Spiritual but Not Christian

The more I ponder the “spiritual but not religious” cliche the more I see that it is not only creepy but also non-Christian. The essence of the Christian faith is sacrifice. First Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and our self sacrifice as we seek to emulate him and follow his command that “unless you take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.” So for “spiritual but not religious” we should really say, “spiritual but not Christian.”

How can a person who is “spiritual but not religious” also claim to be Christian? I don’t know. A Christian is a disciple of Christ and the word “disciple” is linked with “discipline” and a person can only be disciplined by someone in authority over them or through self discipline which is self submission to one in authority or a set of disciplines to follow. Therefore if someone is “spiritual but not religious” what discipline do they follow? How do they make a self sacrifice of any kind? I don’t get it. Looking at it this way, saying you are “spiritual but not religious” is like saying you love to play the piano, but you don’t read music, you don’t take piano lessons, you don’t know how to do your scales and you can’t be bothered with learning your fingering. In other words, you really really love playing chopsticks.

I can’t see that being “spiritual without being religious” is anything more than a self indulgent piece of wishful thinking and sentimental self delusion. Furthermore, I blame the Protestant, subjective individualistic religious climate in America (both the Catholic and the non Catholic sort) for the malaise. For too long the religious leaders in America have been selling a feel good, cotton candy sort of religion that is a mish mash of sentimentality, positive thinking, prosperity gospel and self help philosophy. They’ve been telling folks for too long that religion is all about feeling great and wonderful and being kind to baby seals and walking on the beach with Jesus and sometimes he carries you that’s why there is only one set of footprints.

So people aren’t that dumb. They say, “If that is what religion is, well I don’t need to go to church for that!” I can go to the beach and watch a sunset and feel peaceful. For that matter, if the Sunday morning thing is only about feeling good and loving and kind, I can get that fix by sleeping in with my current bed partner then tool down to Dunkin Donuts for some coffee and sweets.

C.S.Lewis said it years ago, “If Christianity is all about making you feel good–a bottle of port is easier.”

The only thing which gives Christianity any authenticity at all is when Christians live a life of radical self sacrifice.

Otherwise the critics who say it is all a gooey mix of superstition, wishful thinking and sentimental self indulgence are right on target.

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  • WhiteBirch

    You act like there are no other religions in the world than Christianity. How anyone can think that way while writing for a site like Patheos which contains a pretty healthy cross section of religions is baffling. “Spiritual but not Christian” could be referring to someone who is Hindu or Shinto or Wiccan or Baha’i; “spiritual but not religious” means not Christian, not Hindu, not Shinto, not Wiccan, not Baha’i, not a member of any defined faith. “Spiritual but not Christian” reduces religion to Christianity and is, well frustrating for those of us that are spiritual AND religious BUT NOT Christian.

  • Mary

    I love your piano analogy. I’ll have to borrow that response the next time I hear the tired old “spiritual not religious” mantra … And for more on this topic, I recommend Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion.” He does a nice job of explaining how American Christianity arrived at such a sorry state.

  • http://www.davidathey.com David A

    C.S. Lewis also reminded us that the Devil is a spirit, and so being “spiritual” is not automatically good.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I second some of WhiteBirch’s sentiments, but wish to add my own thoughts.

    “Religion” tends to mean any one of the established systems of belief and/or practice one can find throughout the world. Calling oneself “religious” is typically a means to identify as adhering (to a greater or lesser degree) to the beliefs and/or practices of a per-existing religion. As WhiteBirch mentioned, this clearly is not limited to Christianity, but I understand why Father Longenecker, himself a Christian, would think of religion primarily in terms of his own beliefs.

    But that aside, I would like to note that saying one is “spiritual but not religious” in my experience has meant one of two things. On the one hand, there is the sort of person Father describes quite well in this article: a kind of breezy, easy, happy-go-lucky sugary-sweet and superficial laziness masquerading as tolerant open-mindedness or depth. I agree with Father’s appraisal of that group, but I don’t believe there are many (besides themselves) who take them seriously. They may be superficial, but they are also ultimately innocuous and uninteresting.

    The other group is a group I believe Father is shortchanging in this article. There are people who are truly interested in spirituality, understood as the health of the human person under the aspect of his interior disposition, virtues, charity, and truth, but who do not believe this end is served well by adherence to a particular religion. These sorts are not lazy at all, but often seek inspiration from a variety of religious traditions without exclusive patronage of any particular belief system. To use Father’s own analogies, they are not only interested in the piano (although they may indeed practice it, know some tunes, and play from time to time), but are interested in a range of other instruments as well – and the instruments they cannot play and do not wish to learn they at least try to listen to from time to time.

