America is witnessing a religious relapse. More and more people are joining the spiritual movement, and leaving behind the church. The latest Pew Report found that this “Spritual but not religious” (SBNR) group now constitutes at least 20 percent of the American population, and 30 percent of those less than 30 years of age.
But why is this happening? Why are so many people disconnecting from the religious tradition of their birth? The most prevalent explanation is the one favored by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” They attribute disaffiliation mainly to the perceived link between religion and conservative politics –a turnoff to liberal-minded youth in particular. I don’t buy it.
There is no doubt that the judgmental moralizing of right-wing preachers has alienated a great many Christians, but that doesn’t explain SBNR. Believers who disdain fundamentalism have plenty of left-leaning denominations and apolitical congregations to turn to. I see it as more of an institutional l issue than a political one. People are dissatisfied and fed up with the church and the Christians in it. And at times, I can’t say that I blame them.
As a student at an evangelical Christian school, I am surrounded by many different denominational traditions. I sit next to a Methodist and a catholic in chapel, and my roommate is a Baptist. Inevitably, we engage in theological discussions and I have to admit that some days the whole business of theology is weariness to the soul. Who really cares whether faith is a free choice or something that is compelled by a glorious vision of God? Or about the difference between the imputation or infusion of righteousness? Or a hundred and one other theological disputes that, frankly, seem to make little difference in how most people live for God day to day?
On top of just the perplexing theological debates, I haven’t even begun to mention the hypocrisy and pettiness most people run into with the church. Whenever you bring people together, religious or not, history demonstrates that in order to get something done politics, bureaucracy, legalism, pettiness, backstabbing, greed and self-interest get involved. And when religious people are the ones involved, they’re doing all this with a pious smile on their faces.
The church, time after time, age after age, fails to exhibit the principles of the Bible in any consistent way. It constantly disappoints people’s expectations—and I would think Jesus’ expectations. But even though it frustrates our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others, the institution of the church is necessary. Although I am often disenchanted with the church, I still am a member of a church and believe that they are essential to spirituality.
Institutions are the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities? If guns enough, why have a military? If self-governance enough, let’s get rid of Washington. The point is that if you want to do something lasting in this world you have to have a body of people working together to get the ball rolling.
To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Spirituality offers a path, but not a destination. It raises questions, but provides few answers. And in freeing the self, it divorces the self from connection to community and to God.
Spirituality without religion poses problems. So too does religion in a vacuum. But Christianity describes God as a Trinity — as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As God who is both authoritative and intimate, holy and humble, revealed through the structures of church and Bible and creeds, revealed through the person of Jesus, revealed through the ministry of care and comfort from one person to another. Christian spirituality offers a path of peace, joy, love, and fulfillment for everyone who longs for meaning and connection both to others and to God.
If we have learned one thing about human nature, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own church.
No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a religious community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic. If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work.
Not participating in organized religion solely because of the politics and hypocrisy of the church is unacceptable. We have to recognize that conflict is an inevitable part of life and that we won’t always agree with others. If you want to live a life free from any issues, then live alone.
Personally, I choose to worship along side others because it keeps me accountable and purposeful in my quest for truth. I can be both spiritual and religious, while adhering to an institution. I’ve tried doing it on my own, but spirituality just leaves me unsatisfied. If religion is all about obedience and rituals, then spirituality is all about doing whatever feels right and paying attention to me. Spirituality without religion runs the risk of becoming self-centered at its core. Spirituality without religion sets up the self as God, as the ultimate arbiter of what feels good and right. But the self can be just as oppressive as religious obedience, and the self wields great power to deceive.
I’m starting to realize that religion and spirituality maybe are not opposed to each other as I once thought. Rather, they are two poles on a continuum, and both reflect the human need to know God’s presence and to experience the deep rest and purpose that comes from that knowledge. The busyness and distractions that infuse my days are symptoms of a larger problem, a problem that can’t be solved simply by attending a church service or by drinking herbal tea. In order to learn how to be still and know rest for my soul in the midst of papers and deadlines and sports practice and everything else, I need more than religion. And I need more than spirituality. I need them both. Together, they offer authority and intimacy, community and personal attention, service and rest, grandeur and goodness, morality and grace. Together, they anchor me, and they set me free.