Spiritual But Not Religious? Some Thoughts on the New Spirituality

This post comes from Mockingbird friend Lynn MacDougall: I don’t even call myself a Christian,” […]

Mockingbird / 10.10.12

This post comes from Mockingbird friend Lynn MacDougall:

I don’t even call myself a Christian,” he added. “Spirituality is the word we engage with more. We’re fans of faith, no religion. We’re just writing songs that ask questions. Sometimes the best way to go about exploring a question, things we wouldn’t necessarily talk about in conversation, is by writing a song.

-Marcus Mumford, denying claims the the band’s new album Babel is an official statement of their Christian faith

After reading about the Mumford backlash last week, as well as Alan Miller’s “Spiritual But Not Religious,” I experienced the two colliding. Several other articles popped up when I Google-searched Alan Miller’s article. So what does it really mean to be “spiritual” and/or “religious?” I know JDK wrote eloquently on the subject for Mbird a few years ago, but given how it’s making headlines again (and Lord knows you can’t blame Mr. Mumford for wanting to avoid the kiss-of-death “Christian band” label), it seemed like a good time to revisit. I found a great starting-point in a book excerpt from Robert C. Fuller:

A large number of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is likely that perhaps one in every five persons (roughly half of all the unchurched) could describe themselves in this way. This phrase probably means different things to different people. The confusion stems from the fact that the words “spiritual” and “religious” are really synonyms. Both connote belief in a Higher Power of some kind. Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power. And, finally, both connote interest in rituals, practices, and daily moral behaviors that foster such a connection or relationship…The word spiritual gradually came to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines.

Over at the Huffington Post, Columbia professor Norris Chumley offers his thoughts on the distinction, also expounding on the role of individualism and ritual:

Digging a little deeper, there really is a difference, and it is about application and sharing of the beliefs one holds. To be religious means to hold a set of beliefs about how the world and universe came to be, and to share those beliefs with others. The commonality may be a doctrine, a set of rituals, a moral or ethical code, tribal or sect identification, or a shared prophet, leader, guru, or savior. The origin of the word is Middle English, meaning faithfulness or piety or, as in the Old French, a sacred practice that is connected, tied together, or bound in community.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is not primarily communal but individual in belief and practice. If one is spiritual, one typically has beliefs in something not tied to the material world: something ethereal and intangible but perceived or believed to exist. It can be earth-related, such as a belief in nature. It can encompass belief in a “higher power,” some force or unified creator or God that is bigger and more powerful than oneself, and untethered to traditional churches or doctrine. I discovered that the word “spirit” is ancient and interconnected: the Hebrew Bible uses the term nephesh to describe breathing (see Genesis 2:7) or ruach, wind or air. From the Greek, the New Testament borrows pneuma, the life force within. Both Aristotle and Plato taught that the psyche, or soul, resides in the human body and is divine. They disagreed as to whether we’re born with it or if it is from something eternal. St. Paul, likely having studied Greek philosophy, talks in the New Testament about the spirit residing in the body.

To take it a step further, David Webster considers the implications of the new ‘spirituality’ in his provocatively titled book, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy:

In short, spirituality is ‘faith-lite.’ Whereas religion (or Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’) makes heavy demands on practitioners to adjust their thinking, feeling, and acting to fit with what’s been revealed according to the tradition, spirituality doesn’t make such demands, and it thereby makes us stupid or at least intellectually lazy. It also makes us selfish …”

Spirituality doesn’t face the fear and loathing of existence, the abyss. Instead, it covers over the abyss with easy answers about an immortal soul or about happiness coming from within. When happiness comes from within, you don’t have to worry about the countless others outside of your spiritual bubble who are far from happy. Thus privatized, happiness becomes the name for a rather unjust and miserable way to live.”

So many questions surface: Is being “religious” better than being “spiritual”? Doesn’t Jesus actually take out the religious leaders in the Gospels and call religion empty? Does contemporary spirituality really make us selfish? (The Chronicle of Higher Education does a fascinating piece called “The End of Solitude” and names this idea the contemporary self.)  Does the individualist nature of “spirituality” even lead to loneliness?

It seems to me that Christ was neither strictly religious nor strictly spiritual–at least not as characterized above. Or maybe he was both, and in the truest sense of those words. He certainly lived outside of the confines of either. That is, his life and death bring together individual and collective demand, do they not? With his flouting of religious and ethnic conventions and a corresponding emphasis on the Law’s severity, Christ was perhaps the most profound critic we’ve seen of both modern ‘spirituality’ and modern religiosity. At the same time, you could say that he’s the true beginning of both, facing Webster’s “abyss” in his death and giving us the means to face it as well. The New Moses and the End of the Law and – something neither ‘religion’ nor ‘spirituality’ directly provide – a Savior. And what that means is a whole different ballgame.