Are you Religious…or Spiritual?

“I’m not religious,” the woman said. “I am spiritual.”

Instantly, I felt defensive, but I didn’t want her to know that.

Maybe I was defensive about being defensive. Clearly, the woman struck a nerve.

I’ve heard that expression often since that acquaintance broke the ice of my naiveté and let me in on the fact that some people looked down on those of us who tend the fires of various and sundry religious entities. She was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, working hard to stay sane and sober. I was a third-generation minister’s wife, working hard to walk my talk in a religious world that was rapidly changing.

My acquaintance’s declaration signaled a lifelong quest to understand what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be religious. Over the years, my quest has deepened my understanding of the role religion plays in my life and what authentic spirituality really is. The quest itself has been an adventure I needed, and my quest continues.

In the process of differentiating between religion and spirituality, I’ve learned how important religion is in daily life, and its importance can be found in the origin of the word itself. Religion, the word, comes from the root word religare, meaning “to tie back together.”

So it is that the purpose of our religious acts is to reconnect us, to re-unite us back to our Source, whom I call God. When I gather with my family of faith on Sundays, I am reconnecting with those persons with whom I share my faith journey, and I am strengthened by that. When I draw apart for prayer or read the scriptures during the day, it’s not really about earning points on a record sheet. I am reconnecting with God. When I help another person, carry another’s burdens, contribute time, money or some talent I have with another, I am participating in something larger than myself, and in doing so, my own life benefits.

If I could talk to that acquaintance now, I would suggest to her that her attendance at AA meetings, her working of the Twelve Steps and her daily surrender of her will to what she calls the “power greater than herself” are all religious acts in that they tie her back to her soul and to her intention to stay sober.

Conversations that activate my defenses nearly always lead me to some new understanding, if I’m willing to take the time to reflect on the irritating or disturbing thing that was said and question myself as to just why it was an outer stimulus produced my reaction.

Perhaps I would have learned the meaning of spirituality, anyway, given the fact that our culture is now inundated with all kinds of definitions and expressions of “spirituality”, but it was that one simple and irritating statement that hooked me, pushing me out of my comfort zone of thinking I had the answers into the multi-faceted world of spirituality.

Now, when I hear the word “spirituality”, I pause to ask the person how he or she defines spirituality. Is she talking about crystals and candles, body work or soothing music? Is he referring to a movement of men who gather in the woods to experience various forms of Native American spirituality? Is “spirituality” confined to one religion, or does it transcend religious boundaries?

Does a person who calls herself “spiritual” mean that she is more in touch with her inner life than she used to be, or does the speaker mean that he is a “believer” now, whereas before, he wasn’t? And if a person calls himself a “believer”, do we understand that term in the same way?

Does having your name on the membership roll of a church mean you are spiritual, and does church attendance always reconnect you to your soul? And is there something more than connecting to your own True Self about spirituality? Can you be spiritual and not have a personal, vital, love relationship with God? Can you call yourself a Christian if you aren’t at least trying to be a follower of Christ?

My understanding is that all of us are spiritual because we are born with the innate capacity to know God, not just intellectually, but experientially. No surgeon can find “the soul” in an operation, but I believe that we humans have within us that mysterious entity and mystery we call “soul”.

I agree with the wise person who says that we are not physical beings with a soul, but that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience in a particular timeframe on this particular planet. What exists on the other side of this life, I leave in the hands of God, who is ultimate Mystery.

The infinite ways in which human beings experience God continue to fascinate me, and I am awed by the ways in which people set up their various expressions of religion, those ways that tie them back to the Source.

I am so awed by the spiritual life and the mystery of God that I have come to agree with the sage who said he would not believe in a God he could define. When it comes to the Creator and Sustainer of life, words fail me.

I do not hesitate to declare that I am a religious person, not because I was raised to be that, but because I have chosen religious practices that nourish my soul and enliven my spirit. In a fragmented culture that often leads to alienation from ourselves and others, I need those practices that tie me back together with God.

I am also a spiritual being, and my spirituality is formed and informed by the spirit of the Living Christ.

I call myself a Christian because I attempt to be a follower of Christ and live by the teachings of Christ, albeit imperfectly.

And that choice, my friends, requires good, healthy, consistent religious practices.

Frankly, I need religious practice to support and nourish my soul.

Jeanie Miley is a writer and columnist, retreat leader, and speaker on topics of spiritual growth and contemplative prayer. She is the author of ten books including Meeting Jesus Today and has written a weekly newspaper column, “Growing Edges,” for thirty-three years. Trained at the Spiritual Direction Institute in Houston, Texas, Jeanie has read and studied broadly in the areas of spiritual growth and is a spiritual director. Her work rests, as she says, on a “four-legged stool”—Bible study, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, contemplative prayer, and Jungian psychology. Jeanie teaches a popular women’s Bible study at River Oaks Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and at other sites in the Houston area. She is a frequent retreat leader for groups across the country. Visit for more information.

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