An increasing number of Americans define themselves as spiritual but not religious. Spirituality is a turn-on. Religion a turn-off.
Spiritual-but-not-religious Americans check “none of the above” when answering religious-identification polls. Labeled “Nones,” they have nothing to do with organized religion. These Americans include 20 percent of the general population, with nearly a third of young adults designating themselves “Nones.”
Spiritual trend-watcher Diana Butler Bass plays a word association game in her seminars. She draws two columns; one headed “Spirituality,” the other “Religion.” Spirituality calls forth: experience, connection, intuition and prayer. Pitted against these admired qualities, the “Religion” column offers: institution, organization, dogma and authority (“Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Experience,” p. 69, 2012).
“Spiritual has, in some sense, come to mean ‘my own personal religion with my own individual creed,’” observes Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist seminary professor, in Louisville Courier-Journal interview.
Thomas Jefferson partially identifies with those who see themselves spiritual but not religious. The third president distrusted institutionalized religion. He believed religious leaders easily corrupted the faith Jesus lived.
Toward the end of this life, a rumor grew that Jefferson converted to orthodox Christianity, which espoused trust in a triune God and regarded Jesus as divine. Jefferson renounced this rumor. He lumped it together with other insults such as “atheist, deist or devil,” which Presbyterians hurled at him. He detested duplicitous clergy who claimed him a convert.
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” announced Jefferson.
Much current spirituality is inward directed, a kind of sentimental navel-gazing in which practitioners cut themselves off from social, ethical challenges. Jefferson parts with contemporary spirituality because his devotion to God thrust him back into the world to work for the common good. He wrote to a Massachusetts shipmaster about how other religions might benefit from Jesus’ spirituality. Greek and Roman moral philosophers were overly introspective, divorced from the world, Jefferson argued. They dealt too much with “the government of our passions … and the procuring our own tranquility. On our duties to others they were short and deficient.”
In contrast, Jesus embraced “with charity and philanthropy, our neighbors, our countrymen, and the whole family of mankind.” Rather than offering a retreat from the world, Jesus’ spirituality pushes the world’s challenges before his followers.
Rabbi David Wolpe exposes the weakness of much spirituality. He endorses belonging to a religion that obligates practitioners to press for social justice. “Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations. ... The largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group” (Time.com March 21, 2013).
Ask 20 people what “spirituality” means and get a score of different responses.
In the Judea-Christian tradition, spirituality arises from practices that inspire us to live — to live boldly, to live passionately, to live nobly and to live with a sense that life is bigger than what our individual expression of it contains.
Authentic spirituality offers a lifeline to God. Though not easily defined, it leaves evident marks. One dominant mark of biblical spirituality is that believers aren’t loners. They don’t separate from others to get a spiritual kick. The Apostle Paul uses the analogy of the body made up of several members. An ear doesn’t slice itself from a head in order to thrive. It stays connected. “There are many parts,” Paul declares, “yet one body” (I Corinthians 12:20).
Within a faith community, genuine spirituality connects with divine power to see life through. It infuses us with a God-driven purpose to pursue as we renew life outside ourselves.
The word “religion” is derived from the Latin religare (re: “back,” and “ligare: “to bind”). Being religious doesn’t mean bound by churchy rules that stifle spirituality. Rather, we are knit in heart, soul and mind with others to do our best in a world not often at its best. Our spirit merges into God’s spirit. Then life’s enhanced, problems solved, creation renewed and dignity restored.
Spirituality gives power and purpose to life, whether you identity yourself spiritual, religious or neither.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens heads the nonprofit Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com).