Spiritual but Not Religious

Many would say, to use a modern phrase, that Lincoln was “spiritual but not religious.” Such a posture should be celebrated as an expression of heartfelt belief and longing, but it should also be considered with a word of caution.

I recently noticed a woman’s tattoo decorating all of her forearm, a colorful array of plants, birds, and symbols. I asked her what it meant to her. She said she didn’t know, just that it was a way of expressing what she believed. She said it represented her spiritual side. I commented on how beautiful it looked. It obviously spoke to an important part of her identity. In other conversations, she has told me that she’s not particularly religious. But clearly, there is a vital, deep spiritual side to her life.

Almost every week, I meet someone who describes himself or herself as “spiritual but not religious.” By this, people mean that they believe in something beyond themselves. They acknowledge mystery and wonder. They often pray, but without understanding (or wanting to understand) what happens when they do. They value community. They think about the meaning of life. They connect with nature. The vast majority believe in a universal being or Spirit. They often recognize the importance of religious communities and the help given to the needy. But what about organized religion? Not interested.

While it’s troubling to many religious people that so many spiritual people don’t want a thing to do with church, I want to advocate a different position. We should celebrate when people are “spiritual but not religious.”

We should celebrate because we have much to learn from those who have marched out of the church into the fresh air of the world. It’s not always a choice in favor of comfort, entertainment, and wild living. Many reject wealth and the worship of gadgets in order to feed the hungry and teach in the inner city. They’re not rejecting God necessarily—just easy answers that don’t satisfy their soul search.

We should celebrate because the spiritual but not religious can remind us of what truly matters. They serve as a corrective to a church that has in many ways forgotten itself, choosing judgment, control, lack of creativity, and restriction rather than beauty, life, joy, and freedom.

Finally, we should celebrate because the spiritual but not religious are on a quest. While many people are truly lost, many others are searching in science, in art, in dialogue, in education. They’re decorating their bodies to give expression to what’s in their hearts. They’re setting up altars in the world. All great quests have strange turns, pitfalls, and stunning vistas. Those who are spiritual but not religious relish the journey. Many religious people have their sights on the destination such that they don’t enjoy the ride.

So, when someone takes on the posture of being “spiritual but not religious,” we can celebrate their quest for beauty and wonder, their longing for faith, and their courage for not accepting easy answers.

But here is a word of caution: such a posture can be deceiving. It may lead someone to avoid the harder tenets of faith. If people choose to make up their own religions, choosing some tenets of belief while rejecting others, never committing to one direction, then ultimately that faith is more about themselves than a larger vision. Their “spiritual interests” don’t rise above their other interests.

I don’t know much about the road of faith through other religions, but I can tell you that the religion of Jesus is strenuous and demanding. Loving your enemies, practicing a holy life, forgiving one another—these practices are not for the faint of heart.

Anything worth the investment of our faith and hard work will be difficult, or it wouldn’t be worth that much. And the payoff is much greater. When we engage in what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction,” we experience the enduring, deepening peace of a life committed to something greater than ourselves.

This post originally appeared in Faith, Hope & Politics: Inspiring a New Generation to Community-Changing Political Engagement by Brent McDougal.

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