Religious, but not spiritual

Francis Cardinal George reverses the commonplace saying in a column entitled “I’m Religious, but Not Spiritual”:

It’s somewhat fashionable these days to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious.” This is supposed to mean that one is open to an experience beyond the commercial or the political but not tied to “institutional” religion. One claims an experience of transcendence that is bound by no one else’s rules.

People can always make claims to any kind of experience. The question is always: Who cares? Why should anyone care where someone else gets a spiritual high? Because no one really cares, the claim to be spiritual but not religious is always safe. It’s never a threat and can be dismissed quite easily. The claim to be religious is different. It is a claim that God himself has taken the initiative to reveal himself to us and tell us who he is and who we are. Religion binds us to God according to his will, not ours, in a community of faith that he has brought into existence. Being religious can therefore be threatening.

Being religious as a Christian starts with the belief that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Faith in Christ’s resurrection is central to Christian religion. Jesus is not just someone’s personal idea. He really exists in a real body, now transformed by conquering death itself. Those who are “spiritual” often deny Christ’s resurrection as a physical event, something that makes its own demands when you bump into it. They prefer a Christ who is safely an idea in their minds, made in their image and likeness. By contrast, the risen Christ, the real Christ, breaks into our experience and personally seeks those he calls to be religious, to believe what God has done for us, much to our surprise.

Meeting the risen Christ spiritually therefore depends upon believing in him religiously. We are given the gift of faith in the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are configured to the risen Christ. Faith perdures, even when there’s not a lot of spiritual tingle in our lives! “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the cry of a religious person who asks Christ to take him beyond his own spiritual experience into a new world where bodies as well as minds share in God’s grace. Faith takes seriously everything that comes from God. The faith-filled person is sure of God and distrustful of himself. Unlike faith in God, experience is often wrong in religious matters.

Our personal faith needs communitarian buttressing, lest it degenerate into an individual spirituality.

via Catholic New World – The Cardinal’s Column – Easter 2013: ‘I’m religious but not spiritual’.

Then the cardinal goes on about Peter and the Pope, presenting the notion that Roman Catholicism is the only alternative to this subjectivity.  But I don’t think you have to agree with that conclusion to appreciate what he says up to that point.  Or does he go too far in praising “institutional religion”?  Can the spiritual/religious dichotomy be resolved in a different way?

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  • Grace

    ” Or does he go too far in praising “institutional religion”? Can the spiritual/religious dichotomy be resolved in a different way?”

    An individual cannot come to truth, without God’s Word – that is the pivotal point, the only point where one is guided to truth. Coming to believe through Faith in Jesus Christ isn’t an “institutional” moment.

    One cannot have Spiritual without being Born Again. That is how we recive the spirit of the LORD.

     ‏  ‏ Spirit

    No one can be “spiritual” without the SPIRIT of the LORD – No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being Born Again.

    3 Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
    4 Nicodemus said to him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
    5 Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
    6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
    7 Marvel not that I said to you, You must be born again.
    8 The wind blows where it wants, and you hear the sound thereof, but can not tell from where it comes, and where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
    John 3

    ➞  ‏ Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
    1 John 13:4

    It is HIS Spirit which dwells within us after being Born Again, that makes us “spiritual” –


  • SKPeterson

    Grace @ 1 is on to something here, though so is Cardinal George. The problem with the Roman church is that it has replaced individual subjectivity in things spiritual with with a superficial gloss of institutionalism that masks the subjectivity of the various pontiffs. The greatest value of a religious institution is that it keeps everyone accountable. While we make be thankful that the Church endured (perdured?) for so long despite the increasing papal subjectivity, in the end, we see that many of the same errors of an overly individualistic or experientialist faith and praxis emerge in Rome. The answer is the Church, but it is a Church that is the Bride of Christ and subject to him and his Word as revealed in Scripture and not subject to the whims of “infallible” papal insight. Scripture is the norma normans and the purpose of religion is to make sure that everything else stays in its place as norma normata.

  • Tom Hering

    Coming to believe through Faith in Jesus Christ isn’t an “institutional” moment. (@ 1)

    It isn’t? Yes, we only come to faith in Jesus Christ by the Spirit through the Word. But who verified and assembled this Word? Who spread it around the world? And who, through the centuries, preserved its integrity – insuring you receive the genuine Word, and not a version contaminated by cults or individuals? The visible institution of the Church. Please name one person who became a true Christian apart from the direct or indirect work of the visible, institutional Church.

  • Booklover

    Excellent article.
    And thoughtful points, Tom Cat I mean Hering.

  • #4 Kitty


    Please name one person who became a true Christian apart from the direct or indirect work of the visible, institutional Church.


