I have, for some time, had a love/hate relationship with the word “religion.” I love what I have come to understand it truly means, and what it can refer to, but, along with others, I so often hate what the word typically conjures to mind. I have even, not all that long ago, preached and taught about the ostensibly meaningful (but, ultimately, false) distinction so many in my (GenX) and the Millenial generations make about being “spiritual… but not religious.” (You can listen to the sermon in 2 parts, here and here.)
I was first exposed to “spiritual… but not religious,” the phenomena that is now a seeming demographic inland of itself, when I read Catholic author Tom Beaudoin’s book Virtual Faith in January, 2000. So enraptured by the concept, I even bought the copy of U.S. Catholic that featured Beaudoin’s article sharing a title with and describing the then-emerging phenomena of “spiritual… but not religious.”
You can find much written about the phrase and what it means to various people of spiritual yearning. So I will simply summarize the outlook as follows:
The honest deep spiritual yearning of some for meaning, fulfillment, and even God, but who feel alienated from and averse to “religion” in so far as it is widely understood.
Those who identify themselves as “spiritual… but not religious” (I’ll use S…BNR as shorthand) perceive religion negatively, suggesting religion is the domain of out-of-touch religious institutions that are hypocritical, irrelevant to life, averse to science and/or modern though, inconsistent, and prone to power struggles (particularly struggles to create or enforce some “right” definition or doctrine).
I have returned to reflecting on the word religion most recently because of an interview that actor Daniel Radcliffe (aka. Harry Potter) gave to Parade Magazine just this month. When asked about his own faith, considering his own Catholic father and Jewish mother, Radcliffe replied with the answer:
My dad believes in God, I think. I’m not sure if my mom does. I don’t. I have a problem with religion or anything that says, “We have all the answers,” because there is no such thing as “the answers.” We’re complex. We change our minds on issues all the time. Religion leaves no room for human complexity.
I do not want to assume Radcliffe among the S…BNR, for his initial words in the above quotation actually suggest his being atheist. However, when I first read his response my immediate thought was that his definition of “religion” was, like so many others, founded on contemporary misconceptions that the Church – and I would include any denomination or “tribe” here – has helped to create! As words, “religion” and “religious” have come to inspire images associated with hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, heavy-handed indoctrination, lifeless enforcement of particular rituals, and more.
In 2000, as a second year seminarian having just read and found in Beaudoin’s the first voice I felt to be a relevant prophet for my generation, I championed the need for change to reach Xers. I was, to a degree of current shame, rebelliously adamant for change and condescendingly critical of the existing structures or practices of the Church. I loved Christ and his Church – and also the Methodist Church – too much to allow, as I perceived it, the negative and irrelevance of the faith to lose a generation.
I’ve mellowed some over the years, in no small part because the more I have learned of Church history – and particularly about the renewal movement begun by the Wesleys in their own day – and the more I have encountered ancient, but often neglected, practices of faith, the more I have become convinced that true religion is not antithetical to spiritual yearning.
I understand that the word “religion” comes with baggage for many people today, and so I respect that it may be necessary to encourage S…BNRs toward growth in faith in other ways. And yet, at the same time, a part of me desires to reclaim the word in its positive sense.
I have come to believe that true religion is spiritual yearning. Perhaps it is the growing influence of the leader and mentor of my particular tribe, John Wesley, for whom true religion was a “religion of the heart,” an inner drive and desire for God. For Wesley (as I understand him!), there would have been no distinction between “spiritual” and “religious.” True religion is the drive to know the love of God, the experience of that amazing love, and the pouring forth of God’s love for others. Although true religion influences and leads to positive works, it is not dependent on any particular work or doctrine.
Indeed, I want to suggest that religion is not about a specific set of tasks or about knowing the “right” answers, rather religion gives form to our questions and our quest. Beliefs are a part of religion, but so are attitudes and practices. And for me, these are not about providing rigid intellectual frameworks, limiting human experience, or demanding obedience to some institutional power.
Rather, the ancient practices of Christian faith – reading Scripture (eg. Lectio Divina), quiet prayer (eg. contemplative prayer), community prayer (eg. The Lord’s Prayer), fasting or abstinence, Christian conference (eg. small groups), works of mercy (e.g. serving others), and even sacraments (eg. Eucharist) – are means by which we can positively engage our deepest yearning for God. And the attitudes of faith that I most earnestly seek – those “fruits of the spirit” defined by Paul (Galatians 5:22-23) as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness/generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – encapsulate a way of life that is both response to and part of our deep “spiritual” yearning.
So, to me at least, religion is not antithetical to one’s spirituality. It is a means – even a gift – by which I can allow the spirit within me to grow after and into God. Religion gives form and awe and mystery to my growing life’s experience of the numinous, of the divine.