Good evening. Tonight’s talk is entitled “I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious”: A Catholic Priest Responds. We will be looking to go about 45 minutes.
Why I Chose This Topic
I chose the topic not only because I’ve heard people say this a lot, but also because I think that this saying is the transitional no-man’s land between those who are “religious” and those who are “secular.” What I mean by that is: there is a growing number of people who consider themselves as having a relationship with God yet who, at the same time, do not necessarily identify themselves with a given “organized religion.” They aren’t thoroughly secular, but they are on the way—and I say that they are on their way because the vast majority of the people in this group aren’t coming from secularism and moving to organized religion; rather, they are coming from organized religion and moving to secularism. And because such a move is not only pervasive in our culture (especially among 20- and 30-somethings with whom I am sure you speak often) but also destructive, I thought this would be the best topic to present.
The Art of Responding
When we respond to someone who advances a position contrary to our own, our default position might be to go into defense mode and simply to refute what that person is advancing. I prefer to take another approach. Instead of defending, I put them on the stand and ask them to tell me more about why they believe and what they believe—not to get them defensive, but simply to obtain more information. A good response requires that we are actually responding to the problem and not simply to what we think is the problem. We are doctors examining a patient, hoping to provide a suitable remedy.
So, the first thing I do when someone tells me that they are spiritual but not religious is to ask them what that means. What does it mean to be spiritual in their eyes? And, also, what does it mean to be religious? Their answers to these questions will help us tremendously when we are crafting a response; because, as they talk, we will discover that perhaps not only is their notion of religion askew, but perhaps also their idea of what it means to be spiritual. Eventually, after we have gotten the details of what they believe, we will ask them why they believe it. In other words, what caused them to hold this position? Typically, it was not a thoroughly rationed-out intellectual exercise that brought them to this judged-decision. Rather, it might be that they had a bad experience with religion and judged that experience upon faulty understandings—which when done as a teenager or as a 20-year-old (as is the typical age when such decisions are made), it is often done with a deliberation more akin to reflexes and not so much the ponderings of a wise, spiritual sage.
(Which, actually, is the first response that we can make: the caricature of a wise, spiritual sage, of which a spiritual but not religious person might find some affinity, runs contrary to the very judgments upon which these young are rashly deciding. “Slow down,” the wise sage would say, “and let life and the passing of time allow for a more deliberate and informed appraisal.” After all, saying that one’s faith should be spiritual and not religious is itself a rigid claim that runs contrary to the free-flowing spirituality that such a person often claims to hold.)
Oversight and Obstacles
This first part can be summarized in two words: “oversights” and “obstacles.” A spiritual but not religious person will have intellectual oversights—things that they have overlooked when reasoning to their decision—and emotional/experiential obstacles—things that block them from accepting even the most well-thought-out reasoning. These oversights and obstacles are the things that we are looking for when we are asking our questions—and are the things that we will have to address. So let’s do that. First, the intellectual oversights:
An Initial Intellectual Oversight
A person who holds any faulty position always thinks that what they have “fits”; it “works”; it jives with life and so on.
But we must ask: does it? Does the spiritual but not religious position actually fit with our experience of reality … and with Jesus?
Humans are not “just spiritual” beings. We are also fleshy. So, one must ask: why would God devise a “spirituality” that did not also incorporate the flesh? What is the flesh good for? Why do we have it in the first place? These are important questions. Of course, many people believe that the flesh is bad and of no use, etc, which might be one of the causes of the spiritual/religious divide. Suddenly, we are finding ourselves not talking about religion, but about whether the body is created good and to what purpose it is created! We will come back to that.
For now we can say that, the spiritual-but-religious position does not seem to jive or fit with the natural composition of who we are—namely, soul and body.
There are questions to be had here—questions which should be more easily answered when we are talking with fallen-away Catholics and other Protestants who believe (or once believed) that God took on a body and became flesh. Such questions would include: if the body doesn’t matter and if the body isn’t good, then why did God find it fitting to take one upon Himself? Or, to put it more bluntly: why didn’t God Himself remain… spiritual?
