Religion is a guy in church thinking about fishing.
Spirituality is a guy out fishing thinking about God. – John Fischer
Religion is for those who believe in hell.
Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there. – David Bowie
I’m a Christian and as such I consider myself as being both spiritual and religious but these quotes do seem to be potent and convey something worth pondering.
Over the past few years, there’s been a notable rise in the percent of the young adult population who identify themselves as being either “spiritual but not religious” or as “none of the above” – entirely unaffiliated spiritually.
I suppose this may be related to a tendency for young adults to register as “independent” instead of as either Democrat or Republican politically. Seems we don’t like to be “defined” or “labeled.” And yet, being unaffiliated is its own label – and people still define us.
In the same way that non-denominational churches have effectively become a denomination of their own, a case can be made that “spiritual but not religious” have become their own tribe (denomination).
Some will read that and resist saying, “but we’re not like a religion or something.” Indeed. And that’s the problem.
Too many of the growing crowd of those who are spiritual free agents are doing plenty of things to improve themselves. They’re growing to some extent as self-helpers. They’re meditating, doing yoga, lighting incense, wearing patchouli, toking mary jane, and re-posting all sorts of pretty pictures on Facebook with cool quotes or feel good aphorisms. They’re “doing their work” – exploring (some of) their shadows, “circling,” and otherwise learning how to divorce themselves from their elders and traditions and become their “authentic selves.”
Good for them.
The trouble is, for too many of these spiritual unaffiliateds, their spirituality begins and ends – with them. In other words, what’s good for them, isn’t good for us. The collective us. The community. You know, the other 7 billion people on the planet.
Spirituality that is unrooted; divorced from lineage; or intentionally disassociated from anything “organized” – is about as useful as a cell-phone without a battery or a QR code without a smart-phone. Not so much.
In tandem with this rise of spiritual individualists has been a marked rise in the number of people walking around our streets, and shopping malls – and driving on our streets – looking down at their Ipods or Iphones. It’s not an accident that these gadgets are called “I.”
It’s gotten to the point where it’s the rare occasion when we are able to have a conversation with someone we meet on the bus, or at the gym, or walking down the hall at school – because we’re all off in our own little worlds. Indeed, many youth today prefer to TXT thr parnts & frnds instead of having face to face meetings or chatting on the phone. They’ve become socially handicapped by their electronic devices.
A stroll across many college campuses will bear this out. Over 50% of the people are talking on their phones, looking at their phones, or unavailable due to having ear buds in their ears so as to avoid human interactions.
They’re plugged in and tuned out.
I can’t say for sure that these same people identify as “spiritual but not religious” or “none of the above,” but it is the case that an overly Americanized (individualistic) way of being spiritual is claiming that one is spiritual in an unlabeled, nondesript, generic manner. This ubber American spiritual way is also one that overly emphasizes self-help, self-development, self-“consciousness awakening,” and self-“evolution” — and it fosters self-centered narcissism.
Yet a society that is comprised of mere individuals who have little connection with, or concern about, others isn’t one that can function or survive for long.
Boxing champion Muhammad Ali has become a powerful elder in his later years. And even though he’s lost most of his abilities to speak due to Parkinson’s syndrome, he still packs a wallop.
Not long ago, Ali was the keynote speaker at a large public venue. He was assisted to the stage and the microphone was adjusted to his height. He stepped into the lights and simply held out his hand with one finger held up, saying, “Me.” Then he formed his hand into a fist – with all of the fingers working combined — and said, “We!”
Powerful lesson. Alone, we are weak. Together, we are strong.
It’s not an accident that Ali would choose to convey that particular message. Ali is a Muslim and Muslims are religious –- and religious people seek to work together with others.
The word religion comes to us from the Latin term “religare” which means “to bind together.” And at their best, the various world religions work to instill a sense of communal identity, communal unity, and a general sense of giving a damn about the well-being of others. The Golden Rule common to most religions conveys this –- and Jesus’ version of it has us not merely not doing wrong to others, but pro-actively “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Loving strangers and extending hospitality and inclusion to them isn’t something that is particularly natural to humans. We need to be taught to be that way. And that’s precisely what religion excels at — and it’s precisely what is lacking in many among the growing throngs of the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).
