtext of the profession to be "spiritual but not religious" might be something comparatively modest, such as: "Although I do not recognize the authority of any received system of tradition and religious hierarchy, I am not a bad person. I do seek to take my place in the world in relation to others and ultimate reality, but in my own way."

It might also be something superior, like: "I am not among those who delegates or relinquishes responsibility for finding my place in relation to others and ultimate reality to some (corrupt, flawed) authoritative system, thereby forsaking authenticity. On the contrary, I authentically take my place in the world in trueness to myself, confident that the universe is pleased with my efforts to do it my way."

It may also be, as Andy suggests, something like "Because I value personal authenticity as the criterion of living in relation to what is good and true, I am nice and tolerant; I am not narrow and judgmental like those who insist on a particular system of tradition and religious hierarchy." Note that on this construction "nice and tolerant" is, as it were, the chief theological virtue, just as authenticity is the chief cardinal virtue.

Edited by SDG

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Andy Whitman wrote:

: . . . but my theology was entirely orthodox . . .

Well, that kind of begs the question, doesn't it?

For some reason, I am vaguely reminded of how some people define the ideal political position as being somewhere in the "centre". The problem is, the centre is always MOVING, based on how people at either end of the spectrum tug it this way and that.

Likewise small-o "orthodoxy", especially when it is pitted against "religion". Would the small-o "orthodox" of previous generations recognize the small-o "orthodoxy" of this present generation, and vice versa? I'm not so sure.

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Both terms are obviously misused. Generally speaking however, "religious" seems to be used in our culture in the more traditional sense in that a religion is an institution. If you are "religious" then you are involved in an institution. Thus, the religion of Christianity has been institutionalized by the church. Apologists like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc go to pretty good lengths explaining why this is a good thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with traditions, institutions, and doctrines. In fact, it seems like a number of people prefer the adjective "spiritual" in order to express that they aren't tied down by limits like tradition or doctrine (see the Emerging Church movement for example). So I've often found that some often use the description of "spiritual" as a cop out, a way of trying to avoid commitment to any traditions or doctrines (not that this is actually possible).

But, I do believe "spiritual" is also used in contrast to "religious" in an intellectually honest sense. There seem to be a large number of Christian believers who are disenchanted with the modern church or with modern day Evangelicalism. So it makes sense for them to describe themselves as "spiritual" instead of "reliigous" in order to un-associate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Michael Spencer's first and last book, Mere Churchianity, goes into this recent phenomenon in pretty good detail, and contrasts institutionalized, religious, evangelical "churchianity" with what he describes as "Christ-shaped spirituality." Here's a few quotes from his book attempting to describe it -

"Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can't entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I'm talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don't know why they are still hanging around. And I'm writing to outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren't for Christians ..." (pg 5)

"Evangelicals believe that people who distance themselves from the church are not disenchanted but are "under conviction of the Holy Spirit." Christians are convinced that the generally low opinion people have of them - such as not wanting Christians as neighbors and trying to avoid having a conversation with Christians - is because people can't deal with the uncomfortable truth about Jesus. Evangelicals believe the growing numbers of young adults who grew up in church-attending families and then abandoned the ship of faith is the fault of Hollywood, liberals, rock music, and sex. Riiight ..." (pgs 22-23)

"When I first began to think about Jesus-shaped spirituality, I would ask this door-opening question: If I spent three years with Jesus, how would I feel about ...? The question is appropriate and revealing, no matter what the subject or issue happens to be. How would Jesus shape me in this area if he deeply influenced my thinking and living? ... I was surprised to find that a lot of teachers and preachers thought that 'What would Jesus do?' was a flawed idea. They preferred something like 'What does the church teach?' or 'What does the Bible, rightly interpreted, teach?' Or maybe 'What does this mean for Christians today?' Others were simply cynical that Christians would ever know enough about Jesus to answer this question ... Would Jesus drive a Lexus? For many Christians, it doesn't seem to matter. I'm convinced that Jesus wouldn't wear a $5,000 wristwatch or drive an $80,000 car. And no one I know believes he would build a $70 million worship center. But all of that gets set aside: We can arrive at our own decision, dismiss what Jesus would do, and go ahead and do what we want ... As we think about following Jesus by actually thinking about Jesus, things take an unexpected turn. We find that we have to reject a type of cynicism that is prevelant among Christians. The assumption is that even if we fully understood the "Jesus way of life," we could never live that way. The result is that Christians live on easy autopilot, where the standard shifts from living like Jesus to 'being a good Christian.' The guiding principles are to avoid rocking the boat, to be nice, and to fit in." (pgs 42-43)

