I have spent most of my life saying, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” As far back as I can remember, I’ve decried the evils of religion, saying it was dead or diseased, and stood in solidarity with others who felt the same. I’ve called religion evil, corrupt, and systems of man that poison the systems of God.
I’m beginning to think I’ve been wrong.
A couple of years ago I bought a cross necklace. I’ve known a number of people who felt outward adornments like this (or crosses in general) were simple, unnecessary, or at worst an idol. I’ve even held that opinion myself at one point. (This comes from the Bible verse “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”(1)) But I was spending a lot of time in a city that was about as godless (literally – it has one of the highest populations of “atheists or other” and “unchurched people” in the nation(2)) and a culture as nearly hopeless as you’re likely to find, and I wanted to identify myself as someone who had hope. I wanted to be marked.
And it did mark me. Everywhere I went, people identified me with that cross. There are very few days that have passed in the years since I purchased it that I have not worn it.
One thing I started hearing more often, though, was “You must be pretty religious.” Every time I heard this I screamed a little inside, and wanted to correct them: “Actually, I’m spiritual, not religious.” But then I started realizing what they were saying: they didn’t see religion like I did. They saw it as me being close to God. They saw it as me being someone who could help them. Maybe even someone who had answers when they were hurting. So I started replying, “Yes. Yes I am.”
And therein lies the disconnect, at least in my mind. I don’t think we realize what we’re doing when we agree with the secular community that religion should die. I think we’re normally talking about a mindset, or what we see as corruption in our midst. They’re talking about the whole of Christianity. We’re talking about “that other backwards church,” but they’re talking about all of us sitting down, shutting up and going away.
The same thing goes for the term “spiritual.” We take it to mean that we are deep into God and the Holy Spirit, and are free in Christ. They mean that they have their own thing they do, often a mix between New Age and eastern-lite mysticism, where they are free from the bondage of an established mindset, a course-checking community, or “confining” morality. (Or do we maybe mean the same thing?)
60 years ago the idea of being “spiritual, not religious” would have been scoffed at by most. (Though I’m sure it probably started its rise to popularity during the hippy movement that followed.) Can you imagine C.S. Lewis saying that? I can see him saying it’s poppycock. Has that much changed over the last 60 years? No. People are as corrupt and perverse today as they were then. We just have a lot more ways of knowing the evils men commit.
Religion is no more corrupt than the people who practice it. Does that mean it can be evil? Absolutely. But it’s no more evil than any other human institution: it’s just held to a much higher standard. Because the thing is, religion is also how we reach for God. As such, it has the potential to be the very best of us. Don’t believe me? Then look at almost every major institution that does good in our world with a long-standing history. Chances are, somewhere in its past, it was tied to religion. In fact, it was probably founded in or by religion.(3)
My concern is that we are dangerously close to losing our sense of the sacred. That sense of otherworldly wonder and beauty. The feeling of holy otherness that steals our breath away. I fear that even in many churches, as we strive to assimilate culture, we are losing this awe. As we fight against religion, we are sanitizing ourselves. Why do stained glass windows and mighty cathedrals matter? Because when we look at them, we see beauty. We feel awe. A chill shivers down our necks. Can we say that about much of anything today?
In the past the greatest art, the greatest literature, the greatest music, the greatest leadership and oratory were from Christians in a religious context. Can that be said of the last ten years? Or twenty? Or fifty? When we separate ourselves from our mystic past, we have to use something to fill it. I contend we have not filled it well.
I further think that perhaps we have conflated religion with fundamentalism. It’s an easy thing to do, as often the two can be seen as being hand-in-hand with some folks. I hate fundamentalism. To most fundamentalist belief systems, I am likely an arch-heretic. The dogmas of fundamentalism repulse me. But the funny thing is, many with rigid fundamentalist beliefs would still say they are against religion. (I know I’ve certainly been in that boat.) They’ve kept the wrong part of the combo.
In fact, most of us have a little bit of fundamentalism hiding somewhere inside us. It’s the part of us that looks at someone else and says they are wrong because I am right. Often this view is masked by the phrase “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The problem with that is, I could be reading the same Bible and see something entirely different from you. Both of us might even have major scholars and authorities to back up our point. So who’s right?
Fundamentalism is prejudice masquerading as religion, and I try constantly to excise it from myself. Part of this comes through me accepting others, regardless of our differences in belief. Baptists, Methodists, Charismatics, it frankly doesn’t matter. We all have things in common, no matter how big our differences. And that’s where the Catholic part of the title comes in. The word Catholic means “common.” And, for all our differences, we are all part of the common body of Christ. Including the Catholics.
I don’t write any of this just to be contrarian or to start churchyard brawls. I don’t even say this to completely upend your way of thinking or wreck years of your biases and beliefs. I’m sure many reading this will actively and vehemently disagree with me, and that’s okay. I even reserve the right to be wrong on this (which is the mindset that started this post in the first place.) Instead, I write this post to make you think. To reexamine who you are and what you believe. And if that’s all this post does, that’s good enough for me. I believe we should actively challenge what we believe, first to strengthen us when we’re right, and also to provoke us when we’re wrong. That is how we grow. That is how we change.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”(4) Since when has that ever been a bad thing?
Religion is not, and never has been, evil in and of itself. When used properly, religion is a road to awe.
Thanks for reading, my friend! I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post. I’ve been writing this one for months (literally), and I still don’t know if I got it right. (I do know it’s way long, so sorry about that, too.) But, regardless, here it is. I hope you’re doing well, and that your December is looking bright. In case I don’t speak to you again before then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
If you’re looking for a gift for someone who needs some hope or is hurting, might I humbly recommend my book Of Hope and Cancer? You can find it right here. I also have another book coming out very shortly called The Fish in Jonah’s Puddle (To Say Nothing of the Demon). If you’re interested in it, you can read the first seven chapters right now by clicking here and throwing in your name and email address. If you enjoyed this, be sure to subscribe to Life Springs and share this post, and, if you didn’t, I hope we can still be friends. =) God bless you until next time!
1. Exodus 20:4 (ESV)
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/18/most-and-least-religious-cities_n_1522644.html; http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics/2015/02/18/utah-highest-in-church-attendance-washington-one-of-the-lowest-poll/; http://www.conservapedia.com/Seattle; http://leadnet.org/most_and_least_unchurched_cities/
4. James 1:27 (ESV)