The Quest to be Religious AND Spiritual

The reflection “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” by Rev. Lillian Daniel from the United Church of Christ Feed Your Spirit Daily Devotional blog has gone viral in the last 24 hours, propelled by her witty style, a topical subject and Facebook.  I put it up on my Facebook page and someone commented that they found its tone snarky.  I read it originally as light, good-natured ribbing, aimed at those who think they’ve discovered some new way of the human soul by avoiding religion and feel compelled to tell you about it because you’re a religious professional.    I also think the subject deserves some serious discussion.

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. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

I couldn’t agree more with Rev. Daniel whatever her intent of the piece as far as tone.   The Spiritual but not Religious argument always seemed to me to be a bit of a cop out, a bit cowardly. The spiritual but not religious argument always struck me like someone who wanted praise for loving their family and friends.  Well, that’s all and good (and it is, it really is), but what about loving your enemies, loving and being kind to people who annoy the living hell out of you?  That’s really hard. I know I’m not always very good at it.   Being spiritual and not religious is like enjoying partying but having trouble holding down a job and getting up and going to work every day. These are the things that you have to, are invited to do, are called to do in a religious community.

Side note:  Before people go getting all up in arms, especially since most people reading my blog will probably be Unitarian Universalists, let’s get it out of the way from the beginning that even though Rev. Daniel is a United Church of Christ minister and I am a UU Christian, religion does not equal Christianity.    Humanists can be religious or not and they can be spiritual or not.  Pagans can be religious or not and they can be spiritual or not.  The life of the spirit and the religious life is a both/and, not an either/or life.  It requires being spiritual AND religious,   The religious life is about the life of the spirit, communing with and getting connected to the Oversoul (interesting that one UU commentator on Rev. Daniel’s essay on facebook named Ralph Waldo Emerson as the chief/original culprit of the spiritual but not religious  crime).  But it doesn’t mean much if it is always done in isolation. If it is not connected to a life in community that celebrates that connection, that has a history of celebrating the connection to the holy.  It requires us to live us with and among each other in certain ways.

And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Unitarian Universalists call it living in covenant.  It is a decidedly difficult thing to do. Some of us don’t even want to do it and dismiss the word covenant because of its biblical roots.  That’s unfortunate.  When people make sacred or holy promises to each other about HOW they will live in community spiritually, it is the elemental religious act, the primary act of binding  us to each other and to spiritual traditions.

There is also a flip side to the spiritual but not religious malady – the people who become religious, but avoid developing their spiritual life.  Anyone who spends anytime working in and/or with a church (or any religious community) can recognize this problem.  It is characterized by having lots of meetings, doing lots of church business, worrying excessively about church buildings, especially historic ones, spending too much time on every breaking crisis and anxiety, doing almost anything but paying attention to one’s individual spiritual life or a community’s collective spiritual life.  Sometimes the symptoms are masked as the religiousness presents itself as over-involvement in planning worship services or what music the choir will sing.

People who are spiritual but not religious don’t really interest me.  People who are religious but not spiritual actually scare me, as from their ranks fundamentalisms arise.  What I want, actually WHO I want, to be involved with are people seeking to be religious AND spiritual.

10 thoughts on “The Quest to be Religious AND Spiritual

  1. I wonder if its something in the air. I posted something on this a few weeks ago, and along the same lines. It seems to me that being religious is part of the essence of being human. It might be more or less urgent in a given individual. And, of course, I have no theological, sociological, or psychological backing for this, but I think being religious is a facet of being social creatures–the facet that faces the need to share with others the power of the realization that there’s more to the world than just what I perceive of it.

  2. General agreement from me, especially on Daniel’s post. Do you want to hear a definitional objection? (pause) Okay, I’ll share! I think most people agree what religious means for religious liberals (er…), but what is entirely unclear is spiritual – as to whether it means natural or supernatural. For instance, can humanists be spiritual? Well, yes for the first case and no in the last.

    That’s a small point. What really got me to write is the “Holy Last Paragraph Batman!” reaction I had. Someone has probably named this phenomenon, but your last paragraph is anti-conclusory and actually inflammatory. Fundamentalisms? I thought we were talking about Unitarian church meetings! (I’m sure there is a joke there, but come on).

