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Monday, March 7, 2011

Decoding the "I'm Spiritual, Not Religious" Response.

I don't know how it is where you live, but here in Northampton, and I suspect throughout New England, if people don't outright confess radical indifference or atheism, they might retort when engaging a Christian: "I'm not religious; I'm spiritual." Another translation might be: "I'm not into organized religion, especially Christianity."

If you get a chance to poke further you'll hear organized religion is full of rules, long list's of do's and don'ts, especially the don'ts. Religion is an antiquated, exclusive club filled with judgmental, narrow-minded, out-of touch people who feel better than others. Religious people have the right religion and everyone else is wrong and hell-bound if they don't see the light from their myopic perspective. They also don't practice the core tenets of their religion in any rigorous way. There also Republicans, Tea Partiers, and/or Glenn Beck fanatics.

Now don't get me wrong, I know there are plenty of people who  believe deeply in, and are dedicated to spiritualities of all sorts, even those they've created or cobbled together themselves. They are humane practitioners of spiritual/ethical concepts or ancient traditions, and want the planet to be a better place to live for all because they practice their beliefs sincerely. They also love the freedom of an individually-tailored spiritual ethos. Such an ethos has no strictures beyond what they hold, and can be altered at will because they determine its shape without fear of judgment or censure.

Writing what I'm about to write is in no way intended to discount, belittle or mock what someone else believes. All of us are made in the image of God and are to be treated as such, even if I vehemently disagree with them. Civility will out.


Having perceived or experienced the judgmental, hypocritical, controlling and destructive sides of religion so evident all around me, I choose a better option, one which seems more humane to me.
I can shape, practice and change it  if I so decide, without pressure or censure from others. It reflects what I value and feel and reflects who I am, not what someone else says I should be. In so doing, I maintain my integrity and self-determination. Besides, no one can be really sure their god is the God, can they . . .

Upon thinking about it, here's where I've landed about people who see themselves as spiritual not religious:

1. They might have a concept of a personal God or they might not.

I've noticed someones being spiritual doesn't have to include a personal God, an actual transcendent Being who created and sustains the universe. It can be expressed as a type of cosmic consciousness or feeling of the numinous. There is something binding all humanity together and it's of "spirit," but not a personal Deity everyone must acknowledge or follow. This belief is fluid, organic and must not be codified in a system of rules and strictures or it turns into a religion. Some of these folks may see themselves as ethical Deists, but that's as close as they come to an actual God. There may be a God, but who can know for sure. Others will tap into a god-conscious through certain esoteric practices, a kind of we're all part of the god energy and need to develop or release it. There is no need for an anthropomorphized deity.

2. They are not particularly interested in imposing their personal spirituality on others.

Because being spiritual for these folks is a matter of individual choice, they support the freedom of everyone to define and practice their own spiritually. Existential individuality and sovereignty is highly prized. Why would anyone impose their beliefs on any one else who has a perfect right to choose his or her own belief. To each his/her own in matters of the spirit. It's a core value by definition.

3. They might not be very concerned about appealing to universal Truth to verify their spirituality. 

Akin to the above, another central tenet of being spiritual is that Truth is what a person deems it to be at any one point in time. Your truth is your truth and mine is mine. All truth claims are relative (well, except the universal truth that all truths are relative, but why nitpick) although intuition synchronized to the Universe or connecting psychic energy can lead to a person's truth. So someone cobbling together her spirituality accepts her spirituality is true for her and doesn't particularly wrestle with the need to anchor truth claims to an authoritative, universal standard binding everyone which verifies and give weight to individual belief. Apparently, it's not necessary because a person's truth will morph into what's seems true at the time based on new messages or intuitions. It can be discarded for something more spiritually helpful, captivating or seemingly powerful.

4. Their set of beliefs may be systematic or not, but most aren't.

As I noted earlier, most of the time people who see themselves as spiritual, but not religious tend not to sit down and carefully think through and craft a system of spiritual beliefs. They're not looking to create a new religious cult others can follow (there are notable and tragic exceptions, the Branch Davidians, for instance). The bulk of spiritual people tend to want something simple and portable, not complex and cumbersome. For them its mostly a no fuss, no muss enterprise with few requirements beyond what is helpful or feels right at the time.

5. They might be reacting to troubling experiences they've had with religious people, especially Christians.

I suspect most of you have had conversations with people who'd had painful, maybe even traumatic, experiences with Christians or churches. They'd grown up in a church or had an encounter with someone who hurt or deeply offended them by their behavior. Their response was something like, "If this is what Christians are like I want nothing to do with them or their churches." They've seen egregious examples of hateful, abusive, or hyper-critical believers in the media and distanced themselves from the faith. They maybe OK with Jesus, but his followers are hypocrites. While it's generally never fair or accurate to judge everyone for the behavior of a few, the reality is many spiritual people can point to troubling experiences with people who called themselves Jesus-followers. They hold Christians to a higher standard or see them as outrageous and mean-spirited hypocrites.

6. They tend not to hold a view of eternal judgment in their spirituality. 

Most people who are spiritual, but not religious have trouble conceptualizing hell or any other place of eternal judgment. They cannot imagine a supremely good God or Life-force condemning people to eternal punishment for sin. Yeah, we've all done stuff we're not proud of, but does it really warrant being condemned forever to a horrific place like hell? In fact, even the idea of sin is overblown in their thinking. They might admit that people are not perfect. We all make mistakes. While they agree some do very bad things, they view life as a kind of opportunity to become the good people they really are, or exemplars through the practice of spiritual exercises taught by shamans, and settling into their own true divinity.

