The Spiritual Landscape
Spiritual AND Religious? Yes!
"There is information in resistance."
That bit of helpful wisdom from a friend and mentor has stuck with me over the years.
When people react negatively to what you say, believe, or do, I recommend trying to slow down, listen, and understand. There are things to be learned. This is an opportunity to reflect, improve, or perhaps communicate more effectively.
So, in recent years as people have protested, "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious," I've tried to listen and I have learned. I have learned about what sociologists are now referring to as "emerging adults," about what shapes and informs their view of the world, about the things that are center stage for them, about their frustrations with the church, and more often than not, the reasons they simply can't connect the "spiritual and religious dots."
I have also learned a lot about where and how we have failed to connect those "dots" for them. We have a lot of work to do.
It strikes me that here, however, one of the best contributions I might make to that effort is to begin by giving some of the reasons that many of us are both spiritual and religious in our commitments.
I plan to outline a few of them in the weeks ahead. They are not in any particular order of priority. (That might come later.) But I invite you to offer your own reasons along the way.
This week, reason one: Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people.
I have often heard leaders describe the church as a gathering of like-minded people. The description strikes post-Enlightenment ears as perfectly natural and it should, since it is exactly the way the 17th-century philosopher John Locke described the church. In his essay, A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke describes the church as "a voluntary society of men, joining themselves of their own accord to the public worshipping of God." That description suited Locke's purposes well, since he was primarily concerned with sorting out the distinct roles played by governments and the church.
From a Christian point of view, however, that description of the church is completely inadequate. For Christians the Apostle Paul, not John Locke, is a better point of departure for thinking about what it means to "do" church and, by contrast, Paul describes the church as "the body of Christ." One of Paul's longest reflections on that subject appears in 1 Corinthians 12 and, more often than not, preachers and exegetes focus on the varied roles that people play in the life of the church, the diversity of those roles and, by inference, the diversity of the people who play those roles. They also tend to stress the importance of the varied contributions people make to the life of the church.
All of this is fair enough and important. But it misses an even more basic set of convictions that no doubt prompted Paul to use the image of "the body" in the first place:
- The church is the instrument of salvation.
- It is part and parcel of the spiritual destiny of its members.
- And it is an inseparable part of the individual's experience of God.
In other words, Paul's use of body language doesn't simply speak to the way in which church is done, or organized, or even to the diversity of its character. It speaks to the nature of God's work in our lives. We are not saved as individuals to live a singular existence. We are saved to live in relationship and that is why, by definition, Christians are—of necessity—both religious and spiritual.
We miss this point, ignore it, or suppress it, for at least two reasons: One, the reaction of Protestants to the Catholic descriptions of the church as "the instrument of salvation" has been characterized by the fear that the phrase is used to exclude them. Two, Christians in general have feared that it might be used to make a judgment about the rest of the non-Christian world's relationship with God. To make matters worse, there are certainly examples of both arguments that could be used to illustrate the abuse.
But the misuse of Paul's understanding of the church should not discourage those of us who are Christians from living into the body of Christ. As the saying goes, "Never let a bad stigma ruin a good dogma."
If churches were simply a matter of sitting alongside like-minded people who share similar spiritual commitments, I can think of easier ways to get that done. One way that religious people try to do it is by handpicking the like-minded people with whom they spend their time and practice their religion.
That option isn't open to us and, if it was clearer to the world around us that we can't do that, it might be easier to connect the spiritual and religious dots.
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, and writer. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).