    I agree that such an individual is not likely to be able to explore any particular religion with the same depth that a lifelong, exclusive adherent would, but it is also true that a lifelong, exclusive adherent probably lacks an understanding of his own religious context. There is no doubt a great advantage to such devotion, but at the same time the path of someone who sincerely explores a variety of religious traditions, like a player of many instruments, will benefit from a variety of contexts, their similarities, complementarity, and differences. In the end, I would say that such an experience is not necessarily doomed to be less invigorating, less conducive to a keen mind, or less instructive in virtue, charity, and meaning than a lifetime of devotion; nor would I say it is superior. It is simply a different path (and the truth is, as a convert, you have a little of this wandering spirit in you as well. Even in your devotion, that journey is an undeniable part of your spiritual life, even if it is a story not totally reducible to the boundaries of a single religion).

  • Anil Wang

    Scott, WhiteBirch,

    Simply put, Hindus, Shinto, and Baha’i are religious. To be religious means that you believe that there is a truth and it is in the faith you’ve adopted. Nothing more and nothing less. As such, you will do all that is required of your religion, even if it hurts. Anyone who knows Hinduism, Shinto, and Baha’i beyond the basics knows that they are steeped in ritual and sacrifice to make one right with God or the gods. Now a Hindu guru may say that all roads lead to God, but what he really means is that in a future regeneration you will be Hindu and you will be free. There are no non-exclusive religions out there or religions that allow you to say being spirtual without being religious is harmless.

    As a side note, whenever hear “religious but not spiritual” I can’t help think of That Mitchell and Webb Look ‘s Evil Vicar sketch. He sums it up nicely.

  • kenneth

    I’m always amused when Christian apologists resort to hubris and insult to try to corral people back into their fold like wayward sheep. As Dr. Phil would say: “How’s that workin for you?” People are leaving organized religion in droves because they are seeing religion for what it is : a tool to interface with the divine, not the divine itself. That tool, or tool set, has increasingly been corrupted to become more of a barrier than a bridge. It demands fealty not to the god or gods themselves, but to the human ambitions of ecclesiastical power, political power, money, deference and….more money. Sure, it is true that “spiritual but not religious” can be a label for being a spiritual couch potato. I often find that many of these seekers are in fact very actively engaging the big questions on their own terms and are modeling Christ’s presence in the world better than their loyal pew-sitting “pay, pray and obey” counterparts. What you’re saying is that they are “not Christian” because they refuse to toe your doctrinal line and kiss your ring. Being Christian has very little to do with those things and your casting them out of your treehouse club has no bearing on anything. There are also those of us who are quite comfortable with the label of “spiritual but not Christian. It’s clear you mean it as a shaming pejorative to try to deny the sincerity of your own followers, but we take it up as a proud and accurate label of what and who we are.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I am just as much opposed to religious people who just ‘pray pay and obey’–religion is not a spectator sport. Being religious is to be an a great adventure. Religion provides the map for the journey. It is not the journey. By all means go on the journey without a map if you wish, but all you’ll do is have a nice wander around in circles and end up getting lost. If you want to make for a destination use a map.

  • Scotty Ellis

    While I appreciate your attempts to define away other religions, I was unaware that religions required to have exclusive truth claims in order to be religions. You are using a private definition of religion, rather than the one more common to other English speakers. In actuality, exclusive truth claims are the minority among historical religions; for example, the state religion of Rome was open to other pantheons and religions.

  • NM

    Or maybe daring to step off the beaten path leads one on a great, unexpected journey filled with wonderful discoveries.

    Why are religious people all so afraid of God? Why are they afraid of themselves? Why are they so afraid…?

    Maybe God calls some of us to veer off the trail, did you ever think of that? Just because that isn’t His plan for you doesn’t mean He’s got something else in mind for another person.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    God calls all of us to go through organized religion to something greater.

  • NM

    How do you know what path God calls someone else to follow?

  • savvy

    Only angels are religious without being spiritual. Human beings live in a physical world.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Because Jesus Christ said he is the Way the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through Him.

  • NM

    Okay, but what does that have to do with any particular organized Christian religion? There are many Christians who follow Christ outside of an organized institutional church.

  • savvy

    I meant only angels are spiritual without being religious.

  • Jellysquare

    When this statement has been made to me, when my religious life comes up, the person has shown no indication of doing anything “spiritual” either. It is a quick answer, to keep you from bugging them any further. I am determined, the next time it is said to me, to ask: “Exactly, what does that mean?”