What Religious Really Means: Law
Here, we must take a detour and discuss what religious really means. Typically, people talk about religion in terms of laws and rituals—and often with disdain. I offer a simple analogy as a remedy to this.
If we should look at the human body, we find that it is governed by laws and, yes, even ritual. For example, in the case of laws, we see that there are natural laws that govern the body—whether the respiratory or endocrine or circulatory systems, each is governed by intricate (some might argue meticulous) laws which, admittedly, even the most advanced of scientists and doctors do not yet fully understand.
These bodily laws actually give structure and form to the human body. So, for example, flesh is connected around bone and therefore provides the body its general shape and ability to stand and move; this flesh is given further definition when it is wrapped in skin. The skin helps to not only keep the body in communion with its various parts, but also to provide delineation such that I can say: “This is my body” and, likewise, “That over there is not part of my body.”
This helps us to see that a purely spiritual understanding of religion would be as devastating as having a purely spiritual understanding of the body. If the body was purely spiritual, not only would it no longer be a body, but we wouldn’t know where it began or ended (because spirit, by definition, does not possess anything structural or encasing it that delineates it). A spirit is amorphous and therefore is also (typically) invisible.
Religious laws, like the laws of the body provide structure, shape, ability, and definition such that one can see, know, and literally walk in it—and, at the same time, see and know when one is not walking in it. Catholics can know when they are not being Catholics—the laws help us to see that. Spiritual-but-not-religious Catholics would have no idea (and that’s the state of many who call themselves Catholic today). Religion for many is formless.
What Religious Really Means: Ritual
So much for laws. Let’s talk about ritual.
As odd as it sounds, the body has ritual. On its own, it has patterns of rising and falling asleep, patterns of hydrating and nourishing and evacuating that happen in the same way day after day after day. The female body knows this most profoundly in her seasons.
So, too, it is consistent to expect religion to have ritual (that is, if it is to be human!). Religious rituals would provide patterns of spiritual rising and falling asleep (if you will), patterns of spiritually hydrating, nourishing, and evacuating that happen in the same way day after day after day. Religious rituals even have seasons.
So, when we speak of religion, we can speak of laws and rituals, but we do so knowing that these are not bad things, but things that we share in our very body. Man is, in his having been made with a body, religious.
The God Who Is Religious
We can say, then, that in the Incarnation, God becomes religious (or, more accurately: He expresses that He is religious)—precisely because in the Incarnation He takes on a human body, the body which is itself religious and which He Himself made.
The union of the religiousness of the body and the religiousness of God comes to a beautiful union when we consider that Jesus not only becomes religious by taking on a body, but that also He practices religion. He is at all the feasts in the Temple; He is not simply praying on His own or away from everyone (even though, yes, He does do this), but He also works within the very laws and rituals of religion such that Jesus Himself says “I have come not to abolish the law… but to fulfill…”—because He knows that abolishing the law would mean to abolish structure, to abolish the visible delineation needed for knowing whether one is in communion, and to abolish the rituals that are a natural part of it all. And so, when Jesus was establishing His religion, he gave it ritual and laws: “He took bread…. and said, ‘Do this….’”; “Go, … and baptize…” Neither of these are simply spiritual. And He gave these not to spirits, but to flesh and blood men, whom He anointed with the Holy Spirit such that we call this religion the “Mystical Body of Christ” which is the Church.
The Importance of Icons
Let us consider another ramification of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, doesn’t God also unite the spiritual and fleshy realms and therefore require us not only to worship him spiritually but also bodily?
Religion and all of its sensual rituals, it can be argued, are to engage not only the spirit, but also the body. Of all the Christian religions, this is where Catholicism holds its exemplary pride of place. Our religion is very sensual: from the smells and bells to the oils and water and art and music. Our religion engages the body. But all of these are lost when one holds a purely spiritual outlook. Indeed, they are destroyed—and must be destroyed.
Consider the Buddhist. He is a spiritualist. The body and its senses, he says, get in the way of reaching the heights of spirituality. So, there must be an emptying, a discarding of the body and anything that might excite it through sensual stimulation. Really, it must be destroyed.
