(The following was written for the Bennington Banner‘s weekly “Speaking of Religion” column on 2/2o/2016. You can access it on their website here.)
It seems that religion has fallen on hard times, but spirituality is booming. “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I hear that pretty often in this line of work as a newly-minted Baptist pastor, and when I was a hospital chaplain in the Boston area I heard it multiple times a day. As it turns out “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) is even something of a movement, although I trust it won’t get too organized, or it may be in danger of becoming a religion.
So what are we to make of such a trend? Should we change the name of this column to “Speaking of Spirituality”? Should the SBNR mindset be celebrated and embraced as a sign of progress, or should we harken back to good old days when the churches were full of well-dressed men, women, and children? How did we get here anyway? Allow me to suggest the reason so many of us are Spiritual But Not Religious is because too much of religion lacks true spirituality. Too often we go through the motions of what was handed down to us, and sometimes we do find some benefit in it, but once we get farther and farther from the heart of it all, it becomes clear enough that something is missing.
I believe the heart of true and good religion is true and good spirituality, so it is no surprise that many of us find much of the religious offerings in our current culture to be lacking. Too often we have gutted religion of its spirituality and are left with an empty, unappealing shell. I’m not interested in this kind of religion, and as far as I can tell, neither was Jesus. If you read the stories about Jesus interacting with the people of his day, you’ll quickly find that he was patient and kind toward the common folks and down-and-outers, but was quite harsh with most of the religious leaders. They too gutted the spirituality from their religion and were left with an empty human institution. Jesus knew how dangerous this was, so even as he extended love and welcome to all, he pulled no punches in an effort to take down the religious institution of his day that lacked true spirituality. This ultimately cost him his life, but (spoiler alert!) he didn’t stay dead.
The whole point of true religion, in my opinion, is connecting with God, connecting with others, and connecting with our true selves. Actually that’s not quite enough, so let’s take it up a level: true religion is about loving God, loving others, and, yes, loving ourselves properly. Jesus himself said this. And isn’t this the same goal of true spirituality? Don’t we want to realize our full potential as individuals and as a society? Don’t we want to be free from the burdens that so often weigh on us? I think we’re all looking for it in some way.
Yet even the non-religious are religious in their own way, as human beings we are inherently religious in one way or another. As that great theologian Robert Zimmerman once proclaimed: You gotta serve somebody. One way or another we’ll religiously go after our own comfort, security, happiness, power, and approval with things like relationships, sports, food, work, illicit substances, money, and sex, to name a few. We even create vast institutions, not unlike religious establishments, to protect and further our favorite causes. One need look no further than your nearest professional sports league for but one example. But do these non-religious religions provide the fulfillment we all need?
True spirituality and true religion connects us to God so we don’t have to chase after anything else to find fulfillment. Once you truly connect with God, everything else pales in comparison, but the kicker is that you are set free to fully enjoy God’s good gifts once you’re truly connected with him. When I was growing up there was a song on the radio with a poignant line: “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.” I assume that the songwriter had his or her love interest in mind, but this a prayer that we can all pray to God, in whom we find true religion and true spirituality. Indeed, this is what Jesus came to show us, and invite us into.
By now I have likely offended or befuddled the religious, non-religious, spiritual and non-spiritual. My favorite way to atone for such an offense is to hash it out over a cup of coffee, so I invite you, dear reader, to contact me to claim yours.