"Picture a time in organized Christianity when Christians have decided to pursue their own ideas of what it means to be religious and then announce that this is what Jesus was really like. Christians might decide the godly thing to do is to isolate themselves from outsiders, to protect believers from the vast population of 'unacceptables,' to make spirituality another form of consumerism, and to agree to excuse the list of acceptable sins. Christians could do this and at the same time insist they were presenting a credible witness to Jesus of Nazareth." (pg 55)

"I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. If this offends you, let me ask: what is the other option? The only other option I can see is for Jesus-hungry people to try to content themselves with the religious junk food offered in the next new topical study, the bigger building program, the capital campaign, the latest attendance figures ... I can't support the organized religion option that is more concerned about statistics and size and image than it is about Jesus. The problem does not lie with those who refuse to sit down, be quiet, open their wallets, and do what they are told. I don't believe for a moment that those who have abandoned organized Christianity have always found something better, but I'm sure they are looking for something better. I know, because I'm looking for the same thing. I'm looking for a spiritual experience that looks like, sounds like, lives like, loves like, and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. It's that simple." (pg 65)

Spencer is not part of the emerging church movement. He holds strongly to fine distinctions in Biblical doctrine, treating the Bible literally, and following time-tested traditions. However, he's an example of someone who preferred what he called "spirituality" to the modern day organized Christian religion. And he's had a large audience for expressing these ideas, particularly since he wrote some articles in Christianity Today on the Coming Evangelical Collapse. Personally, I'd still describe your average Christian (myself included) as both spiritual and religious. But there seem to be a large number of Christians today (not counting those who use "spirituality" as a description for forgetting about doctrine) who no longer want to describe themselves as religious because they've had enough of the organized, institutionalized, Christian church.

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By "religious," do you mean "doctrinal"? I don't view these as meaning the same thing, although one may overlap with the other. I think discomfort with doctrine is a problem in our culture, especially if you agree to a denomination's doctrinal statement, and then seek to undermine it once admitted to membership.

When I was a part of a Presbyterian Church, I didn't give a rip about being Presbyterian. I wanted to be a Christian, and, as best I could tell, the local Presbyterian Church was endeavoring to teach about and assist people with being Christians. But there were people there -- religious people, I might add -- who were deeply offended that I tended to ignore (I wasn't malicious about it; I just didn't care) the particular denominational trappings.

They were probably right to be annoyed, if by "trappings" you mean the church's confessional standards. Part of what it means to be Presbyterian as opposed to some other "flavor" of Christian is that you adhere to those standards (if you're a member). I know members of the Presbyterian church who have disagreements with the church's doctrinal standards, but they agree to be teachable on those matters. That doesn't mean they're obligated to sign on at some future date, but that they don't actively seek to undermine the church's teachings while worshipping among its people.

One could have accused me of being "spiritual" rather than "religious" in such a setting, and the charge would probably stick, but my theology was entirely orthodox, and that's a very different scenario from someone who has a vague, amorphous notion of God and sees God in a sunset.

A person can be "entirely orthodox" and worship among Presbyterians. But don't expect the Presbyterians to think they're something less than "entirely orthodox" on matters of faith and practice. So, when your beliefs clash with theirs, the question is why. Who's in agreement with the church's teachings? If you conclude that the church's teachings are in error, you should leave that church. But that doesn't make you right (nor the church, I might add).

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By "religious," do you mean "doctrinal"? I don't view these as meaning the same thing, although one may overlap with the other. I think discomfort with doctrine is a problem in our culture, especially if you agree to a denomination's doctrinal statement, and then seek to undermine it once admitted to membership.