Ironically, certain spiritual practices popular among the SBNR crowd are in fact quite helpful in fostering and sustaining a yearning and desire for cohesiveness and mutual support. Centering prayer, meditation, fasting/“cleansing,” labyrinth walking, raking a sand garden, tracing a finger mandala, praying with beads, and spending quiet time in nature are the sorts of things that helped Jesus to not burn-out during his first year of ministry. But, without anyone connecting-the-dots (aka organized religion), unity isn’t what is fostered by such practices, rather, selfish isolationism.
Other practices are more overt in fostering caring for one another: weekly worship services; weekly scripture study; weekly prayer gatherings; monthly potlucks; group singing; coming of age rites of passage; as well as certain rituals which can’t be done alone such as foot-washings, baptisms, and communion.
Moreover, organized religion is by far the largest source of our nation’s charities and ministries for the poor. In fact, in order to effectively provide for the needs of the poor, sick, imprisoned, and needy – as well as to effectively advocate on their behalf in the political realms – a certain degree of organization is required. Free agents can’t do anywhere near as much good in the world as the combined power of religious persons banding together with a common cause, e.g., the end of slavery; Women’s Suffrage; the Civil Rights movement, etc. What about Bill Gates? Gates wants to help end rid the world of Malaria and he wants to be effective. So he’s giving his money to UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) because he knows that they’ve got history and cred in Malaria-striken nations and they’ve got the boots on the ground and organizational know-how to provide him the most bang for his buck. Random acts of kindness simply aren’t as potent as organized ones.
Granted, at its worst, a case can be made that there is nothing than has brought about as much pain and suffering in the world as organized religion, e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch trials; genocide of native peoples. There’s a difference, however, between bad religion and good religion and it is unfair to paint all religion with the same broad brush.
As a Christian, I’m most familiar with Jesus’ Way. Jesus and his first followers were both spiritual and religious. Jesus fasted alone in the wilderness; he was familiar with his tradition’s scriptures and he preached in synagogues “as was his custom”; he gathered a group of followers and taught them how to live life fully in community; he healed people in order to restore them to their religious communities; he engaged with religious leaders; he associated with, and physically touched, those who were deemed “unclean;” he prayed with others in olive groves; and he even died communing with others.
Though Jesus was religious, he didn’t necessarily toe the party line. Instead he pushed back against his religion’s dogmas and in some cases radicalized things even further — and in other cases, outright broke the laws if they did more harm than good. He emphasized the spirit of the law instead of the letter. But Jesus couldn’t have reformed his religion – or given rise to a new one – if he wasn’t committed to the inherent value of organized religion and engaged with it. He challenged his religion because he loved it. He criticized it because he loved it. He died because he loved it.
I write now in particular to those who lean Christian in their Spiritual But Not Religiousness. There’s no such thing as solo Christianity. You can’t follow Jesus by yourself.
Following Jesus requires community. It requires a community of fellow believers who you share life with and who can help you to grow to be the best you can be as you participate in the journey together. Jesus taught us to forgive 70 times 7 times – you can’t do that without others, if nothing else as the ones to forgive. Jesus taught us to tell others about the imminence of God’s kingdom – and he said we should to have at least one other person with us when we do that. He sent out 72 people in pairs of two as his advance team, telling them to “take nothing with you” – no extra coats, no extra shoes –and no cell phones, ipods, or mp3 players either. Jesus taught that he is present whenever “two or more are gathered in my name.”
By yourself at the moment? Cool. God is with you. But Jesus isn’t really with you unless another person is in your presence –- someone who you can heal, and can heal you; someone who you can forgive, and who can forgive you; someone who is in need and you can help, and they can help you with your needs.
According to Acts (chapters 2-4), following his death, the early Christians honored Jesus’ communal teachings. They lived together, shared their resources, “provided for each other as any had need,” and they worshiped, fellowshiped, prayed, and ate together. They organized ways to tend to “widows in their distress;” visit each other when in prison; and in Rome, they even organized proper burials for that city’s poor (a need that wasn’t being met). Tacitus tells us that they were known for their notable love ‘’See how they love!” –- and they couldn’t have done any of that, or acquired that reputation, without organization in their religion.
