Don’t get me wrong. I am not some dogmatic crank trying to carve spirituality out of our religious lives. I’m just saying that “spirituality” (whatever that means) gets more than its share of attention today, while religion seems relegated to the scrap heap of history, certainly in popular American culture and among most (yes, most) of the people I associate with. It is not entirely clear what people mean today when they use the word “spiritual”, especially in the phrase “spiritual, not religious”. For our purposes today, let’s assume it means the private, subjective part of what we used to call religious experience, with “religion” being the public, shared part. I imagine that the audience for this blog is made up mainly of Presbyterians from the northeast who are, like me, in many ways sympathetic with the same forces of social liberalism that shun organized religion. So I think it is important for us to clarify and articulate the motivation (if not the reasons) behind our religious practice and frame an answer to its public diminution. Here is a start:
- Religion is discipline. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, or training for a sport, religion takes work and practice. Learning creeds, studying sacred texts, and serving the poor build character and make us stronger. Growing in faith, like getting good at any difficult activity, requires a regimen, and religion provides that.
- Religion is systematic belief. We need belief to make sense of the world around us – to make reality coherent – even if these beliefs are provisional and subject to doubt. The wrestling match between our doubts and beliefs is one of the greatest challenges of being human. If we don’t define our beliefs clearly (and I think this is one of the key shortcomings of modern “spirituality”), we shrink from this critical challenge and diminish our humanity.
- Religion is tradition. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, tradition “involves… a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”. The practice of religion demands that we participate in the “pastness of the past” as we worship in the present.
- Religion is culture. According to Paul Tillich, religion is the substance of culture and its depth. Language is the primary form of cultural expression, and religion is the symbolic language with which we address our ultimate concern.
- Religion is community. It is the difference between praying alone in one’s room and praying together in a sacred place. In church, we are expected to love fellow members even if we don’t like them, and this is good practice for how we should act outside of church as well.
Spirituality today stands strangely in opposition to religion in the public consciousness. According to a recent survey, 30% of Americans consider themselves “spiritual, not religious”. I am intimately familiar with the allure of non-religious spirituality. It would allow me to disassociate myself from the ugly history of the church: the wars, the racism, anti-Semitism, sexism; from the hypocritical, judgmental religious monsters; from the child rapists and their priestly protectors; from the murderous terrorists; and from the televangelists who prey on the desperate. “Spiritual, not religious” allows me to put all of this aside yet acknowledge that there is more to life than what we conventionally perceive – to acknowledge that the presence I feel sometimes that helps me get past my aloneness and anxiety is real and not imagined.
The problem comes when I inquire into the nature of that presence and allow the possibility that God does exist: being “spiritual” does not help me figure out what to do about it. Being religious does.
Will Ingraham is an Elder in the Scarborough Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, NY.