Thursday, April 26, 2007

Spirtuality vs. Religion

In a recent e-mail I was asked about the difference between being a 'spiritual' person and a 'religious' person. You can reference the article that lead to the question at

Spiritual is a very popular buzz word and because of many cultural icons such as Oprah, being spiritual while not religious seems to be a cool thing; even Madonna has taken on a new spiritual persona. I have some concerns about this pop-spirituality. A few years ago while engaged in a discussion with a fellow Gen-Xer about her 'church' experience (a non-traditional non-denominational, charismatic church) the weakness of 'pop-spirituality' reared its head. The woman said, 'I get all I need from my small group, I'm not sure why I need worship.' The key words being I NEED. American Pop spirituality seems largely based on the needs of the individual; what do I want, what do I need, what makes me feel peacefull, etc., and while the journey to peace and the connection to God does involved a practice of silence and sometimes seclusion, that is not all that Christ intended for his disciples. The greatest commandment in Jesus own words is in my summation, 'Love God' and 'Love your Neighbor.' In other words their is an aspect of connection to God that is private and within the self, but their is also an aspect of that connection which involves 'the other.' Some of Jesus own teachings involved generosity; sell what you own and give to the poor, If they ask for your coat, give them your shirt too... and Paul understood that the body of Christ was composed of a diversity of people... What popular American Spirituality suggests is too narcissitic for my taste... and it devotes its attention to personal feeling and knowledge which means it smacks of neo-gnosticism to my ears. Christ called us to knowledge and then action as far as I can tell, and so the fascination with pop- spirituality falls far short of what Christ intended for the church.

Is religion any better? That is a good question. What can be good about the idea of 'spirituality' is that it suggests a pervasiveness about one's beliefs... spirituality isn't simply one aspect of a person's life, but an experience, a vision of, a connection to 'God' that pervades all parts of one's life. Religion all too often is a term that is used when people compartmentalize the 'spiritual' aspect. The term 'religion' can suggest a practice, 'saying the Rosary' attending church, taking communion, that while intended to influence and guide the rest of one's life, rarely does. I am far more suspicious of 'spirituality' than I am 'religion' but I can see why 'religion' has come to be an offensive odor in the nostrils of many, especially those in my generation (Xer). What is believed in rarely influences behavior or practice and that is hypocrasy. And while spirituality can be so focused on the individual that God is lost 'Am I getting what I need' as opposed to 'Is God pleased by what I offer,' Religion goes to the opposite extreme. Religion suggests that we are only thinking about the supernatural, the mysterious, the unknowable. In the words of my father the religious are often 'to heavenly minded to be any earthly good.'

The way I see it both phrases are rife with misinterpretation and so something new is called for. Or something old needs to be dusted off. Christ called us to neither an individual piety (spirituality) nor empty practice (religion). Jesus called us to be disciples... devoted practitioners of the discipline which creates the Kingdom of God. Discipleship is not a new word, it is quite ancient. Currently I am fascinated by the idea that early Christians called themselves followers of 'the Way' or 'People of the Way.' It is a phrase that doesn't sound as 'churchy' as discipleship and it has a mystical quality that would suit 'spiritually minded' folk. And yet it is more action oriented. It implies action and motion which certainly the church needs and which is what I believe would attract Gen-Xers and Millenials to church.. the idea that we do not gather to talk about what we believe, but that we gather to discuss THE WAY we can build the kingdom, serve others, make the world a better place.