  • notreally


    “And now what are you waiting for? Arise, be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Paul was directed to someone specific to hear these words.

  • I’ve long been fond of a quip by Douglas Wilson (not sure where he said it):
    “Christianity is not a relationship; it is a religion.”

    It’s similar to the Cardinal’s quote and it always catches people off guard and sparks some good conversation.

  • Tom Hering

    Acts 9:17-18, “‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized …”

  • I think the religious/spiritual “dichotomy” is false.
    Being spiritual entails being religious, it seems to me.

    I like to drink my own concoction of mixed beverages, but not liquids.

  • Justin

    Dr. Veith,

    The article does present a good point, but didn’t you write an excellent book regarding the spiritual a few years ago? I would say that I am spiritual and religious just as long as both are centered on Jesus crucified and risen for me and for you.

  • kempin04

    Format Comment: Does anyone else find it annoying that whenever I accidentally swipe over the green “share” button, a screen pops up that must be manually closed? Or is that just me and something on my settings?

  • No, Kempin, the onmouseover share button is the Malbolge of web2.0. It should die a merciless death.

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    I think the article hits on some excellent points. Some of the spiritual but not religious crowd I have run into were definitely people who didn’t want to have to deal with realities they found uncomfortable for one reason or another. The article, however, misses on a strain that I have seen as being rather prevalent with in churches. This is the strain that mistakes ritualism and pietism for religion. They are seeking to escape these empty work based justification systems and in the process have set up a false dichotomy. Then there is the third strain that comes out of the people reacting to empty expressions and have turned their escape into their own justification. As in real Christians are against religion and are seeking to be spiritual (whatever that means).

  • I’m with the Carnal on this one-
    “His intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known,”
    This looks like Newsletter Matterial.

  • This is an interesting article. The author states:“Meeting the risen Christ spiritually therefore depends upon believing in him religiously. We are given the gift of faith in the sacrament of Baptism, in which we are configured to the risen Christ. Faith perdures, even when there’s not a lot of spiritual tingle in our lives! ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,’ is the cry of a religious person who asks Christ to take him beyond his own spiritual experience into a new world where bodies as well as minds share in God’s grace. Faith takes seriously everything that comes from God.”Regarding especially that last sentence, speaking from the Roman position, everything that comes from God, comes through His Church, which is the visible Roman Church. So it makes sense that the author would emphasize the institution of the visible Church as necessary to both religion and spirituality. But I’m not a Roman. I’m Lutheran. God comes to me exclusively through the Means of Grace, Word and Sacrament. I don’t need the visible Church in order to hear the Word — I can receive the Word, and with it the Holy Spirit and the Message of Forgiveness, apart from the Church. In the case of Baptism, wherein one receives the Holy Spirit, faith and salvation, while it is out of the ordinary it is not necessary for the Church to be present, a pastor does not need to officiate, nor does a Christian for that matter — although a semblance of the institutional Church, the elemental and ritual aspects of Baptism, must be present. If one includes Absolution as one of the Lutheran Sacraments, wherein one receives from Christ’s Minister the Word of Forgiveness (and as Luther said, “Where there is forgiveness, there is Christ also”), many Lutherans would agree that the visible Church is necessary, holding that only the pastor (Christ’s Representative) can forgive all a person’s sins in the name of Christ (although, Chemnitz is known to have taught that Absolution can be issued by any Christian in an emergency). Other Lutherans would disagree, especially those who believe, teach and confess that “everyone is a Minister” — and hold that any Christian, whether possessing a Divine Call to do so or not, is free to Absolve sinners (although, I think they would at least admit that it is ordinarily the role of the pastor to do so). In this latter case, the institutional Church is entirely unneeded, and in the former, if one agrees with Chemnitz, it is not strictly needed.

    But what about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, wherein we receive Christ’s true Body and Blood, and with Christ, the forgiveness of sins? Is there any situation where the institution of the visible Church is not necessary to personally receiving what comes from God in this way? Can anyone legitimately receive Communion without the elements and the ritual commanded by Christ? Can one legitmately receive communion from anyone who is not operating under the auspices of a Divine Call to do so? Even reducing the situation to the barest essentials — two Christians together, one communing the other… Are not the two together a congregation in this case? Is not the one distributing the elements Called by the other to do so?

    I can conceive of no legitimate circumstance where the local congregation, and thus the institution of visible Church, is not necessary to the legitimate distribution and reception of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. If this is ultimately true, then the institution of visible Church, with individual Christians collected in the personal presence of each other to receive from God through the Means of Grace, is also necessary, not only to the Christian religion, but also to what Sacramental Christians would regard as the pinnacle of genuine spiritual religious experience.