Not undermine it. Ignore it. Besides, I was far more cognizant of the historic roots of the Presbyterian Church than 95% of the people there. But I was there because I found a core group of people who wanted to follow Christ, and I couldn't find that in some of the other churches in my small town. You work with what you've got. And they surely had to work with me. I didn't give a rip about the finer points of Calvinist doctrine because I was trying to overcome some serious, potentially life-threatening addictions with the help of God. I needed to be changed, not catechized. Nothing against the catechism, but the larnin' didn't help me a bit.

When I was a part of a Presbyterian Church, I didn't give a rip about being Presbyterian. I wanted to be a Christian, and, as best I could tell, the local Presbyterian Church was endeavoring to teach about and assist people with being Christians. But there were people there -- religious people, I might add -- who were deeply offended that I tended to ignore (I wasn't malicious about it; I just didn't care) the particular denominational trappings.

They were probably right to be annoyed, if by "trappings" you mean the church's confessional standards. Part of what it means to be Presbyterian as opposed to some other "flavor" of Christian is that you adhere to those standards (if you're a member). I know members of the Presbyterian church who have disagreements with the church's doctrinal standards, but they agree to be teachable on those matters. That doesn't mean they're obligated to sign on at some future date, but that they don't actively seek to undermine the church's teachings while worshipping among its people.

I didn't care about the flavor other than I wanted it to be real, and not artificial. I have had enough of proper, upright Christians who reveal nothing about what's actually going on in their lives until they end up in divorce court or rehab to last me for a lifetime.

One could have accused me of being "spiritual" rather than "religious" in such a setting, and the charge would probably stick, but my theology was entirely orthodox, and that's a very different scenario from someone who has a vague, amorphous notion of God and sees God in a sunset.

A person can be "entirely orthodox" and worship among Presbyterians. But don't expect the Presbyterians to think they're something less than "entirely orthodox" on matters of faith and practice. So, when your beliefs clash with theirs, the question is why. Who's in agreement with the church's teachings? If you conclude that the church's teachings are in error, you should leave that church. But that doesn't make you right (nor the church, I might add).

It wasn't that my beliefs "clashed" with anybody. It's that I simply stopped caring about a lot of the beliefs that were held near and dear by many people around me. I didn't argue about it. I just grew weary of watching people expend enormous amounts of time and energy on things that I didn't think were important, and not focus on the things that actually build up one another and advance the Kingdom of God. I'm not suggesting that that dichtomy is always true; merely that it was my experience.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I'm trying to point out that doctrinal faith doesn't have to be "artificial," although sometimes -- many times -- it surely has been. But it's also the source of pure joy, genuine rest, and holy comfort. Has been for me, in any case.

Bottom line: I don't like when the "real" is contrasted with doctrine, although it's obviously in contrast to "artificial." But I've met lots of "spiritual" people who were, to my mind, artificial.

There's an easy assumption that when we're talking about the "Presbyterians," or some other mainline group of organized adherents, that we're talking about fakers. I'm past that stereotype, and I flinch a little when I see others use it, even though I embraced the stereotype -- with justfication, I think -- when I was younger. The fakers were the only religious people I knew then. But that hasn't been the case for decades.

Edited by Christian

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The natural and the spiritual are more closely related than you might think. I believe all of life is spiritual, so if I were to define myself that way I'd only be saying to myself, "Well, duh!" (This is also the reason I moved a long time ago to have the A&F Top 100 get a name change.)

But often the people that define themselves as spiritual rather than religious are simply trying to say that nobody has it all figured out, and when you think you do, well, that's when you're really religious, and really in trouble.

Edited by Persona

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To put a positive spin on "religion," and prescinding here from anything specifically Catholic or even Christian, it seems to me that a meaningful, sustained faith or spirituality of any form must find concrete expression in the regular practice of what I am going to call, with certain caveats, symbolic devotional acts.

By this I mean acts that express and give concrete shape to one's spirituality, which make no practical sense apart from that spirituality and which you would not do without that spirituality. James's definition of pure religion, to look after widows and orphans and to keep oneself unstained by the world, is a beginning but is not, in my very humble opinion, enough. It is not enough to try to be spiritual by being and doing good for others. We need ritual and spiritual exercises. We need concrete religious acts, woven into the fabric of our lives and the ordering of our days and and weeks and months and years.

