I subscribe to a journal designed to give ministers ideas for preaching. I received the latest copy this week and was looking it over when I came across an article by the name of this blog entry by William H. Willimon, who is a minister in the United Methodist Church. Rev. Willimon was dean of the chapel at Duke University for many years before being elevated to Bishop status a few years back. Now he is stationed in Alabama serving them as their leader. He writes articles for publication often and most of the time I find his writings to be helpful.
This article examines the thinking of people who will wear the label "spiritual" but who refuse to wear the label "religious". Many of these people claim to have a spiritual side of them (as many humans do) but they do not find the need to be attached to a religious organization of any kind. Some have been wounded by the Church and shy away from any organization that has religious roots. Some enjoy the independence of having no obligations to churches or religious institutions but still want to reflect upon religious matters without having to name them as such. Such persons can make the rules that they want to live by without any interference from religious authorities but still enter into conversation with those who may claim an allegiance to religious groups.
Willimon quotes Karl Barth, a German theologian of the early 20th century, as believing that "we know humanity only on the basis of what we know of God in Jesus Christ." Willimon then adds, "Spirituality gets it the other way around, beginning with human subjectivity and asking what we can know of God based upon what we know of ourselves....Spirituality...is but our latest effort to fashion a God more congenial to how our God ought to look if God were worthy of worship by people like us." (Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2012, p.11)
I think that Willimon has found the center of the reasoning behind why people will call themselves "spiritual" but refuse to be connected to a religious organization, a church perhaps. They want to design their lives according to their wishes and not be bothered by others describing for them what they think a faithful Christian existence should look like. Some persons in this category even inhabit our church rosters, being members in name only on church rolls but rarely if ever attending church services or functions. They have a historical connection to a church but when pressed about being involved in religious circles, they respond with their "spiritual but not religious" moniker or bring out the more common, "You don't have to go to Church to be a Christian." Such persons may have an idea of what they think that Christian life is about but have chosen to separate themselves from the institution that teaches the principles of the Christian faith.
I have had Sundays when our family was on vacation when we did not attend church services. We had a lazy morning, had coffee, read the paper, went for a walk...experienced Sunday as millions of people do each week. It feels good for one Sunday, perhaps is even desirable to do now and then, but something still feels as if it is missing. Maybe it is because I have been involved in church all my life and it is ingrained in me. Maybe it is because I have worked in the church as a pastor for 20 years. Maybe it is just in my DNA...who knows? I do know that being part of a Christian community is important to me because that last word connects me to the first. Community is important regardless of who we are...Christian community surrounds us with love and fellowship and comfort and care when we need those things the most. Being part of a faith community, however we want to define it, is an essential element in many of our lives. It binds us to others who share similar experiences as we share and it defines us as people who need to be part of something much larger than we are alone.
God bless all those whose life journey makes them define themselves as "spiritual but not religious." God help them, though, to become acquainted with others who share their philosophy so that their journey is not a solitary one. Belief in a higher power is important to many. Belief in community is important to most. Belief in the power of many working together is how life operates. Without it, few things could be accomplished.