    My Thoughts.

  • Tom Hering

    Kempin04 @ 11, download Ghostery and you’ll never see another green Share button (or any of that other stuff that appears at the end of Dr. Veith’s posts).

  • Grace

    Kempin @ 11

    It’s there, among a lot of other ‘button. 😉

  • #4 Kitty

    Here’s a study that came out last month showing religious affiliation “at its lowest point since it bagan to be tracked in the 1930s”.
    That graph looks rather ominous don’t you think?

  • Grace

    Kitty @ 18

    From Berkley! No surprise there.

    What would you expect from one of the most liberal universities in the country. I don’t put much credibility in their stats.

  • Berkley isn’t all that liberal.

    The Commissar of Uniformity at Berkley told me himself.


  • (no, I didn’t attend…I was just there for a May Day observance)

  • Larry

    Mike’s getting close to the crux.

    It’s the “objective” Vs. “subjective” dichotomy that needs to be clarified. Why? Because in reality all those “spiritual” Vs. “religious” are ultimately based in an objective thing it just happens to be “my” own objective thing. This is across the boards in all enthusiasm. It muddies the water to just say “objective” versus “subjective” experience or other wise. Because one’s experience is in fact objective in that it happened to you whether it’s an event, emotion, moral thing or rationalization. And all of these personalized objective things, all of them without exception are the things people dream up as “Here God has displayed, shown and actually given Himself FOR me”. Whether it’s the answer to the question are we alone, the search for the “god-particle”, a dew dropped from a leaf when I was down and I knew it was God, tongues, even the miraculous, health, wealth, a changed life post conversion, the institutional formation of the church, a solid good feeling, a solid good moral shift, a well reasoned thing about God or even “I know because I know I believe” – these are all both objective and yet individualistically subjective. The objective parts are the things themselves the event, the emotion, the moral thing or the rationalization. The subjective part is the interpretation attached to them, so form of “God for me”. The “pro me” is necessary I don’t care who one is, it’s the question of the fallen soul, is God “for me” (pro me) and contra Zwingli all forms of faith (false or true) need a “pro me”. The events are real and objective, the interpretation (the theology of glory) is subjective. I know I’m saved (God for me) because (fill in the blank), I made a choice, I spoke a tongue, I believe, found God _______. The objective thing that may be procured for the subjective application of a “pro me” that really never was, is or will be – is itself real and objective. I.e. it has subsistence and substance. For all make an objective claim in real time and real space for “the thing” that says “God for me”…I know I’m saved because ________.

    One has to go back to Luther’s clarification on what it means to have a God, true or false, or even named “G” “o” “d” or something otherwise like god-particle, universal power/force, evolutionary forces, Buddha, fate, etc…. A God is that which one expects all good from, and to which one flees for refuge in all trials. Therefore, a God/god (true or false) is that in which the heart trusts and is most assured in. Thus, one either has the true God or not and that is based on a Word of promise actually objectively spoken or not. The common denominator is does it have a clear objective promise/Word from God or not that gives actually, really and truly or not. All of the above do not, not charisma, not scientific discovery, not dew drop, not the institutional structure of the church, not a pope, not a decision for Christ, not any of them. What does speak a promise is in fact God’s Words that say “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit…the promise is to you and your children and all who are far off…”, “baptism saves you”, “he believes and is baptized shall be saved, he who does not is damned”, “rise up and wash away your sins”, “by the washing (the “w” word for baptism) and renewing of the Holy Spirit…we are made heirs”, “we are united in Christ’s death by baptism”, “This is My body given into death FOR YOU”, “This cup is the new testament in My blood shed FOR you for the forgiveness of sins”.

    All those and absolution of course too, are also objective realities that happen in time and space. But I don’t have to interpret into those events that God is for me (pro me). Why? Because the Holy Spirit and Christ have already said that (Word/Promise) explicitly…I don’t have to reinterpret it as they say so.

    And that’s the difference between ALL enthusiasm be it secular, sect/protestants, Rome on one side and the true Christian faith on the other side. It is not the objective/subjective distinction, both and all have an objective quality and subjective quality. Rather do they speak a Worded promise and give what they speak (i.e. pro me), rather has God spoken it. The others have to “interpret them” as God for me in this event, action, emotion, speculation, work, institutional form, etc… The sacraments and spoken Word SAY in God’s Own Words and Voice this is “for me”.

    Making the objective Vs. subjective distinction and then laying over that the individual Vs. the community is in all ways miss understanding what actually forms the church. To argue corporate reality or institution is to say the church is formed around those, this the sect’s argument on one hand and Rome’s on the other. But the communion is formed by the Word of God, namely, again, the promises given in reality. The Word and Word alone forms the church not individuality (American religion), not institution (Rome’s religion), not even community (all of the protestant/sects religion), but the Word alone.

