Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spiritual, But Not Religious

Over the past eighteen months, I acquired somewhere in the vicinity of 2,200 Facebook friends. For some reason, Facebook automatically sends out friend invitations in my name and accepts invitations on my behalf. I’ve come across other people who say they run into the same problem. So I’ve begun thinning out my garden of “friends.” They’ll probably never notice.

In the process, though, I’ve discovered something. If you go onto either the “About” or “Info” page of a person’s Facebook account, you’ll often see a category heading called “Religious Views,” provided the person has decided to go public with such private data. (Ahem.) That part I knew. What’s interesting is the large number of people who, rather than affiliate themselves with a religious body, describe themselves as “spiritual,” or some variation on the theme. Here are some of my favorites:
“Spiritually aware.”
“In tune with the universe.”
“We Are All ONE.”
“Spirituallity (sic) is what matters”
“Gnostic (not Agnostic) wink.”
“Guess what happens when a Jewish/Agnostic woman marries a Presbyterian/Atheist man.”

Of course the distinction of being “spiritual, not religious” is nothing new, but the trend seems to be gaining steam. In both the private and public spheres, religion is increasingly seen as a divisive force in pluralistic societies or as a repressive force in either homogenous or totalitarian ones, especially where only one religion is sanctioned by the government. Add to this a frightening ignorance of culture, which includes religious tradition and practice, plus a relegation of faith-life to the private sector, and it’s no wonder that people feel downright uncomfortable and inept at conversing about any religious concepts with any religious vocabulary. Then when faced with sincere seekers, they have nothing to offer.

Believers of whatever stripe don’t help the situation sometimes, especially when we get self-righteous and insulting, clever as we may be. About fifteen years ago on a plane from Montreal to Toronto, I sat next to a young Chinese atheist, a mathematician, married to a nominally Catholic Quebecer. She had tried to ask him about his faith, without success. So she asked me. In the course of the conversation, it came out: As a student, she had been bullied by campus Christians trying to convert her. The experience had soured her to Christianity, but the God-question never went away. Needless to say, I made sure to be on my best behavior! At the end of an hour, she said, “If someone had talked to me like this five years ago, I’d be a Christian today.” She meant it as a compliment, but it was like a knife in my heart. When will we learn to respect the pace of every person’s journey to faith? As we witness to our relationship with our saving God, we need to put our hand in God’s, not try to take his place.

To straddle the fence and disavow any connection with religion, or to claim an exclusively individual relationship with Jesus may be “safe,” as one sister put it yesterday when we chatted about this. Is it true, though, to who we are? By nature, we human beings can’t be only “spiritual.” We’re corporeal too: we have, we are, a body. We’re not just a soul stuffed into a body that someday, somehow gets released through death, or nirvana, or a transcendent experience. We’re a composite of soul, spirit, mind, will, feelings, flesh, memory, imagination, relationships, and a personal and communal history, present, and destiny. That destiny, for good or ill—our choice— will encompass the whole of us. So our personal and communal relationship with God has to be both “spiritual” and bodily. This is where religion factors in. It may seem tidy to separate the two, but it doesn’t reflect the truth of who we are. We’re naturally religious, which means that God searches for us, and we respond by searching for God: “…religion is…the response of faith to God who reveals himself” (Tertio millennio adveniente, 6). So our response, if it’s genuine, will have all the earmarks of bodiliness. The great religions are incarnational, Christianity in particular.

Which brings us to the Church. If, as Paul says, Christ is the head of his body the Church (cf. Col. 1:18), there’s no splitting up, regardless of the Church’s condition. “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mt. 19:6).

Theresa Noble, one of our postulants (“a nun in training” as she puts it), maintains a personal blog, Pursued by Truth ( On my Facebook wall the other day, she shared her latest post, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus: A Beer With Jeff Bethke.” Not only did she embed and analyze Jeff’s YouTube video, which in the past week has gone viral, with over 14 million views. With respect and insight, in an “excellent commentary,” writes one of my FB friends, Theresa also analyzed the worldwide response it’s generating. In a world where public discourse too often lacks basic civility, Theresa’s article challenges all of us who say we represent Jesus and the Church to honor both by the way we listen, speak and act.

Today the Christian world observes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s theme was chosen by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Protestant churches of Poland: “We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 15:51-58). Rather than paint victory with the brush of triumphalism, it points to a shared victory through spiritual transformation and the conversion that gathers all Christians in service of God and neighbor. It works toward a victory that overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom. 12:21).

Those at the helm of the ecumenical movement constantly repeat the necessity of not minimizing what characterizes each religious body. We need to know and express who we are, to understand our identity, so we can name what’s at the root of our common identity. What’s vital is our attitude: not approaching the task at hand over and against another religious group, but in relation to it. From there we can better resolve our differences, which is the ultimate “victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


  1. Sister ... just wanted you to know that I added your response to my collection of Catholic responses to that video:

    I added Ms. Noble's response as well :D


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