Without such practice, our "faith" is in grave danger of becoming a bloodless abstraction. For me as a Catholic, this means such things as going to Sunday Mass week in and week out, praying my rosary every evening with my family, grace before meals, going to confession every few weeks, reading my Bible and so on. I know some people consider such external acts irrelevant to true faith or spirituality. In my opinion, they profoundly misread the human condition.

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Michael Spencer wrote:

: I was surprised to find that a lot of teachers and preachers thought that 'What would Jesus do?' was a flawed idea.

I'm surprised that he was surprised. "What would Jesus do?" has ALWAYS struck me as a slightly flawed way of putting the question. The question we SHOULD be asking ourselves is "What would Jesus have US do?" And sometimes, I think, Jesus lets us make it up as we go.

One of the most obvious rebuttals to the simplistic WWJD? approach is to ask, "Would Jesus get married?" Well, no -- no he wouldn't. But does that mean nobody ELSE should get married? Okay, fine, sure, any number of the Church Fathers took a dim view of sex and marriage because it meant you could never be a monk, or whatever. But seriously: who today would take that position? Even the most traditional churches out there have sacraments for marriage and the baptizing of children -- despite the fact that Jesus himself never had a family. Is this supposed to be a bad thing, now?

: I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. If this offends you, let me ask: what is the other option? The only other option I can see is for Jesus-hungry people to try to content themselves with the religious junk food offered in the next new topical study, the bigger building program, the capital campaign, the latest attendance figures . . .

In other words, when Spencer talks about "the Christian religion", he is referring specifically to topical studies, building programs, capital campaigns and attendance figures? Um, wow. That seems awfully reductive -- and probably, in some ways, culturally narrow.

When I hear the words "Christian religion", I think of psalms and ceremonies, liturgies and ministries, and above all the sharing of bread and wine in the act of Communion -- which, like it or not, is a form of "organized" religion that goes all the way back to Christ himself. I'm not really sure how actively involved the average parishioner would be in all that other stuff. (Although, yes, sometimes the local Christian community needs to concern itself with things like finding actual spaces in which to worship on a quasi-permanent basis -- and that, in turn, means that the local Christian community needs to think about rent or getting a mortgage for the church building or whatever. But why should that be a problem?)

If "I'm not religious but I'm a very spiritual person" equates to "I'm not married but I'm a very sexual person", then it sounds to me like Spencer is almost making an argument equivalent to the idea that marriage kills romance, so we should always stay romantically involved with someone -- we should keep on dating them -- but without actually marrying them. Because once we marry them, we have to deal with, y'know, all the annoying nitty-gritty stuff like where we hang the towels and who gets to pick up the dry-cleaning and all that other boring stuff.

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There's an easy assumption that when we're talking about the "Presbyterians," or some other mainline group of organized adherents, that we're talking about fakers. I'm past that stereotype, and I flinch a little when I see others use it, even though I embraced the stereotype -- with justfication, I think -- when I was younger. The fakers were the only religious people I knew then. But that hasn't been the case for decades.

I don't find "religious" people, like staunch Calvinists, to be fakers either. But I do think in their laser beam zeal for doctrine, they have a tendency to overlook far weightier matters. By all means, have convictions about pet doctrines but have some sense of proportionality.

I'm reminded of the Calvinist who joyfully cornered me in a five points debate at a church picnic once, while his poor, frantic wife was left to chase their two young children around the entire time. This is "religion" in my experience. It's not fake at all, it just has a tendency to think of itself as far more important than it really is.

The sensitivity to realize one has been talking too long at a church picnic while your wife has been busting her ass, seems to me an impulse more in tune with "spirituality". For whatever reason, that impulse doesn't seem to function as well when one is focused on "religion".

Edited by Greg P

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I don't find "religious" people, like staunch Calvinists, to be fakers either. But I do think in their laser beam zeal for doctrine, they have a tendency to overlook far weightier matters. By all means, have convictions about pet doctrines but have some sense of proportionality.

