Spiritual but Not Religious: An Eroding Credo

Church of Saint Cajetan, Munich, Germany (wikipedia.org)

The faith and devotion of religious people is evident in many ways. They have deeply held beliefs and belong to an organized religion – and here we may think most eminently of the Catholic Church. Works, words, and often outward appearance can point even most the casual observer to the religious person. This is a person who navigates life for a purpose greater than him or herself.

Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” This concise exhortation is credited to St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the original three Franciscan Orders in the thirteenth century—with a bit of help from St. Clare. The religious person dedicates his life to God. When such a person acts, that dedication should be plainly visible in such action. This is what Francis meant when he spoke to his brothers and sisters. When one leads as a servant, helps another for no selfish benefit, or gives of time and talent for the greater good of others, it is a sign of one following a religious calling to selflessness.

Theologians, philosophers, educators, priests, ministers, rabbis, deacons, religious brothers and sisters, and much of the laity use words to convey messages of religion and faith. Many of these vocations overlap and they all call one to use written and spoken words to help others understand the essential teachings of a religion, of a church. Through homilies, sermons, books, articles, one-on-one interactions, and mere musings, these faithful individuals reveal their religion. They teach and preach the tenets of their faith so others may more deeply understand and more closely follow. As St. Richard of Chichester prayed, “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.” Yes, composer Stephen Schwartz did recycle these words for his song “Day by Day” in the off-Broadway musical Godspell in 1971.

The Christian-centered song by a Jewish composer notwithstanding, some of the above-mentioned teachers and preachers of the Word of God are easily identified upon first glance. From the Roman collar to the religious habit to ministerial and rabbinic garb to medals, pins, and pendants, the ministry of presence reveals itself. In his encyclical on the consecrated life, Vita Consecrata, Pope John Pau II issued a reminder to men and women of religious orders when he strongly recommended they “wear their proper habit.” He stressed the need for “dignity and simplicity to the nature of their vocation” (25). Tangible outward signs point to religious faith devotion, and vocation.

Identified by acts, words, and/or appearance, these are religious people. These are people of organized religions. It is a reasonable assumption that religious people have heard a particular statement ad nauseam: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” It seems to be the motto for those who lack interest in learning about the value of organized religions. It is closing door, a go-to phrase to stop any conversation that might tread into the unknown waters of Christianity, Judaism, or other organized faiths. Used often and even flippantly, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” erodes in meaning even for those making the declaration. The reality, though, is that there is specific and consequential meaning of the words “spiritual” and “religious.” They are different and that differentiation is worthy of examination by those who hear the credo and those who claim to own it. It is just as important to understand what one hears as it is to understand what one says.

The distinction between spirituality and religion is important because, like many terms, these are often thrown around loosely without a full understanding of their real meaning. It is crucial to understand that words have meaning—specific, unwavering definition. When using words in casual conversation, formal presentation, or professional writing, one must have a full comprehension of those words as they affect meaning and message. Without meaning, words are nothing. Without words, language evaporates.

In a time when many turn away from organized religion and embrace their own subjective spirituality, the study of both is especially important. Lack of understanding, lack of a desire to understand, can drive a person away from God and away from His goodness. One can easily turn one’s back on religious practice and belief before understanding its origins, purpose, and benefits. It is easy to dismiss an idea without understanding it. Dismissing an idea after seeking to understand is a greater, deeper act. In his essay, “From Projection to Connection: Conversations Between Science, Spirituality and Health,” professor and theologian John Swinton differentiates between spirituality and religion. He describes spirituality as something deeply personal and centered around the self. In contrast, religion—while also deeply personal—is centered around and comes from God (or even gods, 213, 214). This distinction is something essential to understand and explore in great depth by the religious and nonreligious alike.

“In a very real sense, spirituality … is a form of self-actualization.” Swinton explains, “It is my personal meaning, my values, my purpose, and so forth” (213). Spirituality involves an understanding of oneself not necessarily achieved through psychological, theological, or even philosophical pursuits. It is a subjective, relative, self-centric exploration of one’s relationship with oneself and the world. The challenge of religion-lacking spirituality is just that: It lacks the discipline and accountability of religion and is completely self-directed and self-fulfilling. Being at that level of nonreligious spirituality is akin to agnosticism, but perhaps focuses even more on the all-important self.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin words religio (noun) meaning obligation, bond, or reverence, and religare (verb) meaning to bind. Religion is a bond, a community. It brings people together under a common need for actualization, moral guidance, and mutual support. Examining the matter through a Christian lens, it is important to call to mind what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is a follower or disciple of Christ. In English, the root word of “disciple” is “discipline.” It comes from the Latin disciplina meaning instruction or knowledge and discipulus meaning learner. So, the follower of an organized religion engages in a discipline of learning, gaining knowledge, and seeking to understand as an ongoing—albeit often informal—student of faith and morality.

Returning to Swinton, he identifies religion as something of a subset of spirituality. As he puts it, “All people are spiritual, but only some choose to be religious” (214). Examining various religious teachings, one finds calls to selflessness, to sacrifice. For example, the Ten Commandments in Christianity and Judaism protect human persons from committing various assaults against one another. When one focuses exclusively on the self-determined aspect of spirituality, such protections may not exist for the merely spiritual person and those around him or her. Spirituality alone lacks specific calls to the service and protection of others. It can easily put the self before all else. It can easily evolve—or devolve—into subjective relativism. A subjective community, though, has no moral accountability which is essential to a just society. So, not only does moral accountability disappear in religion-lacking spirituality, but the self becomes the decider of what is and is not just, right, or moral. Those whose discipline leads them to follow the first commandment would likely disagree with such a high position of self.

On the other hand, religion is an intellectual and philosophical pursuit. It is through intellect and the application of reason that one comes to a true understanding of self and the surrounding world. The teachings, rituals, and discipline of religion demand intellect—even though some may choose not to apply it. This is similar in ways to the debate between fides et ratio (faith and reason) and sola fide (faith alone), two opposing philosophies of religion. Faith without reason and intellect is superficial. Spirituality without discipline and logical reasoning is merely self-serving and ultimately may not even be self-fulfilling. Religion offers discipline, reasoning, and accountability. The rewards of pleasing God and His people far outweigh those of pleasing only oneself.

Works Cited

John Paul II. “Vita Consecrata.” The Holy See. vatican.va. 25 March 1996.

Richard of Chichester. “Prayer of Saint Richard of Chichester.” Loyola Press. N.D.

Schwartz, Stephen. “Day by Day.” Godspell: Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording.          Masterworks Broadway, 1971.

Swinton, John. “From Projection to Connection: Conversations Between Science, Spirituality    and Health.” Reason and Wonder: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, edited by           Eric Priest, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016, pp. 211-227.