For some time now, I’ve noted the growing distinction between being spiritual and being religious, including this recent Vox article noting that at least one in five Americans identify as “spiritual.”. Like so many things, this is framed as a binary–you are either one or the other, and increasingly the choice is “spiritual.” It is true, as the article notes, that many who identify as spiritual maintain some religious affiliation, but participate much less in the religious observances of that tradition, and do not find “religion” as meaningful in their lives.
Those who are “spiritual” describe some kind of sense of a higher power and connectedness to the world, often experiencing spiritual experience in art, nature, music, personal rituals like yoga. It’s striking to me how importance beauty is in this contemporary spirituality. It seems that for many, their experience with formal religion was one laced with ugliness–rigid uniformity of belief or practice, hypocrisy, or simply dullness.
What I find interesting in all this is that I’ve never felt I had to make a choice. I am religious in the sense of worshiping weekly with a community that I’ve been a part of for twenty-seven years. We break bread together, sing together, wrestle together in figuring out how to apply the teachings of the Bible in our daily lives, and serve together. It’s not been perfect, because none of us in this community is perfect. We’ve fought, we’ve differed, we’ve sometimes parted. But we’ve prayed for the sick and brought in meals, we’ve fed the hungry, helped needy schoolchildren with lunches during the summer and school supplies. All of this is “religious” in the sense of being “bound” (from which the word religion derives, related to the word “ligament”) to a group of people with whom I share beliefs, practices, and life, and to the God we worship together.
I’m also “spiritual” in some of the senses described in this article. I believe we encounter God in everything from the very ordinary practices of brushing our teeth and caring for our homes to creating a painting or singing “Messiah” or other transcendently beautiful pieces of music. I find wonder in the creation, whether in the coneflowers in my own garden, or the particular beauties of oceans, forests, and mountains.
At the same time, my “religion” nourishes and enriches my spirituality. As Dorothy Sayers once asserted, “the dogma is the drama.” My faith tells me that the beauty I rejoice in in the world is the artistry of a Master, and that it would be folly to worship the artistry instead of the Artist. My faith doesn’t just tell me to love people in general but binds me in a particular community, challenging me to lean into the hard work of loving real people who stubbornly remain themselves and not the people I want them to be. My faith faces me with the ugliness of my sin and all the ways I deceive myself into thinking I’m better than I am, and shows me the way to forgiveness, and what I might become through grace.
I’ve also come to appreciate the specificity of the things my faith tells me about my God who is not a vague “higher power” but a personal being. I love and care about words, and it makes eminent sense that a personal being might be able to communicate God’s self in words as well, as the source of our own communicative abilities. And with this is the capacity for real relationship, and one that, perhaps even more than in human relationships, I cannot simply conform to my wishes.
In the end, the religious ties that “bind” me actually free me to engage with a God to whom I may speak freely or be silent and who I cannot make in my image. I am freed to be in a community where I have a group of people to whom I belong. I am freed to tend and serve a world of beauty. All the beauties and transcendent experiences of life make greater sense in pointing to a reality of which our present day is but a glimmer.
So, if a pollster asks me whether I would define myself as “spiritual” or “religious” I guess I would just have to say “yes.” I’ve never felt I had to choose, and I’m not about to start.