From Fr. Longnecker:
Why does this “spiritual but not religious” lie get me so wound up? I think it is because there are so many levels of the lie packed into one little cliche.
The first lie is the idea that somebody can be “spiritual but not religious” at all. How does one go about being “spiritual”? The only way I can imagine is that you give yourself warm feelings about sunsets and puppies and little children and Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulder. How does one become spiritual? By sitting still and thinking nice thoughts? Do you become spiritual by eating granola and riding your bike to work and re-cycling and all that nice stuff? Do you read books about spiritual things? What sort of books would these be? Self help books to help you unleash the giant within? No matter how you frame it, being spiritual without being religious can only ever be some sort of self hypnotic, self induced, wishful thinking mind game.
Hold on, maybe being spiritual without being religious means you dabble in lots of different religions in which case you are being religious, you’re just not committed to one religion. You’re sort of playing the field. To continue the love analogy, you’re being at best a flirt and at worst promiscuous–you have y’know–commitment problems. Maybe being spiritual without being religious means you really think that all religions are different paths up the same mountain and all religions are equal. In which case you haven’t really studied religions at all because even one quick read through a comparative religions textbook will teach you that the different religions are very different indeed and that they are not by any stretch equal in quality. If they are all paths up the same mountain–some paths are better than others–and anyway–if you want to climb the mountain you should find one path and stick to it shouldn’t you? And if you don’t aren’t you just sort of having a nice stroll in the foothills?
Just exactly what does one do to “be spiritual”? I think maybe it means that you imagine that you are spiritual and you fancy that you have an open heart and an open mind and you are most of all tolerant of all other people in a sort of flowing wave of feeling rather positive about all things. The only other way I can think of being “spiritual” is by being involved in New Age sort of stuff–mild sorts of fortune telling and reading the stars or tea leaves or palms or perhaps handwriting analysis. I suppose you could be spiritual by going on a retreat to a health farm and having a massage and walking through a labyrinth or maybe you could be spiritual by using a ouija board or having a seance or you could channel astral beings or visit a sacred site like Stonehenge and do dousing or smudging or perhaps have a meaningful tattoo or pierce an unusual part of your body. If you do all these things then you are also being religious–for these are all religious activities. It’s just that the religion you follow is one you made up and put together yourself.
The second lie locked in this cliche is the implication that all religions are man made constructions. This has filtered down to the general population from a kind of generic Protestantism in our country. Protestantism teaches that all denominations are man made and provisional. You shop around and simply choose the church you like best. What the “all churches are man made and provisional” folks don’t see coming is the logical conclusion that if all churches are man made and provisional then why bother with church at all? If they’re man made, why shouldn’t I make my own and be spiritual but not religious?
This second lie, like most lies, is actually a half truth. The truth of the matter is that there are man made elements in all religions. There are rules and regulations, devotions and disciplines that are put in place and which develop as traditions over the years which are devised and set up by religious leaders. However, the leaders of all religions have the common sense and wisdom to understand that the elements of their religion which are man made are indeed provisional and can be dispensed with. They also claim that other part of their religion are not man made–they are revealed by God and are not provisional. The way to test if a religion is authentic or not is to ask whether they are able to make these distinctions. If a religious leader teaches that everything in the religion–every discipline, every tradition, every single word of their Scriptures, every prayer practice, every dress code and moral regulation is absolutely divinely inspired, then steer clear, but if the religion (like Catholicism) can tell you clearly which elements are non negotiable and which elements are man made and therefore dispensable, then you’ve got a religion which is more highly developed and more likely to be authentic.
The third lie associated with this cliche is the implication that all religious leaders are dumb, power hungry and only interested in keeping the masses under their control. Of course there are some religious leaders like that, but let the buyer beware. Any religious leader who is authentic is not in the power game, and is there to serve his people. Furthermore, there are far more of the latter than the former. Along with this third lie–that all religious leaders are dumb mutts who only want to make people pray, pay and obey–is the accompanying implication that the person who is “spiritual but not religious” is somehow superior to all those other poor sheep who keep on going to church each week to sit in the pews and drink the Kool-Aid–and this from people who say religious people are self righteous! This arrogance and elitism is so sophomoric its frightening.
Along with this arrogance is a touching level of do-it-yourself amateurism. Individualistic “all that matters is how much you love Jesus” religion in America has fed this fad. In every other area of life people consider it sensible to contact an expert. You want an education you go to college. You need help with the law you call a lawyer. You get sick you call a doctor. You want tax advice you call an accountant. You want to build a house you call an architect. You want eternal life, salvation for your soul…you do it yourself. Never mind that there are spiritual directors, 2000 years worth of human experience, theological masters, libraries full of wisdom and a whole, coherent and intelligible framework for you to make progress. Just go ahead, do it yourself.
My final frustration is the seemingly complete ignorance amongst the cliche crowd about what religion is for in the first place. Some people may use religion as a security blanket–no doubt many do. Some may hide from life within a safe set of rules and regulations. Some may think by doing all their religious duties they are working their way to heaven. Some may use religion to control people and dominate them. They have got it wrong–as wrong as their opposite numbers–the folks who throw out religion altogether so they can be spiritual.
The problem is the “either/or” mentality. In fact the question is not whether you should be religious or spiritual. You should be both. The truly religious person is on a spiritual quest.
Finding God, finding faith, finding eternal life is a great adventure. It is a life long journey. Religion is the map for the journey. Religion is the ladder by which we climb, but it is not the climbing. Religion provides the rules for the game, but it is not the playing. Religion is the recipe book, but it is not the cooking and it is not the feasting. Religion is the music printed on the page, but not the music in the fingers, the ears and the heart. Religion is the trellis, not the vine.
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