There is a word we use for this. Iconoclasm.
In a very real way, the spiritual but not religious person is an iconoclast. What does that mean? An iconoclast is someone who destroys images under the false reasoning that images take away from God, get in the way of our coming to Him, or are, even more, prohibited by Him. Images in the Catholic religion are very important and are not seen as replacements for or interferences with God, but are rather seen as the means by which, through our experience of them, God leads us to a greater heights of holiness. Because of the Incarnation, we see the body not as an obstacle, but as a means; as something not to be emptied, but employed and fulfilled. This fact reaches its zenith in the priesthood: that a fleshy person can be used by God as a conduit of grace. The priest is an icon, an image.
We thus remember that God prohibited the golden calf (because it was meant as His replacement), but encouraged looking upon the golden serpent (because it was the physical means by which He was going to raise His people to Him). That icon actually communicated grace!
The notion of images comes to a climax in Jesus who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).
To destroy images and everything sensual and ritualistic would be to destroy the very means by which God had employed to lead us to Him—and thus to the destruction of belief in the very Incarnate God. He would be relegated to merely the spiritual realm which is “out there, somewhere” and which, very quickly, becomes abstract, occult, and ultimately impersonal. Study after study is showing that the casting off of organized religion has devastated belief in a personal God—because persons, after all, long to see, touch, hear, embrace, and love each other.
That was the whole point when, in his first letter, John writes to us about what he has seen and heard and touched and looked upon—the spiritual God made incarnate. In Christ, spirituality and religion became united. And John wrote this so that our joy might be complete. Religion without spirituality becomes sterile and joyless. Spirituality without religion becomes ambiguous and inhumane.
The Rediscovery of Art-Form in Our Religion
In fairness, then, many of those who hold the faulty position have not experienced a sensual religion—a religion that literally “makes sense.” The religious landscape of our nation—whether you are an evangelical or a Catholic—has been ravaged by the iconoclasm of the 20th century. Churches look more like cement sarcophaguses instead of portals to the heavenly realms and the dwelling place of Him who is beautiful. There was among artists and architects, the wrong-headed over-emphasizing of Jesus’ poverty at the expense of His superabundant riches found in His divinity. The poor body was embraced at the expense of the divine and heavenly spirit.
When religion embraced the post-modern, angular, iron-rod, abstract movements in secular art and architecture, the effects were devastating. I do not mean to be offensive, but look at St. Joseph’s in Manchester. It is hard to have one’s mind lifted up to God at Holy Mass when one is staring at a brick wall. What does the brick wall mean? Am I just another brick in the wall? The brick wall reveals nothing about the Mass; indeed, the brick wall is offensive; distracting and not at all congruent with what is happening in the Church. It is no wonder why a person would become spiritual and not religious. If I was dwelling in a white-washed architecturally uninspiring church, I would rather prefer walking among the more beautiful mountains and communing with my nature god there! (Which is what people did before the Incarnation).
But it must be noted that little, if any, art comes from the evangelical world either. So, as much as it is currently enjoying some resurgence, it is still in trouble. Religious art typically came from the Catholic Church—which makes the Catholic Church’s capitulation to iconoclasm over the past half-century all the more unfortunate. And even when there are beautiful Churches with great art, it is often undermined by the schmaltzy, saccharine, and ultimately unprofessional music provided us. The experience of such music at Holy Mass is like drinking Kool-aid out of a golden chalice. It just doesn’t fit.
Now, I am not giving a pass to fallen-away Catholics who have forgotten the Eucharist as they left. Rather, I am simply saying that it totally makes sense. Why would it matter that Jesus’ flesh and blood are there in the Eucharist when we ourselves do not admit of the beauty and necessity of our own being flesh and blood? What I mean is, since in many of our churches and music which are saccharine, ugly, uninspiring, and which do not thus admit how we are made for beauty—to sense and receive its radiance and form—doesn’t it seem to be a logical conclusion that we do not admit the beauty and importance of God who became body and blood, knowing that we would need and want to receive Him bodily?
