When they find out she’s a minister, Lillian Daniel complains, people on airplanes keep telling her they’re spiritual but not religious. “Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach.”
She keeps piling it on, in a short article on the Huffington Post website: “Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”
She’s very cranky about this, but I know how she feels. People think they get brownie points for feeling good about the universe and doing what they were going to do anyway as long as they call it “spiritual.” Most of them suggest that spirituality is better than religion: “You have religion, you poor simple-minded do-it-by-the-numbers drudge, but I have spirituality.” I try to keep my mouth closed and count slowly to ten.
Pope Francis calls this kind of religion (and it is a religion) “intimism,” I think to say that it gives a false feeling of intimacy with God. “It is sort of like New Age,” he said, speaking to the priests of an Italian diocese. It’s “a pagan religiosity” and a form of “the first heresy of the Church,” Gnosticism.
He didn’t say much about it, but he gets at the thing that bothers me about this kind of religion. It’s too vague, too hazy, too . . . pointless. It advertises itself as a steak when it’s really made of cotton candy, and sugar-free cotton candy to boot. It says “I’m a serious, grown-up faith,” but it’s not.
A serious, grown-up faith tells us “Thus says the Lord,” or at least “Thus says the universe.” It deals with the problem that we don’t seem to fit in this world very well. It calls us to some ideal we’re not reaching. It offers us a hope that our life and our world will be better. It gives us things to do to be better.
Buddhism, the religion closest to “spiritual but not religious,” is a serious, grown-up faith. It demands something of you. It’s hard work, being a serious Buddhist. Buddhist monks don’t stare at sunsets while drinking wine on the porch.
A serious religion is solid. You may think it completely wrong, but you can see it clearly and decide what you think about it. You can take its measure. This kind of “spirituality,” there’s just nothing there to see. It can be anything and nothing.
I bring it up not to rant about it, or only a little, but because it tells us something about the lives of many of the people we care about, who will tell us some version of “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious like you are.” A feeling of a spiritual connection with the universe is not a gospel and many people are going to find that out the hard way.
That a beautiful sunset makes you feel good about everything doesn’t help you when you really need help. The sunset’s still beautiful when your wife has cancer, you’ve lost your job, and you have to be out of your home in a month, but so what? The same nature that produced the sunset is producing the cancer cells threatening to kill your wife.
The man wasting away from pancreatic cancer will, as I’ve written elsewhere, get no help nor comfort from the “spiritual,” which will abandon him when he feels pain morphine won’t suppress. He has no one to beg for help, no one to ask for comfort, no one to be with him, no one to meet when he crosses from this world to the next. He wants what religion promises.
He wants what God in his Church will give him. It’s so easy to be spiritual but not religious he may not see it now, and you have to pray he sees it in time. Even when, if you’re like me, you’re feeling really annoyed with him.
“People Who Find God in Sunsets” is a recent column I wrote in the Catholic Sense series that appears in the Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.