I’m Religious, Not Spiritual

It has been popular within American religious circles in the past couple of decades (since, say, the Jesus Movement) to deny being religious but to affirm being spiritual. If one is religious one is “going through the motions,” is concerned with form over substance, isn’t really a Christian. If one is spiritual one has a “personal relationship” with Jesus, can worship in the forest as easily as in a church building, is a real Christian. Yes, religion has taken a beating. No one wants to own up to being religious. Best to be spiritual. The problem is this is a false dichotomy.

First, let’s rescue the word “religion” from the dunghill to which it’s been cast (and with it, the companion word “piety”). If you have a belief in a deity, you have a religion. That deity may be the U. S. Dollar, but it is still a religion. A religion is the body of worldviews, cultural systems, beliefs and practices which grow out from a central belief. “Dollar-ism” believes that “money makes the world go ’round,” that if you have a lot of money you have security, and it’s annual ritual of winter bacchanalia (i.e., “the holiday shopping season”) is a cultural force to be reckoned with that completely dominates and orients the lives, schedules and finances of individuals, homes, and this nation. What’s in your wallet?

Secondly, the word “spiritual” is so amorphous as to be unhelpful. Mass murderers, the Dalai Lama, the Pope and one’s newest boyfriend have all been described as “spiritual.” But the real problem is that “spiritual” is opposed here to “religious.” This is a false dichotomy. Here’s why.

In either it’s pejorative or more neutral definitions, “religion” is about what one does with one’s body. One goes to church. One kneels in prayer. One crosses oneself. One sings, raises one’s hands, prays aloud, and so forth. Being “spiritual” amounts, it seems, to inward emotional states, interior prayer, thoughts. Being “spiritual” means one may be the proverbial “brain in a vat,” just sitting there emoting, thinking, praying silently. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as though feeling, thinking, and praying silently are somehow inherently wrong or of lesser quality. It is said of Mary that she “pondered these things in her heart.” If the example of the Mother of God is any indication, these are important.

However, even a brain in a vat is a body, of sorts, and cannot do it’s thinking (if one accepts that all thought occurs in the brain) without the physicality of a brain. One of my fellow parishioners quips, “I’m not spiritual, I’m highly corporeal.” Similarly, we cannot “be spiritual” without a body. And our bodies are among the most important tools we possess if we are truly to “be spiritual.”

What I mean is this: God did not save us on the basis of his inward disposition toward us. “I love you. I feel great about you. Therefore I forgive you.” (Similarly, God does not damn us based on some other inward disposition toward us. “I damn you to hell, object of my wrath!”) Rather God saves us on the basis of this fact: he took on our flesh, he took on a human body, and became man. Jesus was not some spirit who appeared to be an embodied human being. Jesus was fully enfleshed.

Furthermore, and this is incredibly important: when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not cease having a body. Luke is emphatic on this point: he asked for something to eat to prove that he had flesh and bones like us and was not merely some phantom. Nor did Jesus divest himself of a body when he ascended into heaven. Quite literally a man sits on God’s throne, at the right hand of the Father: the man, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God.

Thus, if we will be like Jesus, we must fully inhabit our bodies and not descend to some Gnostic pretense that we are above our bodies, fallen though they are. Our bodies are not–as is too often and too regrettably preached at Christian funerals–mere containers housing our spirits, which are “set free” at our death to be with God. No, we are our bodies, our bodies house the Holy Spirit and are therefore themselves holy. This is why Christians do not cremate their dead: they do not desecrate the temple of the Holy Spirit, the temples made without hands.

All of this belaboring of the point to get to this: we cannot “be spiritual” apart from our bodies. Therefore we need religion to be spiritual. Because our bodies and our souls (or spirits if you will, I’m trying not to be too technical here) are so intertwined that even on our death the separation of the two is only temporary but they will be reunited at the resurrection. We will most emphatically not be angels on clouds strumming harps, but will instead, like our Lord Jesus, inhabit the same bodies in which we lived in this mortal life, but now transfigured, and, in our cases, cured of the stain of sin and death forever.

Religion, among other things, gives us things to do with our bodies. We kneel, we bow, we lift our hands, we bow our heads, we sing, we pray aloud, we hear, we see, we smell the incense, we taste the Body and Blood of the Lord. What we do with our bodies affects our souls, our hearts, our spirits. St Paul writes to the Corinthians about bearing the death of Jesus in the body, that we might also bear the life of Jesus in the body. We are saved in our bodies. Not apart from them.

Furthermore, the ritual and repetition of religion brings home to us the grace of God in ways that merely “thinking about” something does not. One who has made dozens of bows or prostrations during the Great Canon of St Andrew can attest to the difference. That is to say, the emphasis of “spiritual” religionists on authenticity via inwardness (emotions, interior prayer, thoughts and beliefs) misses the point of religion, which is to habituate through nature and grace the purity of heart that wills one thing. “Spirituality” is too concerned with having content in one’s self. Worship must produce feelings, prayers and thoughts. The problem with “spirituality,” aside from its disincarnate heretical tendencies, is that it is not empty enough.

Religion is only empty if one does not stand ready to receive the energies of God. But if one stands so ready, then religion can do what “spirituality” cannot: it makes grooves in the soul from which spring rivers of life.

4 thoughts on “I’m Religious, Not Spiritual

  1. Excellent point. Though given that many only know “Religion” offered by those who don’t stand so ready I still have much sympathy for many of the “Spiritual but not Religious” but offer them my own experience of the embodied spirituality of religion, without condemning their rejection of empty religion.

    To be clear I like this post because in this post you are doing the same, without condemnation.

  2. Good words as usual. I also want to commend you on taking your time and not bowing to the urge to post something more often than you are able. Producing well-formed thoughts of this quality is an art. It is possible that you may one day turn them out faster, but that of course is totally beside the point.

    Thanks again.

  3. This journey we are on doesn’t have to either/or, does it? Can’t I be both religious and spiritual? Or spiritual and religious? My experience has been that I was ‘religious’ (attempting to reach God by my own efforts), then I discovered God’s Spirit, willing to comfort, console, correct, encourage, empower, lead, guide…. and with that spiritual experience the previous religious acts began to have meaning because the were filled with the energies of God. I am both religious and spiritual, acknowledging God’s grace that reconciles me to God. Thank you for your post. Well thought through.

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