I have to admit I’m getting tired of reading more articles arguing about the whole notion of choosing to be spiritual but not religious. I’m not tired about the theme—because I happen to be one of those who believe in the genuineness of spirituality outside of religious institutions. I work with people in this category all the time and continue to be impressed with their sincerity and passion to be spiritual and compassionate people. And indeed they are.
So I’m tired of the pejorative tendency on the part of so many religious people to judge those who choose to remain unaffiliated or unattached to religious institutions but who still want to pay attention to their spirituality.
There was even a study that went viral stating that people who were spiritual but not religious had more mental illness than religious people. “Aw, you see! It’s unhealthy to be spiritual but not religious,” chortled the religion advocates.
Then I read some religious leaders’ attempts to bolster that study’s conclusions, stating dubious evidence that was suppose to support such a superficial and narrow judgment. “Enough’s enough,” I said silently to them. “It’s time to get over it!” There are simply different legitimate ways to building one’s spirituality.
Church leaders, whose sole mission is to support and perpetuate organized religious institutions, speak out demonizing the SBNR (spiritual but not religious, which happens to be the fastest growing religious demographic in America right now). SBNR adherents fight back, naturally so, arguing why they choose to be SBNR instead of religious affiliation. Both sides consider the other irrelevant and out of touch.
Truth is, both sides have elements of truth as well as misguided, incomplete perspective in their convictions.
Three Vital Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality
So I thought I would evaluate this tug-of-war in the context of three vital characteristics of Healthy Spirituality. Can a person be spiritual without being religious, and can a person be religious without being spiritual? Is it Either/Or (all or nothing) or Both/And? Or Neither?
CHARACTERISTIC ONE: Healthy Spirituality is a life of engagement and connection, not a life of isolation and alienation. Paul Tournier, psychiatrist and author, makes the observation: “There are two things in life you cannot do alone—be married, and be spiritual.”
Now on face value, this truth would seem to favor religion’s indictment against SBNR. But not quite so fast.
We have to realize–and the more I spend time with people who consider themselves SBNR, the more I see this side–that there are many different ways of developing a life of engagement and connection. Most of the SBNRs I know believe wholeheartedly in living within meaningful community and relationships. They just do it outside of religious institutions. They have deep connections with people where those connections are enjoyed in multiple and diverse environments–they just don’t choose to do it within churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Looking for a place to learn and partner with not necessarily belong. I have seen, as I’ve watched the trends in spirituality and religious affiliations, that more and more people if they look to churches at all, look to them not for providing a place to belong, but as a potential place to stimulate their spiritual growth and personal development and as potential partners in addressing the many social ills of our world. They want to learn. They want to partner.
But they’re not as interested in “signing up” for a place in which to build and establish all their relationships. They want to be given tools and practices that help them experience greater life transformation but are not necessarily looking to “consume” the entire menu of services and ministries that a congregation encourages its members to engage in which often includes that church’s entire belief system. They feel no need or desire for the whole cafeteria.
But isn’t that self-centered? This is one of the issues that irks religious leaders and adherents. Their indictment is, “That’s completely self-centered!” Their point is that healthy spirituality has to be lived within community (and it usually comes down to their community) because that’s where we rub up against others who may be different than us and therefore it teaches us to learn how to relate, how to forgive, how to soften the sharp edges of our personalities and spiritual lives.
Community in different places. The truth is, both groups believe in the importance of community facilitating healthy spirituality. But they each look for it in different places. Admittedly, both groups have people who think they can be loners in life and still be spiritually healthy. Neither group is immune from this temptation. Both need to look strategically and intentionally for community in which to learn the art of spiritual growth and spiritual health. The point is, let’s stop judging the others’ strategy by thinking we have the exclusive environment to shape meaningful community and spiritual life.
CHARACTERISTIC TWO, Healthy Spirituality involves a particular way of relating to others and to the world. It’s not just relating that is important, it’s how we relate. It involves relating in love.
Just before entering the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for so many years, God offered the Israelites a very clear and stark choice:
“I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live, in the love of Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Notice that choosing life, from God’s perspective, is the same as choosing love. They go hand in hand with each other. Life and love.
Here’s the way Dr. David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, puts it:
“Choosing life is choosing love. And genuine love cannot remain for long as simply love of my life. Love of life is contagious. It spreads to all facets of my life, and it spreads to others. That is the nature of love. If I really love life, I cannot help but begin to value your life as well as mine. If I genuinely love life, I will treat all life as sacred. If I genuinely love life, I will care for the world because I care for the generations of humans who may yet be born.” (p. 73)
Needing a conversation centered on love. It’s sobering to me that so much of the conversation between religious adherents and those who don’t religiously affiliate devolves into shouting matches about who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s no genuine dialogue emanating from a place of love, honor, and respect for the Other. Instead there’s finger pointing, judgments against the other, drawing lines in the sand where the side each is standing is the only true side.
That’s not love. Is it?
Ironically, love is touted as the supreme value in every major religion. And yet history is filled with examples of hate and judgment and violence against those who disagree with the accepted norm of religious allegiance.
