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Monday, May 25, 2015

Spiritual but not religious

Surveys tell us that more and more people in the U.S. describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." What does that mean?

Sociologists have observed for a long time that we are a very individualistic people. Being spiritual but not religious fits that characteristic perfectly. Being spiritual means that my story is just my own. I am not part of a larger sacred story. Being religious means that my story is part of the story of a larger community. The word "religion" comes from a Latin root meaning "tied together."

Being spiritual but not religious means that I am floating free of a story that ties me to others.

That seems fine when you are young, and when you are putting distance between yourself and the people who have "raised" you. But as we get older, I think we appreciate more the importance of being tied in to larger stories.

I join a small group of people every weekday for Mass. That ritual ties us together as a group. Most of those people are of retirement age, as I am. The ritual also ties us very much to the story of Jesus. We use bread and wine the way Jesus used it at the Last Supper, so that the bread and wine are the physical presence of the story of Jesus, just as Jesus' physical body was the presence of his story when he was among his disciples. (This is how I like to interpret the theological term "transsubstantiation.")

So the ritual of the Mass very much ties me to a whole range of stories. I know who I am, and I feel very comfortable knowing that.

As the spiritual but not religious people continue through their lives, I predict that they will begin to look for connections to some larger story that will tie them to other people and to God. I would think it would be a fearful thing to be in the presence of a living God all alone. If you think it is just fine, maybe you don't know God very well.

You will say, Jesus taught us that God is like a loving parent. But good parents set boundaries for children. A parent who sets no boundaries ends up with a child running all over the place not knowing who he or she is or what he or she might do well or do poorly. And a good parent reacts in a life-giving way when the child violates the boundaries, as we all do, as children and as adults. The most important boundary that this loving God sets for us is that we approach God with others, as people who love others and are involved with others, especially as those others are involved with God.

I like the psalms because they remind me of all the people who have made those words part of their stories relating them to that living God. They remind me that I am part of a community that contains people who have done bad things and are still doing bad things. They remind me that I can do bad things and yet I can be forgiven.

It is good to come into God's presence with others. Being religious helps me do that. Being spiritual just doesn't cut it.


I know some people who might use the language "spiritual but not religious" as a cover for their anger at God. These people live lives of real love for others, real involvement with others in ways that we religious people might envy. There is an integrity in such people. I trust very much that God will not let them get lost.

As Psalm 103 says, God knows of what we are made. God knows that sometimes people react to evil done to them in ways that appear blasphemous. I think of Job telling God that the day of his birth should be a day of mourning, that he would have been better off if he had never been born. But at the end of the book, God defends Job as having a more true idea of God than his three friends, who kept trying to wrap Job's whole situation up in a neat philosophical framework. Job's anger did not bother God.