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.
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?