7. They might cobble together bits and pieces of other spiritualities to create their own.

Most spiritual people I've gotten to know who actually practice some sort of belief have cobbled together a personal spirituality that is a fluid amalgam of Buddhism, Humanist Psychology, Neo-Paganism, magic, Eastern mysticism, Gaia and parapsychology, Holistic healing, and New Age syncretism. The process for creating this patchwork of belief is generally not done systematically, but grows over time from exposure to people and popular ideas about god flowing through our culture from time to time. Because there is no commonly-held theological framework from which to examine and test the veracity of a spiritual concept people are free to pick and choose what appeals to them from one point to the next. It's all fluid and organic. Besides, who's to say any particular person's spiritual belief is more right or true that theirs? What works for me right now is what matters.

8. Being a good person may be the sum total of being spiritual to them.

I've found the point in being spiritual and not religious is learning to be a good person as defined by their individual ethic or morality: while we're not perfect, as long as we are trying to be good, were on the right track. In fact, some of these folks may be paragons of human virtue, exhibiting what Christians would see as an exemplary person. The problem is that it assumes all of us can be good on our own if we really put our hearts in it. First, we define what is good. Second, we determine if we are being good. The problem is there's no proof our being good will merit anything in the end if there really is a Holy God who requires an accounting for our motives, attitudes and behaviors. Again, because there is probably no holy and perfect God who will hold us all accountable for our life. There is no objective judgment, and we are all "free" to do the best we can. It all will work out it the end somehow. (I hear a faint whistling in the dark right now)

9. Their spirituality may be tied to feelings induced by substances or intense feelings and experiences.

There are folks who've experienced the numinous from being high. For instance, I knew a man who spent an afternoon lying on a beach in Mexico after taking peyote and experiencing a spirit he was sure was an angel or God. It shaped his spirituality profoundly. We know drugs can create altered states of consciousness where the demonic can manifest and deceive people into thinking they have seen God.  Also, intense and sustained emotional states, especially of joy or pleasure can do the same. If a person has an extraordinarily moving experience of Beauty or the mysterium tremendum they may feel they have encountered God in some abstract way. This kind of induced spirituality can be very convincing, but doesn't necessarily entice them to explore what they see as religion in any way.

10. Lastly, there is a group of folks who'll say they're spiritual and have absolutely nothing to back it up. They've never really given any thought to what that means. It's just a reaction to get you off their back. If even have a chance to pin them down you'll get a mish-mash of pop culture blather, at best.

*  *  *

Given the above, how might a "religious" person communicate effectively with a spiritual person?

First, look for some sort of common ground. I think it's fair to say most people lean toward (there are resolute exceptions), for a Reality outside of their daily experience which offers peace, hope, meaning, joy and promise for a better existence. We have longings for more of something, even if we can't put a name to it. People also want to be loved and validated that they matter. A spiritual person may have similar spiritual values as a religious person. Those can serve as the basis for a genuine conversation. Both kinds of people long for more of meaning, for being loved and taken seriously, for hope, peace and having their needs met. We can begin where we agree.

Second, respect the other person's belief no matter how strongly you might disagree with it. Treat them as you'd want to be treated regarding something important to you. Do not be threatened by what they believe, including their criticism of your beliefs (you know, "sticks and stones . . .), if it is offered. Listen well. What is their heart saying in their words? What you're looking to inspire is honest dialogue to bridge understanding. So you might say things like"

"Obviously your spirituality has great meaning and importance to you. Mine is too."

"Help me understand how you got there and what it gives to you." Why are you convinced it's true?"

May I tell you why I believe so deeply in what I've experienced?"

What happened that made Christianity or church so unattractive to you?

Third, what you're working toward is being able to build a relationship where you can continue the dialogue with the person, especially people you work with, live next to, or have some other common experience with, such as your kids are on the same baseball team. You'll know you have established a real relationship if either person can ask questions which challenge the other person's belief without causing rancor. Because you've gotten to know and trust each others good intentions through shared values and experience, you can venture into potentially threatening issues without destroying the relationship. You may end up agreeing to disagree, but the door remains open for reflecting the love of Jesus to them in other ways. Your humanity has connected with theirs and it feels safe to both of you.

I've seen deep friendships built despite rigorous dialogue around opposing beliefs about the existence of God - John Marks and Craig Detweiler, for instance. All of us should have those friendships. Perhaps doing so is akin to Paul's statement: "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (1Corinthians 9:22) Without really caring for people and identifying with their common humanity, there will be no basis for relating beyond the superficial or impersonal. They are not targets; they might be someones mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, grandparent, significant other, care-giver, neighbor, etc.

Decoding the "I'm spiritual, not religious" retort is a matter of knowing what is and isn't being said in that response, and then looking to build a bridge of dialogue which can subversively dismantle assumptions and misconceptions on both sides. We need to get good at this. Shying away from "uncomfortable" interchanges over matters of God is exactly the opposite of what God summons us to. On the other hand, neither are we to be drawing people into pointless arguments other to prove we're right.

Jesus-followers are responsible for enticing genuine dialogue so we have the chance to speak the truth in love and open others to the heart of God. He is the One who changes a heart, but we need to show up, engage, listen wisely, befriend and converse with respect, and a fearless desire to lovingly draw people to the One who wants them in his family.
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