    Plus, I think you are undermining your message with the WHO comment. Isn’t it your religious obligation to try to reach the spiritual in even meeting nazis? You believe in covenant, right?

    Please ignore user name. It’s not what you think. Mark Erickson, St. Paul, MN

  3. I found this to be presumptuous: “There is also a flip side to the spiritual but not religious malady – the people who become religious, but avoid developing their spiritual life.”

    The other commenter’s definition notwithstanding, I prefer to define “spritual” myself. As an atheist, I believe only in the physical–I don’t embrace the term spiritual, although as a UU, I recognize that some do (often because others define it differently from how I do). For me personally, though, there is no “spiritual life” to develop. Yes. There is conscience. Yes, there is compassion. Yes, there is morality. But, for me, those are all extensions of the physical/chemical process created in the human brain. Hence, I resent the implication that I’m somehow avoiding doing something that someone else sees as necessary.

    Yes. I’m religious (as in a part of a religious community), but not spiritual. But, it’s nothing to be be afraid of (“People who are religious but not spiritual actually scare me”). I see great beauty in physical existence, as well as mystery (things I don’t understand, and possibly never will). But, none of this conforms to my definition of the word “spiritual”, since I do not believe that there is a spiritual realm beyond the physical. For me, it’s all physical. So, please be careful where you build your fences. You might just end up fencing out a lot of fellow UUs who, like me, consider themselves religious, but not spiritual. Semantics? Yes. But, words count, especially words like “People who are religious but not spiritual actually scare me”.

  4. Herb, I’m right there with you. I also call myself religious but not spiritual. And the idea that fundamentalisms come from anything remotely related to this concept, however defined, is ridiculous.

    1. I’ve been thinking about what to reply to these comments for the last couple of days because, of course, I think I am neither presumptuous and I will hold that fundamentalisms do arise out of a religious but not spiritual attitude – an attitude that is so centered on right practice that it can’t abide any thinking that might view the practice or even the world differently. We see this in Unitarian Universalist churches all time where people expect others to view the the world in their own religious and spiritual way and only in their way and use only language that is acceptable to them. It gets to the point where people seem to actually have allergic reactions to words, including words that are part of the vocabulary of church. I think Peace Bang has a fantastic summary of how I and many other liberal clergy feel about the Daniel’s piece and the religious and spiritual discussion that it has generation on her blog at

    1. Examples of religious but not spiritual might include (from Catholic background) Opus Dei This is an extreme example and can be found in any religion. Less drastic examples include things like obsessing over which color to paint the youth room, forbidding the use of the word “God” from the pulpit or in worship services, when we focus on the practice of being religious to the exclusion of what the practices point us to.

      1. You can’t be serious that a group that practices mortification of the flesh isn’t spiritual, whatever its definition. And I think you are just a little bit touchy about this “God” talk thing. Maybe you should find a pulpit that suits you better.

  5. It seems like there is a balance, between focusing only on yourself and making yourself a better person (a very worthy goal but it could lead to self-centeredness) and on the other hand focusing only on others and on being always “doing” in community (which can be good but it could just be a way to distract yourself from having to become a better person on the inside). So I agree with you that what I’m interested in is both the spiritual and the religious, if we define those words as “loner” and “in community”.

    1. I think one of the frustrations that the discussion around the Rev. Lillian Daniels’ has brought up (again) for me is the need for so many people in liberal religious circles to question the vocabulary of my profession. People don’t go to a doctor or a lawyer and say, well you can say I have a throat infection as long as you use the term malady of the neck or you can help me with my divorce as long as you and the court agree to always talk about it as my lover and I going our separate ways. Theology and religion has a history, a vocabulary, terms and definitions. It is as if religious professionals need to pretend, especially in liberal circles, that we do not have a discipline, a tradition, a vocabulary or even professional competence every time someone doesn’t like the terms. I do think religion is a communal practice. I don’t think one can be religious alone, being religious requires a community, a tradition, and a history. I do think that spirituality is more about individual connection to the sacred and centers of ultimate value, although I think there are communal spiritual practices. I don’t think the words religious and spiritual are interchangeable with group and loner.

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