I mean, do we demand that religion be done beautifully—not only for the sake of God, but also for the sake of our nature and dignity? Pope Benedict was right when he said: the eclipse of God leads to the eclipse of man.
We are flesh and bone. We are created in the image and likeness of God. The body matters. This is why the spiritual but not religious position, by denying the body, assumes a religion which is inhumane: as inhumane as the iconoclasm mentioned above. It does not seek what is true, good, and beautiful, but is content with the ugly. It is ugly because it has no body; it is formless.
And suddenly we find ourselves back where we started when we began talking about oversights—but now with a different perspective: namely, through the Incarnation, God has exalted the flesh and blood of humanity and raised it up. And so we can answer our first question: why did God create us bodily? The first answer is so that we could love Him and give Him glory through it. The second answer is that it gives us the very form by which then leads us to beauty. Beauty cannot exist in formlessness, but only with organization, structure, body.
Thus, is not enough to worship Him spiritually—formlessly— but bodily as well. Because of this, it is not only fitting but necessary that the body and religion should be expressed as glorious and beautiful. We have seen this in such things as the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.
That religion has not done so in recent times is scandalous. For our part, we will have to do reparation for the iconoclastic decisions of those who came before us. But we must also seek to remedy this by restoring beauty in our liturgy, in our art and architecture, in our music, and in our very lives. In doing so, the spiritual person will hopefully come to see that precisely within the realm of religion does spirituality and humanity attain their highest potential.
Having looked at a few oversights of the position, let us examine a few of the obstacles.
One of the biggest obstacles that a person has is the sinfulness of those affiliated with religion. Here, it is easy to mention the litany of crimes which the clergy and hierarchy have committed against people. What is interesting is that I have heard just as many complaints about the people in the pews: cliques, mean looks, no welcoming the stranger, no visit when in the hospital, children at the school bullying—all of these contribute. Clergy and lay-people alike, therefore, must move towards a restoration of their morality—a restoration as crucial as that of Church art: so that we may be able to radiate more clearly the image of Christ which we are all called to be.
In this light, I know of many who have discarded religion (while remaining spiritual) not only because of the poor treatment at the hands of the people in the pews, but especially from the people at home. I have noticed on many occasions where a very zealous parent who is also very, very active in the Church, have at the same time a child (or several) who has fallen away. Now, there can be many, many reasons for this (including, but not limited to, the pervasive nature of secularism), but I have found that many times the zealous parent does not understand the human, incarnational aspects of the religion which they profess. One of those overlooked incarnational aspects which the parents overlook is themselves.
What I mean by that is: to a child, a parent incarnates religion—the dad images God the Father, the mom images the Church. A parent clearly does not understand this when the dad, for example, disciplines his child with severity and never gives a chance for redemption. As the child sees her father as God the Father, the child begins to think that God is severe and unforgiving. Similarly, if mom is severe and legalistic, the child will think the Church is that way too.
We would call these parents iconoclasts for they have destroyed the images of They whom they image.
But as the child becomes a teenager, she sees that there is a difference between God and her dad. Yet, the teen also possesses a right intuition that, if religion is true, then the religion should have a humanizing and divinizing effect in the dad. In other words, dad should become, through religion, the Father whom God has made him to image. When dad proves himself cruel either by a discipline without a chance of redemption or a discipline that is purely legalistic, the teenager begins to doubt the credibility of religion and whether it contributes to the good.
This usually comes to a head in the Sunday morning arguments about going to Mass. I have seen many parents take a legalistic approach to the faith that says “You will go to Mass and you will like it.” The child responds by saying that she is bored by it and doesn’t get anything out of it. It would be good here for the parent to ask why. After all, the teen’s statement of “I’m bored” is the expression that both the spiritual realities and the religious realities have not been reasonably revealed to her.
(After all, if people really knew what was going on at Mass and if Mass was done properly, then the last thing people would say is “I don’t get anything out of it” or “It’s boring.”)
But, that’s what the teen says and the parent, likely not having delved into these matters or perhaps having failed to integrate them enough to be able to articulate them, simply quiets the teen’s expression of what is actually a perfectly valid and human viewpoint.
