Here, from Eric Hyde, is a terrifically spot-on and appropriately snarky reflection on that most empty of cliches ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’
I wish I had a back massage for every time I’ve heard this line. What gets me most is the presupposition it stems from, that “spiritual” is the assumed equivalent of “good” and “religious” is the assumed equivalent of “evil.” Who made up this language game?
Honestly, who decided that “spiritual” was a term that would be used to contradict religion and as evidence of personal enlightenment, without further ado. And does anyone using the phrase ever stop to think what they actually mean by it? I think what is usually meant is that religion is man-made tradition whereas spiritual is a phenomenon that happens on a personal level, free from all “man-madeness” and tradition, and thus… true?
My experience has been exactly opposite. I spent the first 20 years of my journey in Christianity believing that I was spiritual and not religious and have come to realize I had been imposing a false dichotomy on my faith. The main reason I pitted spirituality against religion was because of a profound ignorance of historic Christianity. I say “profound” because I spent nearly 10 of those 20 years in formal training in Biblical and theological studies. Somehow in that time period I was never made aware of the real story of Christianity. That’s like studying capitalism and never running across Adam Smith. I just assumed that my little universe of self-taught Evangelicalism was true and anything falling outside of its parameters was just religious, i.e. cold, calculated ritual void of any emotional or heartfelt concern for relationship with God. But what I encountered with the historic Church was a religion that was far more advanced spiritually than I ever dreamed of being as a Christian solo artist.
I don’t like the broad and confused stroke with which this phrase paints religion. Religion need not have anything to do with cold, calculated ritual. Indeed, it can become that, but spirituality can just as easily morph into flighty emotionalism with no core. If one is taking Scripture as their guide, religion can either be pure or false. “Pure religion,” writes St. James, is to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).” And tradition can either be tradition of men or Apostolic Tradition. The New Testament is replete with admonition to cling to the Apostolic Tradition.
I have found the phrase, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and its redheaded stepchild, “I follow Jesus, not tradition,” to be manifestations of spiritual pride, not spiritual enlightenment. These phrases are almost always accompanied by a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of “personal revelation.” It is a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual “popes” abound, but the Church is nonexistent; it’s essentially a personal religious-potpourri not unlike New Age adherence, with slightly different language.
To claim to be spiritual and not religious is like claiming to have taken a swim without getting wet. Anyone who embarks on anything spiritual will either receive the religious tradition from which it comes, or create their own religious tradition in the attempt to understand and practice it. The next time you hear the phrase, or, God forbid, say the phrase, remember that it has no meaning whatsoever. It is perhaps one of the emptiest phrases ever developed in the English language.