The Challenge of ‘Spiritual, but Not Religious’

“When people say (as they do, it seems, with increasing frequency) that they are more interested in ‘spirituality’ than in ‘religion,’ they usually seem to mean that they prefer the balm of private fantasy, the aromatherapy of uplifting individual sentiment, to the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world.”  — Nicholas Lash.

Most “spiritual but not religious” people I know would never say, “I prefer private fantasy and uplifting individual sentiment to the hard work of healing the world.”  There are probably some, but they would probably not make very good friends, if a friend is someone who goes outside her own fantasy and sentiment in order to know, support, wonder, and grow with another objectively real, free person.

In fact, many of the people I know who are deeply thoughtful but alienated from institutional religion are wonderful friends who are also engaged in real efforts for justice and peace.  These efforts are a true gift to the world.

Yet we have to be honest that there is a real temptation in our world to stay “independent” rather than make commitments, to minimize cost to ourselves rather than give freely, and to stay comfortable rather than open up to transformation.  This temptation affects all of us, and it lurks behind “cafeteria Christianity” even while there are legitimate reasons to feel frustrated by, and alienated from, organized religion.  We must also be honest that on our own, what human beings can imagine for ourselves and our world, and what we can do, is limited in a real way to what we have already seen – in the past, and in the present. What can expand our imagination the rest of the way?  What would truly fulfill us, and is it possible?

When we believe and live according to the promise of Christ, with other people, we are no longer limited by our personal faults and the faults of our communities become potential signs of redemption.  They become those real problems that are still smaller than Christ’s love, those real problems despite which we are still beloved, and despite which we try to live with one another in Christ’s love, in such a way that transforms the world in love.  Our struggle to transcend ourselves in love is a struggle that takes place with and for other people.

Other people, the people of the Church and especially the saints, expand our opportunity to love and our ability to hope for something-in-particular, for a particular kind of transformation.  But ultimately, it is Jesus Christ who reveals the whole truth about who we are and who we can be — servants of one another, beloved children of God, people who break the Bread of Life together, people who take up our crosses (including the cross of dealing with other people’s sin and our own sin) and follow him even to death because love is stronger than death.  We know that is who we are because we know that is who Jesus is, and we know him not in the abstract but very personally when we receive his love, forgiveness, healing, and joy in the sacramental life of the Church and in the life we share as a community of love and service.

Furthermore, we get to know Jesus in a very particular, personal way when we share in his committed love for the particular people who make up his Church.  This is the Church whom he brought together to belong to him in love.  He does not divorce himself from his Spouse, but instead remains with all of his brothers and sisters in spite of everything, living with us and belonging to us, even when he is left broken, alone, frustrated, and thirsty because we do not love him as he loves us.  We are called to love the People of God like this, to love the ones whom our Savior loves.

In the New Evangelization, it is our task to communicate that the life of the Church – that is, as a particular form of religion – is Good News.  Our task is to communicate that the Good News that constitutes the Church is fulfilling, challenging, and salvific news for each and every person in a way that “spirituality” alone cannot be.Top of FormBottom of Form