The problem is, the teen wasn’t simply expressing boredom or even that she does not see the spiritual and religious realities. She was also expressing a spiritual need.
Quick detour. Our faculties to think, reason, and understand reside in the soul. These are spiritual powers that we have. In order to understand the law—namely, “go to Mass”—the spiritual dimension of us must be employed. When a parent shuts that down, the teen—as a human who is both body and soul—really does feel as though a part of her has been shut down. The teen is right to seek out the spiritual and, not finding it here, will search for it elsewhere—and not in the religion that the parents are pushing.
Responding to such a teen, therefore, must first seek to respond to their spiritual thirst. Because it was their faculty of reason that was squashed as a teen, it is the faculty of reason that is most painful for them to use. Hence, many of their arguments will not be all too logical or reasonable.
So, for example, they do not see that, by rejecting the religion, they themselves have taken just as inhumane approach to the faith as their parents—namely, whereas their parents did not respect the spiritual dimension of their humanity, this teen has neglected the bodily-religious dimension of her humanity. In other words, she has made a law out of spirituality—a law that excludes religion. And that is rigid.
It’s also illogical. No one doubts the need of hospitals because of a bad encounter with a doctor or because there are sick people. Sick people actually reveal the need for a hospital; the bad encounter with the doctor would simply move us to another hospital—but not to doubt hospitals’ necessity. People, however, doubt the need for a Catholic Church because of bad encounters with priests or because of sinners. Sinners, however, simply reveal the need for the Church; the encounter with the bad priest would simply move us to another church—but not to doubt the Church’s necessity.
The Best Response: The Encounter With Christ
It must be said that, precisely because it is the faculty of reason that has been offended in many cases, logic and argumentation do not typically attract these souls back—indeed, it often opens up old wounds. Admittedly, sometimes opening up the wound is necessary to bring healing: so, for example, to admit to the person that the legalistic approach to religion was wrong is a good thing to do. I do believe many parents do need to apologize for not giving their children the logical space to freely reason and to freely choose.
I’m not saying that this means that children shouldn’t be baptized as infants or that they shouldn’t be trained in such a way as to memorize the faith. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t give apologetical reasons for religion (such as defenses for the hierarchy or the liturgy as might be seen in St. Justin Martyr). Rather, I am simply talking about what Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both called “the need for an encounter with Christ.” This is the best response.
A spiritual but not religious person will be moved by spirituality—so what if a deeply spiritual person approached them, gained their friendship, and then revealed she was also religious?
There might be disappointment; there might be intrigue; there might be a need to answer some inquisitive questions, such as: can’t I be a good person without religion and its laws and rituals? And if questions like that are posed to us, let us rejoice! Because this means that the person is using their reason that was probably wounded. Which means that we will have to be able to answer even more questions, such as: how does Mass and the Sacraments actually change us? Isn’t the Church simply a good-doing social-work organization?
And this is where we will have to have the response of our life, but also of the Truth. So, to answer the question about the Church, we can say that the point of the Catholic religion and her spirituality and laws isn’t simply to make us nice and good. The point is to make us Christ-like—Jesus Christ who is both spiritual and religious… and divine.
That is probably the most under-taught of our Catholic doctrines—divinization—that we are to literally become partakers in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4). St. Athanasius states it simply: “God became man so that man might become gods.”
We can then ask the person: does your spirituality simply make you a good person? Or does it make you divine as well? Can your spirituality reveal the divine? Has the divine revealed Himself only in your spirituality?
Our worship, our lives, our articulation, everything—it must all reveal this reality. That’s the best response.
As an aside: I would also encourage you to gather together and meet with your pastors to ask them for more beauty at Mass and in our religion—and less of the saccharine stuff. Most priests who are of pastoring age do not believe that you want more weighty religious stuff. They think you want what is easy and emotional and entertaining and simply “spiritual, less ritual.” Many do not know how to respond to what is needed here: namely, the need to become more religious.
So, that’s my talk and I hope it makes sense. If there is any time remaining, I’ll happily answer any questions. Thank you.