Spiritual, Not Religious?

It occurred to me this morning, when I heard somebody answer a question with words I’ve heard a thousand times: To say “I’m spiritual but not religious” is like saying…

… “I speak, but I don’t stoop to using any… you know… language.”

And to say that, of course, would be a self-contradiction, because you just said something. In a language.

If you have any assumptions about spiritual matters, those are religious beliefs. Beliefs cannot be shapeless. They have definition. Some might have more definition than others. But if you believe it, it has a shape. It might be a strange shape. It might be sloppy and stuck together with Scotch tape. But it has some kind of outline.

Try it. Try to express something without any definition, without any limitation, without any character.

When people tell me that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I think that many of them are saying they know that what they are and what they do have spiritual significance. They know that they are spiritual beings. But they are afraid of investigating these matters. Because if the spirit and the body have anything to do with one another, things get complicated.

If you face up to your assumptions about spiritual matters — where the universe comes from, why we exist, whether or not we have freewill, matters of right and wrong, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life — then you might realize that these assumptions have implications for your life. If you believe in freewill, for example, then that means you have some control over your life, and your life is not being determined by somebody else. If you believe in right and wrong, then you have some responsibility to make good choices. If you don’t believe in right and wrong, you have no right to complain about anybody else… ever… at all.

When I hear “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” I often hear anxiety and fear. And that makes sense. People don’t want to be branded or boxed in. They don’t want us to make assumptions about them.

Me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, but I get uncomfortable when strangers learn that I’m a Christian because I wonder what they will assume about me. Will they think that they know how I vote? Will they think I’m judgmental?

Still, I refuse to make my faith private. And I’m saddened when I hear, as I so often here when I’m interviewing artists, “I’m spiritual, but my spirituality is very private. I don’t talk about it.” That’s like saying “I do have clothes, but I don’t actually, you know… wear the clothes. They’re private.”

If you have spiritual convictions… if you truly believe something… it will be evident in the shape of your life, the decisions you make, the way you engage with the world around you. If you have beliefs, they have a shape and a form, and you behave accordingly… to some degree.

And that is religion. It may be entirely your own, but it is religion.

Why would you have a policy of keeping secret what is arguably the most important and fundamental aspect of your life? Again, I could be wrong, but I think such a policy suggests fear.

And fear about such things probably comes from a fear of being judged.

I hope that I’m not the kind of person who would make anyone feel afraid to talk about their beliefs. I don’t want to be judgmental. But I do have a desire to get to know my neighbors. To hear about their suspicions, questions, convictions, and passions. I do want to have conversations with people as we all fumble our way toward the Truth.

I’m saddened when people say they’re “spiritual” but not “religious” because that sounds so Gnostic to me: it suggests that spirituality is just a notion that has no real connection to the world. That’s insulting to the physical world. It suggests that creation is meaningless, that the material world is empty. But everything we say and do suggests otherwise. As human beings, we are people who make things incarnate. I believe it is one of the ways we know we’re children of God: we’re creators. We embody things. We make words flesh. Our ideas are inseparable from the language that allows us to share them. To express mysterious things, we talk about material things. Our beliefs are inseparable from the actions we take, because we act based on assumptions. We take steps of faith.

All of us are living in faith, and in religious behavior, from the most insistent atheist to the most tentative Christian. It takes a lot of faith to believe that the universe is meaningless. It takes a lot of faith to believe that things are accidental. It takes a lot of faith to believe that there is a God, and that he loves us.

At least, it seems that way to me.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could discuss the most important things in life without fear of being judged?

And wouldn’t it be great if folks like me, who like to ramble on and hold forth, were as eager to listen as we were to preach and rant and blog?

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