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.