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Is it all right to be spiritual without being religious?

When Jesus was speaking to the woman at the well, she said to him, "I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." This woman was focused on religious tradition and practice. Jesus answered her, "…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him." (John 4: 19-20, 23-24 NRSV)

Jesus' response is astonishing because he, a religious Jewish man, seems to put the emphasis on what is spiritual rather than what is religious. He indicates that the deeper reality of religion is spirituality. To understand this in another way, it might be helpful to consider the meaning of the two words religion and spiritual. The word religion in Latin actually refers to piety and the word spiritual comes from the French word esprit and refers to the breath or breathing. You are, first and foremost, spiritual. Becoming religious—practicing pietyis a result of being spiritual. Your breath (your spiritual nature) is given to you by the Creator. You cannot make yourself breathe, nor can you will your breathing to cease. You are intimately connected to the One who gave you the breath and every time you inhale and exhale, your spirit longs for a deeper relationship with that One who is beyond your wildest imaginings.

When you think of being spiritual rather than religious, you are probably feeling that you don't want to simply practice a piety that is antiquated, or that causes you to feel guilty for what you have and have not done in your life. But, when you feel spiritual, you will naturally be led to embrace a practice of piety. Religious piety does not have to be a straightjacket. There is an immense amount of freedom in how you give voice and substance to the spiritual longing you feel within. Perhaps your piety will involve simple silence and centering. Perhaps it will be lived out in the way that you show care and compassion to others. Perhaps you will articulate it through the way that you pray and surrender yourself to the God who loves you with infinite constancy. Perhaps you will manifest it through embracing such virtues as patience, kindness, truthfulness, or unconditional love. Being religious doesn't mean simply surrendering yourself to a church institution. Rather, being religious is choosing to live a life that honors and claims the relationship with God that your soul so deeply craves. And, you may find that sharing the journey with others in a church community will help you live that life with authenticity and joy.

So, if you are feeling spiritual, but are a bit afraid of becoming religious, you might take a few moments to do the following exercise.

1. Sit quietly for a few moments, letting go of all the burdens and anxieties that are so much a part of life. Bring your attention to your heart and to your breath.

2. Let your heart speak to God about your longing for relationship. You don't need special words or prayers. Just tell God what you are feeling.

3. Take out a piece of paper and write out ten ways that you could be more religious without stopping being spiritual. Feel free to think outside the box!

4. Re-read your list, and visualize reading it to God.

5. Spend a few moments in silence to see what God wants to say to you. God may speak audibly, or you may have a fresh idea or insight, or a new sense of peace.

6. Choose one or two things that you will begin to work on, and offer your intentions to God.

7. Thank God for the time that you have spent together.

--The Rev. Canon Renée Miller

This is a tricky question, because it really depends on what is meant by all right, by spiritual, and by religious. Let's start with what it means to be spiritual. The derivation of the word spirit comes from the Hebrew and Greek words for breath, air, and wind and their uses. In various biblical passages, God breathes life into humankind, sustains our breath throughout life, revives us when faint or short of breath, and gives us a second wind when we need it, until our dying, when we breathe our last. That's the basic meaning. Then there's Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones, when God infuses new life into the skeletal remains of a former people, dramatically demonstrating God's power to recreate life from death and decay in a real, live old testament resurrection story. In the biblical sense, all living creatures are spiritual by virtue of being given breath in the first place.

There's a derivative meaning, illustrated in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Jesus is talking about being born again, of spirit from above, and Nicodemus is missing the point. In this sense, the word is used to refer to our awareness of the spiritual dimension of life, our alertness to the holiness in and around us, our capacity to sense the intangible realities of which the bible speaks. This awareness is focused in Jesus' invitation to Nicodemus to enter a new kind of life, characterized by a lively attention to grace through faith (or trust). In this sense of the word, we are all spiritual in differing ways and to differing degrees at various times, as we are more or less aware of the invisible, inaudible, impalpable sacredness of all things. This question seems to be using the word spiritual in this sense, referring to a conscious relationship with all that is holy.

Given this definition, it's obvious that there are a lot of folks out there who are spiritual and yet not religious. But what does it mean to be religious? The word comes from a Latin word meaning to bind. So religion is being bound by or binding ourselves to the priority of the spiritual in certain and various ways. When most people use the word, however, they are speaking of organized or institutional religion, as they say, meaning groups who have incorporated themselves into a recognizable not-for-profit entity under the laws of this country. Those who refer to religion in this way often condemn it for its self-interest. Such criticism is justifiable and even traditional, having been made repeatedly within scripture itself, the very scriptures held in such high regard by at least three major world religions.

It's worth noting that the criticism, while justifiable and traditional, is criticism of the distortion and perversion of true religion, which is elsewhere in scripture defined as the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart. Here's a tricky trap in the question. Whether we're standing inside or out of organized religion, if we're criticizing the other stance without applying the same standards to our own, we're not practicing true religion, defined as humility before God and recognition of our common humanity. That is the summary contained in the great commandment with its corollary—loving God with all we've got and neighbor as much as self.

It's the common humanity part that's the underlying issue of the question. As much as we might wish to, we can't escape being social creatures, only capable of differentiation within society itself. That's who we are, where we run into problems, and where we will resolve them too. Being aware of the spiritual dimension in life means sensing the sacred not only within ourselves but also among us. We can't be healed, made more whole, in a vacuum. The reason religion happens is because we need to work things out together, puzzle them out together, try them out on each other, mess up and labor to do better next time. If we aren't making mistakes, we aren't learning much. The bible calls mistakes sin and learning repentance.

Oftentimes religion is accused of hypocrisy because of the discrepancy between its spiritual vision and its own attempt to live up to it. Yet it's pretty easy to tell when religious groups acknowledge their shortcomings and care for one another and the world even as they struggle to become more true to the vision over time. It's a snail's pace because it involves so many talking at once and tripping over each other. Even so, when folk forbear one another and persevere in faith together, they get somewhere you just can't reach any other way. That's the point, where we might get if we were all on board.

So it's not altogether all right to be spiritual without being religious.It's only partly right for some, some of the time, but it can't be most right in the end, over time. In the end, we can't solve our own problems, in and of themselves, without coming to the awareness that our problems are the world's problems. We're all in this together, for better and for worse. There's really no way to secede from the human race. Certainly, we don't need to submit to someone else's view of religion, but we can't avoid the general conversation, and sooner or later we will need to make some effort on behalf of the whole, the holy. We can't do it all. Neither can we remain on the sidelines. We can only do our part.

We are all spiritual participants. When someone says to me that they have no part in religion, they typically proceed to tell me how they are organizing their relationship with the sacred, complete with ritual practices and devotional exercises meaningful to them, often with other companions so inclined. And I wonder if it will be only a matter of time before they are codifying and anathematizing and generally misbehaving spiritually along with the rest of us. Also, they typically proceed to tell me how and with whom they are still arguing with whatever form of religion has previously been crammed down their throat in an unhelpful manner. It is apparent that they are attempting to reinvent the wheel.

A religion of one will not restore spiritual community, even though it might be the right place to hang out for a time, to cool off, to reconsider and redirect. Even those who have never affiliated, never had any family background of affiliation, even those cannot escape their engagement with the prevailing cultural stereotype of religion and the impact of religious extremism around the world. Being standoffish implies from whom. It can't be about God and me, only me and the Holy. However frustrating, it's about all of us and our broken community. True religion, while differentiating us, will also bind us together, in service to the holy and for the sake of the world. The religions we have, while imperfect, are the most time tested we have. We might as well see if we can use them for good, for God's sake.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine M. Lehman



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