Love not tolerance. I’m tired of people elevating the concept of tolerance in this world. That’s not love. Love is compassion, caring, support, honoring, and blessing the other–not simply tolerating the other.
Healthy spirituality is about choosing to learn how to love more completely and deeply in every environment and setting of life. And when we don’t do it well, then we ask for forgiveness, and continue learning and practicing more effective ways to love others, especially those we disagree with.
Though both groups–the SBNRs and religious adherents–elevate the experience of love as defining genuine spirituality, the track record isn’t very good about this happening effectively between them. Both groups need to keep trying. And both groups need to allow the other to learn the art of genuine loving wherever they choose their place of community and their style of artfulness.
CHARACTERISTIC THREE, Healthy Spirituality, which always engages in a life of love, is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism.
This is a defining characteristic. Here’s what I mean by this. I do not mean that healthy spirituality is against law, rules, rituals, practices. Not quite. Rules, rituals, and practices are tools to help facilitate a deeper transformational spiritual life.
Every religion, and people who claim no religion, engage in practices and rituals to help themselves become better human beings—like meditation, breathing, mindfulness, prayer, scripture or devotional reading, or attendance in gatherings that lead a person to a higher spiritual place where their hearts-minds-souls can be inspired and moved (be it in church services or workshops or seminars or retreats).
People who take spirituality seriously believe that it’s in relationships where we learn how to love and forgive the most effectively. Developing healthy relationships is one of the greatest spiritual practices and rituals of all. Relationships are our laboratory for the soul. And the list of meaningful, effective practices is long.
“Ism-izing” spiritual practices. What I mean by genuine love being anti-legalism and anti-ritualism is a refusal to “worship” form over content or outcome. In other words, when we elevate the style of practice over what the practice is suppose to accomplish in our lives we have “ism-ized” that experience. We end up saying, “Your spiritual practice has to look like this and not look like that.” Or “True spirituality favors our accepted, traditional method or way of stating a belief.”
I remember when I pastored traditional churches encountering some elders and deacons who believed that for the communion service to be legitimate, we had to cover the table of communion emblems (the bread and the grape juice) with a white cloth before the service, take it off during the service, and then put it back on immediately before the service concluded. Anything short of that was sacrilegious.
And when the service was over, the unused pieces of bread and grape juice had to be disposed of in precisely the “right” way to maintain the holiness. One church insisted on emptying the emblems into the toilet, another insisted on emptying them into a fire pit and burning it all. Both believed equally that their method was the right one. And if I didn’t ask for it to be done the right way, or carry it out perfectly, I was deeply criticized and judged as a “less than faithful” pastoral leader.
That is “ism-izing” a practice … where love has lost its true place in the spiritual life in favor of legalism and ritualism—when the rule or the ritual/practice supercedes the love it is suppose to generate. We cast deep value judgments against people who act or behave or believe differently than we think is right. We are convinced our way is the most effective way toward genuine spirituality.
Religious form instead of spiritual truth. Jesus spoke vehemently about this tendency among the religious leaders of his day. He exposed their “isms” when he pointed out things like “You are like whitewashed tombs–you look good on the outside, but inside you are filled with dead people’s bones–you insist on tithing even the tiniest part of your income, but ignore the weightier things of the law, like justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23, 27)
Jesus was indicting a form of religiosity–legalism and ritualism–for its separation of love from law—in essence being religious without being spiritual—adhering to the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. People were great at paying ten percent of their income–they practiced that spiritual ritual perfectly and faithfully. But they were neglecting the actual practice or outcome of being loving with others, especially those they didn’t agree with or who were different then they. That’s legalism and ritualism.
This is one of the biggest indictments of Church I hear from people who have disengaged from religion.
Jesus’ core value. I’m inspired by the way the eminent Islamic scholar Khalifa Abdul Halim describes Jesus’ core value here:
“In Jesus we have the culminating point of that upward movement where God and religion are completely identified with love which has preference over all the legalism and ritualism.”
Healthy Spirituality–the kind Jesus advocated–is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism. Jesus summarized the entire Jewish Law (in the Old Testament) with love. “On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets–you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
Healthy spirituality, both inside and outside religion, always centers on love; and the ultimate test of it being how we show up with those with whom we have our biggest disagreements.
“Just as love was the measure of his own life, so too Jesus made it the measure of human fulfillment and the supreme criterion of healthy spirituality” (David Benner, p. 73).
The only question that matters. So the only question that truly matters—the question that helps guard against legalism and ritualism, in the end—is, Does this practice, this rule, this ritual empower me to love the Other more deeply and completely? Does it help me to be more forgiving and honoring of all people, especially of those with whom I disagree?
Jesus truly stated the bottom line when he said, “By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
A Church that doesn’t genuinely love, and treat with equal honor and respect, all people is actually being religious without being spiritual. A nonreligious person that refuses to love all people is only being nonreligious without being spiritual.
It’s time for all of us, whatever our religious or nonreligious perspectives, to step into a more Healthy Spirituality as we hold ourselves accountable to genuine love for all others.