Do you consider yourself a religious person or a spiritual person? It was one question that came up during one of our search committee processes this summer and so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Can we be both? A recent Christianity Today article suggested that increasingly people consider themselves either religious or spiritual.
Sometimes Presbyterians, and other heirs to the so-called “frozen chosen” traditions, think of ourselves as being religious, people of the “book,” but we might be uncomfortable calling ourselves spiritual. We might view the word “spirituality” as light weight or too touchy feely for us for some reason.
Many associate spirituality with spiritual expression in worship and wonder if that is for us. Yet the North Americans among us here have a lot to learn from the rest of the world about spiritual expression. I attended a Council on Foreign Relations religion conference last month in which a representative from the Pew Center on Religion in Public Life discussed a recent study on the incredible world-wide growth of Christian denominations that emphasize spiritual worship, such as Pentecostals.
In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Christians made up 9% of the population in 1900, 22% in 1950 and now make up 57% of the overall population. And the great majority of those are in Pentecostal or so called spiritual denominations. In Brazil, over half of the Catholics describe themselves as charismatic in their worship. Those people who celebrate the fruits of the spirit now number one quarter of the world’s Christians. People for whom the Spirit is a central structure of their religion.
The spiritual gifts displayed in many “spiritual” churches often include speaking in tongues and faith healing, practices Reformed Christians don’t relate to easily. Many of us want to be private in our expression of faith. Yet there is much we in America can learn from Christians and all religious people around the world about spiritual expression.
On the other end of the spectrum are many post-modern members of our churches and culture who trust the spirit more than the structures of any religion. I helped lead worship at the Campus Ministry Association annual conference not too long ago and discovered that there is a lot of talk in campus ministry circles about how some young people distrust formal religion.
In his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg writes that he asks his Oregon State University students each year about their impressions of religion and increasingly students answer that formal religion is “literalistic, self-righteous, and judgmental.” So they don’t want to be included in such groups. They prefer private, spiritual faith.
When I was a campus minister at Georgetown and American Universities, I heard that view echoed by many students who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Some reported that “religion divides, but everyone has a private spiritual side,” and they feel spirituality unites.
And individual spirituality is very important. Think about how the Holy Spirit came to humanity in our tradition. The Book of Genesis tells us that when God created humanity, God breathed God’s spirit into each individual. The spirit of God is deeply personal. It is at our core. Your private spirituality is important. We affirm that that Spirit is present for the individual at the moment of their baptism.
And so spirituality works, not because it gets us out of the rules of our religion, but because it connects us to the heart of our Christian religion.
Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, for Christ Himself provides a model for us. Our religion offers that the structures and morals of our faith exist not so that we can say we are decent, in order, and following an order, but so we are clear on who it is we are following. Jesus’ followers were called disciples because they practiced disciplines and repeated practices to become more like Christ. Being spiritual without a purpose or core behind it can leave us empty.
Many young people, indeed perhaps in your family, describe their spirituality as individual “faith without the requirements that they see coming from religion.” This view is echoed by some modern theologians.
Dr. Sarah Drummond of Andover Newton Seminary describes the difference between religion and spirituality by saying that “Religion consists of the rules, the habits by which we organize ourselves and to which we adhere. It’s the mind. Spirituality is about soul and heart, a connection to God without the rules and habits.” Again, about a private expression. And it makes it sound appealing doesn’t it?
Is American culture trending towards private spirituality as distinct from religion? Newsweek magazine published a special issue on faith a few years ago and entitled it “Spirituality in America” instead of “Religion in America.”
I see that some popular bookstores in D.C. have replaced their religion section with spirituality sections. One of the books people are reading in recent years is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Among other things, Dawkins posits that the rise of fundamentalism in many religious traditions has caused some Americans to reject traditional church membership. Yet many say they remain personally “spiritual.”
There are times for each of us when these doctrines and structures of our religion are not to our liking. No set of policies will please everyone. But one downside of being so private in our spirituality or religious faith and not being willing to express our faith is that we miss the benefits of community. In spiritual practice we follow the habits of our tradition rather than each making up our own new traditions because they connect us to each other and help us learn from those who came before us in the faith community.
We express our spirituality as religion when we join a group of faithful people united around a common set of beliefs, and this helps us develop our spiritual expression and our convictions. The collective sense of faith matters because there is support in the group.