  • Grace

    Adam @ 21 no, I didn’t attend…I was just there for a May Day observance)

    That’s obvious!

  • kempin04

    Tom, #16,

    Thanks for the tip. I installed the ghostery extension on my chromebook, and it has all disappeared.

  • Kitty @18,

    Thanks for posting the link to that article RE: U.C. Berkley research on religion in America. It was very interesting. What also may be of interest is a sermon by Dr. P. E. Kretzmann, published in 1956, in which he lamented

    “It is true that the Christian Church, in its outward appearance, has apparently made much headway in recent years. The number of church members, according to available statistics, has increased by many per cent over the gains recorded a few years ago. Over 60% of the people of America now profess adherence to some church. It is most unfortunate, however, that in many instances, this outward membership is not the expression of a full and complete adherence to the full truth of the Word of God. There is a good deal of formal Christianity, including a fairly regular attendance at the chief service on Sunday morning, chiefly because this is considered rather fashionable. But when one inquires about the attendance at other church services, at Bible hours, and at meetings in which further progress in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is the goal, there are bound to be great disappointments. And if we should go one step farther and inquire about regular worship in the home, and about daily Bible reading by the individual, the disappointment would be increased in considerable measure. It is truly a sad phenomenon, but one which cannot be denied, that many congregations, especially in the large cities, have, for the majority of the membership, degenerated into social clubs with a religious veneer, and that the call of the Lord: “My son, give me thine heart” (Pr. 23:26), is falling upon deaf ears.”

    On Palm Sunday, I had posted this sermon on a little blog I run (here is the full sermon), and had previously posted it here, as well. Even then, Lutherans were warning that statistical measures indicating numeric increase in the Church were no cause for boasting. What I found interesting about this statistic from Kretzmann, however, was that Church membership was only ~60% in 1956. In a footnote to this citation, I added the following thoughts:

    This is an interesting statistic cited by Dr. Kretzmann. His sermon was written in 1956, and according to then “available statistics,” roughly 60% of America’s population “confessed adherence to some church.” One may assume that at that time the term “church” was limited to a church of some Christian confession. Of further interest with regard to this statistic is that it had recently “increased by many percent,” perhaps giving some reason for Christian boasting. Dr. Kretzmann’s further warnings and lamentations in this paragraph, however, make it clear that such increases, in and of themselves, were no cause for confidence as, “in many cases, outward membership [was] not the expression of a full and complete adherence to the full truth of the Word of God.” Moreover, church attendance and membership was generally known to follow from human weakness, as people tended to use church as a way to indulge their need to be “fashionable.”

    In contrast, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian was 76% – a statistic which represented nearly a 15% numeric increase since 1990, but, due to population growth over the same period, also represented almost an 11% decline as a percentage of American adults. Granted, as stated, this is a slightly different statistic than the one cited by Dr. Kretzmann, who cited “confessed adherence to some [Christian] church,” yet, I would presume to say that identifying oneself as “Christian” in 1956 would have been tantamount to confessing “adherence to some church,” whereas today, given the growth of the Emergent Church over the past 15 years and the growing rejection of organized religion, “confessed adherence to some church” can no longer be said to be equivalent to self-identifying as a “Christian.”

    It was not clear to me in the brief U.C. Berkley News Center article whether growth in the percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” corresponded to a growth in population, or to an an actual rejection of religion among adults who were raised with it — though, given that only 8% were raised without religion, it would seem to indicate that adults are leaving the religion of their youth behind. But what religions are being left behind? The report does go out of its way to indicate that Catholics are becomming Protestants, but give little indication regarding the percentage of non-Christians who are rejecting their false religions. This would be of keen interest to some Christians who might see this as a positive development, as growth among those no longer militantly predisposed against Christianity on religious grounds. I suppose the study could be downloaded and mined for those stats, if one is interested.

  • kempin04

    Question: Why is it “Francis Cardinal George” instead of “Cardinal Francis George?”

  • tODD

    Kempin (@25), it’s a thing. A highly annoying thing, in my opinion. But it’s a thing. “Cardinal Francis George” is also appropriate.

    This site says it’s a sign of humility (going by one’s given name), and that it’s perhaps more accurate to think of it as “Francis, Cardinal George” (cf. Alfred, Lord Tennyson).

  • kempin04

    Todd Mister Stadler,


    Dan Reverend Kempin

    (My apologies if you have advanced degrees or titles that I did not include.)

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