“I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’m sure you’ve heard people say that; I have. It’s become increasingly common among those who claim “None” as their spiritual identity on religious surveys. They are growing in numbers, especially among the rising generation who are not carrying on with the faith traditions of their parents and grandparents. They aren’t atheists or agnostics. They believe in some sort of spiritual Presence. They may even pray and practice spiritual disciplines such as meditation and fasting, but they have no use for religious institutions. They are, as they say, “spiritual but not religious.”
For the average church-goer, this seems impossible if not ridiculous. Can you be spiritual without going to church? Of course you can! Being “spiritual” is what distinguishes us homo sapiens from the rest of the animal world. Though we share a common biology with the rest of the animal kingdom, we are something more and different, made in the “image of God.” We have a sense of the transcendent, the numinous, the holy. We intuitively know there is more than meets our eye. Wherever we look, whether deep into space or within the nucleus of the atom, we seem to encounter mystery. If we dare to look deeply into ourselves, we will find the same “mystery,” an inner restlessness, a longing for home. St. Augustine famously said it this way: “You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (Confessions, ch 1)
It would be terribly easy to dismiss the spiritual-but-not-religious Nones, but to do so would to deny the reality of our inner spiritual life. I’m afraid that all too often, this is the danger we face as church-going religious people. We can easily become “religious but not spiritual.” We attend church but are not attentive of being the Body of Christ. We go to church for a little boost on Sunday and then are back to our “real world” brunch by Noon. On Monday, it’s back to business as usual.
Our forefathers of the Reformation termed being “religious but not spiritual” an opus operatum, a “work having been worked, meaning “just go through the motions and you’re good to go.” Or in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Get ‘er done.” Punch the clock on your sweet hour of prayer and you’re good with God. Get the baby baptized and you’re all set. Live as though God didn’t matter and as if you mattered most from Monday through Saturday and then go to church for a religious reset on Sunday morning. Or Saturday evening, if the church provides that convenient option.
Being religious is dealing in external things – rites and ceremonies. Word, water, bread and wine. We Lutherans value these external things because they are the means by which God deals with us. The Holy Spirit works through the external Word. He uses external things – words, water, bread and wine – to work faith in our hearts where and when it pleases Him. God deals with us externally to work faith internally. God, it turns out, is both religious and spiritual. He promises to work through external word and sign, and the spiritual faith-work He does happens within us, in our “hearts,” the core of our being.
As Christians, we believe we have been crucified with Christ. We died with Christ on the cross. We no longer live but Christ lives within us (Galatians 2). God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – dwells at the very core of our being, and He is at work inwardly transforming us to the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). That means Christ is at work both outside us and inside us, in Word and Sacrament and in our hearts. Our communion with Christ is likewise external and internal – externally through religious ritual and internally through spiritual prayer. These cannot be separated any more than one can separate heat and light in a flame. Christ within draws us to the Body of Christ, the church. The Body of Christ draws us to Christ within us.
The person who is “spiritual but not religious” desires to commune with God within to the exclusion of God outside. This isn’t safe. It is not good for us to be alone in our inner spirituality. We can easily be mislead by spirits that are not holy or by our own thoughts and feelings that feed us false narratives in the silence of our minds. Each of us needs an anchor point outside of ourselves and companions on our pilgrimage, or we will be like a boat that isn’t tied off to the dock, adrift in a turbulent sea of “spirituality.” Scuba divers never dive into the depths without a buddy. The spiritual depths are no different.
The “religious but not spiritual” are content to commune with Christ externally but ignore the Christ who dwells within them. They honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him. They handle the outside of holy things but don’t want to be made holy in themselves. This is why the Scriptures call us to “pray without ceasing” and to “pray in the Spirit” at all times (Ephesians 6:18). Communion with Christ in Word and Sacrament leads to communion with Christ in prayer. Hearing the Word and keeping it at the center of our being are one and the same work of the Spirit. One who has faith in Christ is both religious and spiritual.
We religious churchgoing people might take a cue from the “spiritual but not religious” Nones around us, even as we encourage them to join us in communion with Christ as members of the Body of Christ. They remind us that there is a deep inner life of faith in communion with Christ who dwells within us, a spiritual reality not only on Sunday morning and in the externals of our religious life, but each and every breath of our life, whether we are awake or asleep, whether at work or play or worship, in life and in death.
Pray at all times in the Spirit and do not neglect to meet together.