There is a lot of talk these days about being “spiritual” but not being “religious.” We often hear, “I see myself as a spiritual person, but not as a religious person.” This is the mantra of the children of the counter cultural movement of alternative spirituality. It is so much the mantra of a movement that it is no longer counter cultural, but represents the mainstream American thought process.
It is cool to be spiritual these days, but it is very much not cool to be religious. It is profitable, for sure, but not really cool. There are probably ten different ways to define “spiritual” and “religious,” and most of them are cliched and miss the mark about what is important in finding a healthy approach to practicing a faith that not only changes you, but can change the world.
I am not one to discount alternative spiritual practices, and I certainly do not claim to know how to solve the mystery of faith. The faith that I practice is mysterious and elusive, for sure, and I have witnessed countless practical and healthy ways to walk with it – many that were surprising to me and very refreshing. I am a Christian, though I would entertain anyone who proposed to coin a different term for what my faith is about. In the book “Blue like Jazz,” Donald Miller suggests that if Christianity were somehow embodied into a single person, it is likely that that person would not like him very much. Jesus proved that he would hang out on the wrong side of town, with strong drink and hookers, so I don’t think that he would have a problem with Donald Miller or anyone else struggling with life’s difficulties, rather he would seek them out. But mainstream Christianity today, as a religion, is a pretty rotten ambassador for the kind of Spirit that it represents.
That is the root of the “religion” vs. “spirituality” problem. Christianity is weak. It isn’t life changing or strong, it doesn’t take on the problems of the world with powerful love and radical grace. It is not scandalous in its approach to the evils of the world; evils like poverty, war, and ignorance. People don’t want it. Most people can see it from a distance and they like it that way. But I am convinced that Jesus is not represented in that kind of Christianity. Jesus could certainly be defined as devout, and that term does not apply solely to being “spiritual.” He was a religious man, an educated rabbi who came to deliver a new kind of religion – a radical spirituality that redefined the way that the Jewish people understood religious law. Love became the context for the law, and we were empowered to evaluate our actions based on the love we have for each other.
There was a time when the followers of Jesus were the warriors for love and grace, and they championed education and peace, they fought with their fists in their pockets for the injustices of the world, and they were not afraid to let the name of Jesus represent something fierce and radical. Today the public face of the follower of Jesus is often opportunistic, as though Jesus were a capitalist and would lend his divinity to supply-side economics. Those who understand that God is elusive and cannot be assigned a position resist the religious vortex that draws people into Christian five-and-dime stores to buy bumper stickers and support the cause.
But that leaves out the real value of religion. People get religion wrong, for sure, but they get spirituality wrong too. I once heard a quip, “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than having a garage makes you a mechanic.” Herein lies the problem with quips and bumper stickers and the insignificant amount of Truth that can fit on a t-shirt. The statement is true, and though I won’t try to dispute it, I will submit that working on your car in your driveway in February during a cold snap with a pair of pliers and no instructions can be a terribly frustrating and defeating task. This is what a healthy church does: it provides the space, the community, and the foundation for exploring your spirituality in a healthy way. Learning about how a church operates and how it communicates can be like learning a dialect of a semi-familiar language. It is hard and it takes some time, but once you can communicate fluently within that place, you will have yet another tool for practicing your spiritual desires.
Bear in mind that church is a tool. a piece of the religious and spiritual experience that can help provide rhythm and fluency to your life and enhance your knowledge and experience with the kind of faith that you are seeking. The great leaders of all faiths understoof the value of that rhythm, of that kind of experience, Jesus included. You don’t have to take all of the medicines, because some of it won’t really work for you, but you are there to get better, to grow, so be open to what they have to offer. You may find a level of growth that you would not have experienced on your own. You may find comfort in the realization that you are a child of the living God of both spirituality and religion.