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Are you spiritual or religious?

Eugene Scott

In “Monster-in-Law,” Jane Fonda plays the monster and Jennifer Lopez portrays the future daughter-in-law. Fonda’s character hates J-Lo’s character and tries to run her off by commandeering the wedding. Fonda tells Lopez she has already booked a cathedral for the wedding. J-Lo gapes at Fonda’s audacity but counters with, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” It’s a throwaway line in a pretty bad movie. But I’ve heard that phrase often lately. Working with couples before their marriages many of them tell me they are spiritual but not religious. So, having nothing better to do during the rest of “Monster-in-Law,” I pondered that phrase and wondered how religion differs from spirituality. The two words were at one time considered synonyms.They are different. Religion is institutionalized spirituality. In his book “Spiritual, But Not Religious,” Robert C. Fuller, Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University, says that among people he studied “religiousness … was associated with church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs.” Buildings, rules and anceint rituals. That’s not all bad. All human endeavors eventually form themselves into some kind of structured organization. Where would baseball be without its intricate rules and traditions? The negative aspect of religion looms when the religious institution, formed to foster relationships with God, tries to capture God in that institution and then subtly becomes more concerned with protecting itself rather than promoting the spirituality it lays claim to.This need to capture God in a structure is not new. Jesus combated it, even among his friends. Jesus takes Peter, James and John high on a mountain. On top Elijah and Moses appear and chat with Jesus. For Jesus’ friends this is a profound, mysterious spiritual experience. Peter instantly wants to institutionalize it. “Lord, if you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Jesus wished not.People who call themselves spiritual but not religious, however, object to organized religion because they, according to Fuller, ” … perceived church leaders as more concerned with building an organization than promoting spirituality.” Unfortunately their perception is at least partially true. As a pastor I’ve done it (forgive me!) and I’ve watched others do it as well.Further spiritual but not religious people practice unorthodox beliefs, are open to mystery and often have “negative feelings toward both clergy and churches.” God need not fit in a box. Spirituality, like religiosity, has pluses and minuses. The freedom in spirituality to let God be God – out of the box and fearfully face to face with us mere humans – is a plus. Negatively spirituality can degenerate into a version of cartoonist Bill Waterson’s “Calvin-ball,” where the fun games Calvin and Hobbes play end in chaos because they make up the rules as they go along. Jesus countered this mindset as well saying he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.People who are religious and people who are spiritual, however, do stand on common ground. Both pursue a relationship with a Higher Power. Both practice rituals and behaviors that may connect them with that Higher Power. Baseball may be a good metaphor to point out how they connect and diverge. Many professional ball players lose their love for the game when confronted with an institution seemingly more concerned with contracts and commercials and continuing the organization than promoting the sandlot game Abner Doubleday invented. They long for the days of rounding second (a bald car tire) as the ball bounces off a rusted Ford in right field. To them, the purity, simplicity, reality and fun of the game is all that matters. But in this romantic reverie they forget the kid from the other team screaming about the runner not touching second base and the whole game degenerating into a “did too, did not” argument.In reality religious people are often spiritual and spiritual people often practice religion. The key is the pursuit of God. Jesus said true worship is done in spirit and truth, always holding life in tension between two seemingly opposed views. Would you label yourself spiritual or religious? I lean toward the spiritual label especially as the leader of a religious institution. I don’t know how often I succeed.Eugene C. Scott is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church. Their services meet on Sundays at 8a.m. in the Beaver Creek Chapel and 11 a.m. in the Vail Interfaith Chapel. You can reach him at Eugene@connectcpc.com or 477-0383.Vail, Colorado


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