I talked with several people recently who haven’t been to church for awhile because they have taken time to deal with their own inner lives first and said they would return to the church when their lives turned around. I told them this is precisely the moment when church could help the most. Everyone in this religious community is full of his or her own issues. We all have our own combination of challenges and joys. We are not a country club. We are a community of faith that cares for each other.
That is the value of our being together. Spirituality as some define it may have some benefits without the rules. But one of the rules is you care for one another in times of need. And that can be awfully nice when you need care. So one might not like all the rules that go along with being religious. But along with the rules comes the community that will support you.
Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about a key purpose of the work of the spirit – to search everything, even the depths of God, and then to connect God with the thoughts and expressions of humanity. Paul believed that religion and spirituality must be linked. He wanted to strengthen local communities of faith because he knew that Jesus had called the church into being as a community. The Sabbath was given, in part, for collective worship.
When we try to be doctrinal and legalistic in our own religion without growing with a community or without expressing our spirituality in worship, we miss out on the grace and passion that comes from spirituality. When we try to be spiritual on our own without being in dialogue with the wisdom of a broader community we find ourselves separate from the roots of our tradition. Those who seek to develop morals without spirit and those who seek their own spirituality without collective connection do so at their peril.
Religion and spirituality can be personal, but should not stay private.
If you recall, the whole point of Pentecost is that God’s spirit was poured out upon the church as a corporate community, upon all the people, the collective group that would set the norms and traditions of what would become the church.
Genuine Reformed spirituality is not individualistic. It is not self-centered, but God centered and Christ centered.[i] It comes from not looking inside but outside. When we analyze on our own our own internal senses, how do we tell the difference between our own spirit, with all our ambitions, longings and agendas, and God’s Spirit?[ii]
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God.”
Theologian Shirley Guthrie wrote that if “we want to recognize and experience the presence of God’s life-renewing Spirit in us, we must be willing first to look away from ourselves, outside ourselves and beyond our personal experience.[iii] We need to look at our story and spirit in light of God’s story, Israel’s story, the first Christian community’s story.[iv]
To learn what it could mean to be a truly spiritual person, we must look at the life of Jesus Christ and the kind of person he was.[v] We need to do as John Calvin said and “get out of ourselves.”[vi] We do well to look “at the Spirit of the God of the Bible who comes first to us and not from us.”[vii]
Then we come together with fellow Christians in the church who gather week after week to understand their individual spiritual lives in the light of the story of God’s Spirit which has been at work long before we came along and will still be at work in the world long after we are gone.[viii]
Dorothy Bass wrote in her book Practicing Our Faith, that the Christian life is both a set of beliefs and a series of breathes; our inhaling the spirit. It’s both religious and spiritual. Our spiritual and religious sides are two integral sides of the same coin. We should not be afraid of either.
Pastor Juli is one disciple who has developed a strong sense of being both spiritual and religious. Blessed with a deep personal faith and commitment and the wisdom that comes from religious practice, but also with a deeply spiritual side, as we see each week in her prayers, in her sharing of scripture and in her pastoral care. Juli, I know your spiritual and religious gifts will continue to serve you well as you serve our Lord. My wish for you is that both gifts are as appreciated by whatever congregation comes next for you as they have been here.
When our religious faith and our spirituality come together, when we cultivate the humility and patience of a spiritual faith grounded in conviction, the result can be extraordinary expression.
Regardless of how we define ourselves, there is commonality between those who feel more comfortable describing their faith as spirituality and those who describe themselves as religious. We all want the passion that comes from doing things not because we are required to but because we are inspired to and that connect with us God and each other.
I hope at your core each of you are both spiritual and religious. Personally filled and moved by the spirit and willing to share your religious convictions in shaping your community of faith here at Bradley Hills.
You might be here today because you recognize some spiritual gift of faith in your life. You might also become a member of this church someday because you feel its religious structure can help you grow closer to God. Recognize that you have been given a gift of the spirit by God. What are you going to do with your gift? If we rest in our knowledge of the book, we may never find that we have been inspired with God’s spirit. If we rest in relying on ourselves we might find that our spirituality never leads us any closer to finding the God we are looking for.
It is my wish for all of us that we might feel the presence of God’s spirit with us today and always. It is my thought that we work to be both spiritual and religious. It is my hope that we might grow comfortable expressing our spiritual life and comfortable with the values of our collective faith.
It is my prayer that we recognize the spirit God has breathed into us, and that we might aspire to use that gift to strengthen our community and God’s world. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Shirley C. Guthrie. Christian Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1994. P. 298-299.
[vi] Ibid. Calvin. Institutes. 3.7.1-5.