  • Gabriel Smith

    “…walking on the beach with Jesus”

    Don’t forget about spooning with Jesus!

  • Meg

    Spot on, sir – spot on! Love the last paragraph in particular. This post, as well as your “Spiritual but not Religious” one had me cheering in my chair. Thank you!

  • Evelyn

    I don’t believe there is any intention to exclude other religions here–Father is addressing a very specific kind of person who describes him or her self as ” a Christian who is spiritual but not religious” It’s almost a denomination here in the midwest, and I immediately knew exactly who he was talking about. It’s a grand way to say, “You have to let me be in your group, but you can’t make me follow the rules.”

  • WhiteBirch

    He doesn’t SAY he’s talking to people who claim to be Christian but spiritual and not religious. I rather thought he was talking about the “nones” as it were, who don’t claim association with any religion but who still have a spiritual practice or spiritual belief of some kind. And from there he divided it into Christian vs. Not Religious. Which is an easy position to take in a heavily Christian region (like, for example, the Midwest) but just because you don’t see the rest of us doesn’t mean we’re not there. /waves from the bottom of the graph

  • WhiteBirch

    Did I say that Shinto folks, Hindus and Baha’i (I noticed you left out Wiccan… not quite sure what to make of that, were we?) were not religious? I said that they ARE religious. I was pointing out that there are other religions than Christianity and therefore equating “not religious” with “not Christian” was inexact to say the least. And it’s frustrating, as the religious-yet-non-Christian person to have to point out my own existence on a regular basis like this.

  • CS

    Who knew the phrase “spiritual but not religious” rubbed some of you all the wrong way but then again I am not surprised. Instead of getting defensive, condescending or thinking your are holier than thou, why not speak to the person and find out what led them on this particular journey instead of out right judging “oh this person is spiritual couch potato or whatever ridiculous joke you have going. I have often heard people use this phrase in reference to be just that a spiritual person but not interested or turn off from organized religion, what exactly is wrong with that??? I think more of you have a problem with this than GOD himself. If a person chooses their personal relationship with him outside of sitting on a pew, who are you to judge????

  • Mitch

    The point is that a fantastically disturbing and growing trend, thanks to syncretism, is encroaching the Christian perspective (both here and abroad). The liberal media chastises Christian beliefs while elevating and rewarding secular, atheist and auto-deifying perspectives even so far as to debase public opinion from the very Biblical perspective that made the freedoms, laws and protections of the United States even possible! Theological drift into the “food court” perspective has been pandered to many would-be-devout without realization, or concern for, long-range fallout. What began as a concerted effort to keep up with the times and a method of filling pews has spilled over into a perspective that no longer requires the pews or the church that contains them.

    Billy Graham said it best “Our society strives to avoid any possibility of offending anyone – except God” and it is the combination of all the “New Age” influence (how many yoga mentions have you heard in the last week) with the constant Americanized “drive thru” (instant results, no effort) that have got us here. This little catch-phrase (sort of like YOLO) have become the calling-card fodder of those who cannot be asked to commit to making a change whilst being seduced by new and flashy traditions and concepts they’ll never understand until hopelessly wrapped up in them. It is, afterall, the spiritually weak Christians who fall into this camp, Paul refers to them as needing milk, and as of late they appear to be coming from out of the word-work.

    Coincidentally, this doesn’t appear to be the case for other faith perspectives (often the practitioners of perspectives these spiritually weak Christians (“half-baked Christians” as I call them) find themselves unwittingly intertwined with), because other faiths are strong in their faith… in a nutshell, I believe his message is aimed at Christians because it’s the only faith where this issue is prevalent and it’s the only faith where the reproof truly applies.

    Grace to you, Glory to God!

  • Mitch

    I forgot to add one element to my previous response and that is the concept of accountability. Many times Paul (and the Gospels) direct us to accountability to each other and accountability to the Lord. I imagine, in addition to the other details I’ve mentioned (and in conjunction with the Father’s notes) the reason all this feel-good, New Agey, “food-court” perspective works is that it echoes the retraction into the self that this sentiment seems to speak to.

    Other faiths (especially Hinduism) supplant the need for salvation in exchange with perceived personal (physical, metaphysical, sexual, perceptual, etc) gain that (on the surface) may appear more exotic and, therefore intrinsically, palpable while on the spiritual level are deviously deceptive and distractingly antithetical to a Christian worldview.

    Grace to you, Glory to God!