Spiritual, but not religious
This doesn’t make us hypocrites. It means we are trying to be honest. So if you consider yourself spiritual, but not religious, you are far from alone.
Historically, we are in good company with the great reformers of the faith from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther. They worked within religious structures, but they too were spiritual first, and religious only to the degree it was necessary.
Paradoxically, we find the same attitude in the Bible. The word religion was negative, almost a dirty word. The New Testament Greek word for “religion” is “Thraiskos.” The word came from the Island of Thrace which was known for excessive religious devotion. In other words, the folks on Thrace were seen as fanatics and the word religion means that you are “like the people on Thrace.”
It’s like the way we use the words Barbarians and Vandals, which once referred to nations who would not have seen themselves as bad guys, as words for people who are unruly and destructive for no reason. The word for someone from Thrace came to be used to describe a religious person. It is more like our word religiosity, which means “an excessive devotion to religion.” Perhaps we are not so very different in calling someone “religious” and meaning it negatively.
In contrast to this, the New Testament Book of James states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This is “good religion.” It is not excessive religious devotion. It is faith that is lived out as well as merely believed.
A desire to live out the faith that is in me is why I serve within organized religion while not being fully convinced that religious institutions are good. What I have discovered won’t surprise you, but it is important to remember—religious institutions are made up of humans and we humans are quite capable of bad as well as good.
We naturally find pastors and other church leaders who commit sin. In fact we won’t find any who don’t sin in some ways, even if they are working hard to live up to the mark God has set for them. We also find that the religious institutions themselves, as a whole, can do some harm.
I find that the only thing worse for me than organized religion is disorganized religion. When left to my own devices and desires, without the structure to support me, I am less capable of fully living into my faith.
Yes, I can go for a hike and commune with God in nature. I find God so fully present out in the wilds that I am never surprised when someone says they like to be with God in that way. My wife, Victoria and I, hiked the whole Appalachian Trail in 1988, living for six months in the woods as we walked from Georgia to Maine. We well know of God’s presence in nature and continue to enjoy being with God in salt marsh and swamp, as well as mountaintop.
Yet Christianity is, by design, a team sport. We need a community of faith around us. We need to worship in company with other worshippers. We need to be challenged by others to take further steps on our spiritual journeys. Without that community of support, we are more likely to take a very long break sitting by the side of the path leading closer toward God.
It could be that this is just a weakness within me and many others. We could connect to God alone, but we aren’t that good at it, so we need the support of others. The truly spiritual don’t need a church.
Spending time at the bedsides of the gravely ill and the dying will quickly disabuse you of that notion. When it comes time to die, or when the fear of death hangs thick in the air, everyone needs someone to hold their hand. God created us for companionship and we need and thrive on that contact with others. As imperfect as they are, churches provide that community.
Beyond this, there is the good we can do together that none of us can accomplish alone. Churches pool the resources of the congregation and are able to provide ministries that individual Christians could not fund. When it comes to giving widows and orphans the support they need, churches and denominations are pretty good at this.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I went down to Biloxi, Mississippi to work in a program of Lutheran-Episcopal Disaster Response. I worked alongside Christians from around the country representing several denominations. As we worked in rebuilding the home of a Sheriff’s Deputy whose insurance payout fell far short of replacement costs, other Christians were working all around the city in efforts put together by their denominations. Organized religion proved that organizations have strengths which individuals lack.
So, here is my justification for spending my days and nights on organized religion. I am first and foremost a sinner, saved by the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus. It is my relationship with God which compels me more and more into relationships with other people. Jesus taught that we are not just to love God. We are to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In the 500s, a Christian writer named Boethius wrote, “A man content to go to heaven alone will never go to heaven.” That’s not so different from the Book of James saying that the good kind of religion would never leave widows and orphans helpless. Or perhaps it is like Christians all around the country realizing that they can’t sleep peacefully knowing that their brothers and sisters on the Gulf Coast are living in FEMA trailers.
The trick is to take part in organized religion and let it build up your faith and take you further down the path toward God without becoming religious. This isn’t as difficult as you might think, because that same Holy Spirit you feel nudging your heart heavenward while standing in a grove of redwoods is also present in the church around the corner.
Just don’t get so enmeshed in church politics or problems with people in the pews that you loose sight of the Spirit’s presence working in and through that imperfect community of faith. You’ll be able to live more fully into your beliefs with that flawed community than without it.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor
The above is today's religion column for the Tribune & Georgian.
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