If you currently identify as SBNR, and yet you like Jesus and identify with his teachings and values in your spirituality, I’m inviting you to consider cohorting – joining a church.
That may sound like the last thing that you might want to do but it doesn’t have to be meeting on Sundays in a traditional church building, let alone joining the institution of a Church by becoming an official member. It can mean getting together with a group of like-minded and like-spirited people at a coffee shop, or in someone’s apartment. The main thing is to find a group of Jesus-oriented people who pledge to intentionally be there for each other and to be “for” each other as they live their lives. Being involved in a healthy Christian congregation or community is sort of like being at a military boot camp — but for being trained in how to love instead of how to kill. A healthy cohort will offer experiences where people have the opportunity to rub up against the lives of other fellow believers and to put into practice what they’re learning about. This can even involve people buying a home and living together in intentional religious community, sharing their possessions, and life in general, with others.
People can say that they are football players. Yet, if they only workout on their own and never train with the team, they won’t learn new plays and practice drilling them. They won’t be able to learn from coaches and players who are more seasoned and better than they are. And, if they will never show up for the games… well, you do the math.
Similarly, people can say they are Christians even though they aren’t active with a church or Christian community. However, people who meet regularly with fellow believers will be far more effective as workers in God’s Kingdom than those who don’t. When we’re active in a Christian community we benefit from inspiring and challenging sermons, studying the Bible with others, engaging in sacred rituals with others, praising God together, participating in community service projects, learning from elders, mutual support and accountability, opportunities to grow as leaders, and practicing the ways of Jesus.
Believing in the Jesus way to connect to God makes one a Christian, and Christians are by definition members of the living Body of Christ, which is the Church universal. Being active with a local church or Christian community is our way of being on the team. Your teammates are your fellow ministers, the ones who help you grow in the faith and with whom you worship, celebrate, grieve, play, pray, learn, and serve God. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Being active in a local church or Christian cohort involves rubbing up against other living, breathing people who are struggling along and living life as best they can. Sometimes we offend and hurt each other. Those are moments to cherish. They are the crucible that tests and refines us. In the safety of this cocoon of grace and love we can practice forgiveness and reconciliation, loving and being loved.
As Jane Redmont put it in her Open Letter to Anne Rice “What I am writing to tell you is that there’s no such creature as a lone follower of Jesus. You can’t be a Jesus-person away in a corner. Even hermits pray in Communion with a larger tradition, a church beyond themselves in a world which is the place where God becomes incarnate.”
The following parable is a bit hokey but it conveys the value of being active with a local church or organized ministry: John had once been faithful to attend his church regularly, but had become inactive recently. The pastor knew that she hadn’t seen the gentleman in a while, so she went for a visit. John greeted the pastor and welcomed her in, directing her to the chair beside the fireplace. The pastor didn’t mention anything about her concern about not having seen him in awhile, instead she simply said, “So, what’s up with you these days? How are you doing?” As John started responding, the pastor listened. After John had finished talking. The pastor casually grabbed the fireplace tongs, picked up a hot coal from the fire, and set it away from the fire, out on the hearth. They then watched the coal. While the fire roared on, the coal that had been red hot began to lose its heat. It gradually lost its red color, and then cooled off so that it became cool to the touch. The pastor picked up the coal, and handed it to John for a moment… neither said a word. Then the pastor reached out and took the coal back from John, and returned it to the roaring fire… and in just a few short moments, the coal once again glowed red hot, as the pile of flaming coals caused it to heat up again. The pastor then got to her feet, put her coat on, and shook John’s hand. At that point, John looked at the pastor and said, “You know, I think you might start seeing a bit more of me in church again.”
You may be feeling a bit resistant to the idea of visiting church — let alone joining one. Some of you have felt burned by members of the Church when they weren’t at their best. Maybe you’ve seen them at their worst. You see them as a bunch of hypocrites. Fair enough. I’m not going to try to talk you out of your experience. What happened to you happened. It shouldn’t have. On behalf of the Church, we are sorry. But being in community is where it’s at and what it’s all about.