I'm reminded of the Calvinist who joyfully cornered me in a five points debate at a church picnic once, while his poor, frantic wife was left to chase their two young children around the entire time. This is "religion" in my experience. It's not fake at all, it just has a tendency to think of itself as far more important than it really is.

I sympathize, Greg (and I'm a Calvinist!)

That said, I did want to add my two cents (something Steve and Christian noted, I believe) — everyone has different definitions of the words, but most of the folks I've chatted with that label themselves "spiritual, not religious" (which, I might add, is a fairly popular option on Facebook) tend to fall into the "like, I believe there's a god, I think, and it wants me to be happy, like, right?" category. Broad strokes, sure, but it tends to be just as much as a red flag to me as the people who slap me upside the head with doctrinal arguments.

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That said, I did want to add my two cents (something Steve and Christian noted, I believe) — everyone has different definitions of the words, but most of the folks I've chatted with that label themselves "spiritual, not religious" (which, I might add, is a fairly popular option on Facebook) tend to fall into the "like, I believe there's a god, I think, and it wants me to be happy, like, right?" category. Broad strokes, sure, but it tends to be just as much as a red flag to me as the people who slap me upside the head with doctrinal arguments.

I agree. "Spiritual" in our culture is usually nothing more than flabby Oprah-speak for "I believe whatever suits me".

However, I think our own(and by "our" I mean specifically A&F folk) definition would be a little different. I prefer to think of being spiritual as being conscientious of the insignificant, invisible details of life. Someone who is spiritual is going to be keenly self-aware and able to recognize selfish behavior in themselves as well as see the good in others around them. They're also going to recognize God's hand in the mundane.

Edited by Greg P

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That said, I did want to add my two cents (something Steve and Christian noted, I believe) — everyone has different definitions of the words, but most of the folks I've chatted with that label themselves "spiritual, not religious" (which, I might add, is a fairly popular option on Facebook) tend to fall into the "like, I believe there's a god, I think, and it wants me to be happy, like, right?" category. Broad strokes, sure, but it tends to be just as much as a red flag to me as the people who slap me upside the head with doctrinal arguments.

I agree. "Spiritual" in our culture is usually nothing more than flabby Oprah-speak for "I believe whatever suits me".

However, I think our own(and by "our" I mean specifically A&F folk) definition would be a little different. I prefer to think of being spiritual as being conscientious of the insignificant, invisible details of life. Someone who is spiritual is going to be keenly self-aware and able to recognize selfish behavior in themselves as well as see the good in others around them.

I think these are useful distinctions. Outside the Christian Church, those who label themselves as "spiritual" tend to hold to the vague, flabby convictions that Jason notes. But within the Church, my experience has been that those who would label themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious" are essentially equating "religious" with "Pharisaical"; obsessed with outward form and appearance, holding to the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law, etc.

Some of this may be a carryover from the Jesus Freak days. To quote an old Ed Raetzloff song, "I went to see my baby to tell her what I'd found/But when she heard I had religion she was nowhere around/Religion didn't help me, it didn't do a thing/I was dealin' with the system now I'm dealin' with the King." Certainly that was a prevalent view among those who had experienced radical, life-changing (or at least so they thought until old, persistent sin issues showed up again; raises hand here) conversions. But religion was for the lukewarm pew sitters who went to church because it led to an upstanding image at the Rotary Club, and who joined churches when they were running for political office and dropped out of sight just as soon as the election was over. To be fair, there was reason to be cynical. But to be equally fair, the righteous (and self-righteous) Jesus Freaks discovered their own hypocrisies soon enough.

But to this day I'd much rather hang out with spiritual people than religious people, even when the religious people share my basic convictions. I am less and less concerned with doctrine or the outward distinctive forms of the various Christian tribes and more and more concerned with how people relate to one another, particularly their families and their enemies. I want to be a person characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. I'm not convinced that the tribal distinctives can help me with any of that, and I need help. I'd like to be a spiritual person. I'd like to say that I can take or leave the religion, but I can't. I'll take it because I have no other choice but to live out my spiritual life in the context of a historical Christian tradition. But it's not where my focus is.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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