There would be no “We Shall Overcome” song to sing if it’s only you or I. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly in the air like birds and swim in the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers and sisters.”
Back to those quotes at the beginning of this piece. Mr. Fisher, it isn’t an either/or — either being in church or being out in the world – Christians are called to both. And as much as I love your singing Mr. Bowie, not all Christians believe in hell (as an actual place), and there are plenty of people who are religious who’ve been through hell (as a state of being).
So instead, I offer this alternative statement that I think more accurately conveys the nuances at hand:
Spirituality is awareness of the water in the ocean, and religions are the currents in the ocean that fish can choose to swim in to go faster and further than they otherwise could. Fundamentalisms are aquariums that keep fish confined. – Roger Wolsey
I close with a poem.
i’m a GenXer who flies with Gen Y
and i can’t stand religion that can’t handle “why?”
like brother stipes, i was losing my religion
but like newton before me, i found it …was blind but now i see
like marley’s son sings it, love is my religion
my religion is agape
my religion is the glue that unconditionally brings out the best in each other and holds us together
and because jesus dunked me in a giant vat of that thick and sticky agape glue, i promise to love you by holding doors open for you and offering to share my umbrella when it rains
i promise to love you by not wearing ear-buds in the gym so i can notice if you need a spot
i promise not to walk around looking at my e-vices when i’m out on the town
i promise to love you by not only not txtng while driving but also by embracing that awkward time of silence with you in the elevator or on the subway by not pretending to be txtng someone to avoid interacting with you!
my religion is to promise to at least catch your eyes and give you a smile if i see you begging on the street
i promise to acknowledge your existence and honor your humanity
i promise to buy you a meal and learn about your life
and if i have some work to do around the yard, i promise to invite you to hop in my car and do that work so you can earn an honest days pay for an honest days work.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
..and my religion is to lie down with you to keep you warm
my religion is to come to your side to help you fight your battles
my religion is to volunteer at local soup kitchens, and to read the local paper, and to write letters to that paper, and to volunteer for political campaigns, or at least to vote!
my religion is to promise to help build homes for you through Habitat for Humanity
my religion is to increase awareness of your hunger through joining my local Crop Walk
my religion is to reduce your hunger by lobbying congress through Bread for the World
my religion is to give a damn about you
— trusting that you give a damn about me too.
my religion is to promise to ask you “how is it with your soul?”
and my religion is to hope that you ask that of me
my religion is to sing my heart out with my church’s gospel choir so i can express my highs and my lows
– as i hear the heart-aches and joys of those around me
my spirituality isn’t private, and it isn’t personal,
and neither is yours
you are my brother and i am your keeper
– please tell me that you are mine
On a related note, check out “International Get Unplugged & Get Connected Day!” A day for people to not pop in their ear buds, to not text, and to be available to interact with the people who surround them. An annual event on the 1st Monday in October.
Though I’m a progressive Christian, here’s a link to a blog I wrote that shows that “I get” spiritual oneness and that I’m not some stereo-typical Christian zealot. We’re in this life together. Religions help us to do it. Granted, many churches have work to do to become places that SBNR folk might even want to attempt visiting. Shedding judgmental, anti-woman, anti-gay, and exclusivistic stances are great places to start. And frankly, many churches really ought to be doing more to tend to the poor and reduce poverty than they do. Addressing all of that is partly why I wrote my book Kissing Fish. That said, progressive churches are on the rise. Google “progressive church nameofyourtown” or “gay welcoming church nameofyourtown” and see what comes up. You might also consider swaying an existing church to become progressive, or starting such a progressive church if one doesn’t exist.
I realize that this blog may lead to some ruffled feathers. My intention is not to bash but rather to help people I know and love to be the best they can be by holding up a mirror that shows a few shadows and blind spots. For those who may be feeling resistant to what I’m seeking to convey, I would be curious to hear your thoughts after a couple of days of leaning into these ideas…kind of like leaning and breathing into a challenging yoga asana instead of becoming rigid or giving up on it… to see what happens when we move deeper. Finally, consider the possibility that becoming actively involved with a religion may be a needed gift to it as much or more as it might be to you. Peace.
xx – Roger
Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity