What Do We Say about,... Being Spiritual but not Religious?

Luke 15:11-32
January 29, 2012

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

I want to begin by asking you to look up on your computer a video on YouTube.  It’s a video that’s gone viral (for those who don’t know what that means, it means that word-of-mouth about it has led millions of people to watch the video).  The video is by a Seattle man, Jefferson Bethke, and it speaks to many in the younger generations about their take on religion.  Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY

This video seems to make a lot of sense to a lot of people, but it has a major flaw, which is that you really can’t be a Christ-follower and at the same time declare yourself to be non-religious.  This video is a Christian version of a wider belief in our culture that you can be “spiritual but not religious.”  And this belief has the same flaw as the video, but I’ll get to that in a bit. 

I certainly understand the whole “I’m spiritual but not religious” attitude.  I shared it for at least eight years.  I mentioned last week that I dabbled with atheism for about a year, but after that I pretty much declared myself to be “spiritual but not religious.”  What was ironic was that I still said it while I was in seminary.  I really struggled with religion.  I understood personally how “spiritual but not religious” people look at our churches and think, “Man!  I don’t want to be like them.”  They say it because among us they see so many people who are clearly “religious but not spiritual,”

They see people in church, or who proclaim themselves to be Christian, but who don’t seem to have a loving bone in their body.  They see pettiness among Christians.  They hear gossip and criticism among Christians.  They see bad behavior and a lack of compassion (of course, I’m not talking about Calvin Presbyterian Church members ;-).  They see religious leaders on television and the internet who seem bigoted and dismissive of everyone who isn’t Christian like them.  It becomes easy for them to think that, “religion gets in the way of faith and spirituality, and I want to have nothing to do with it.” 

I get all this because I personally said all this.  But what changed my mind was something a New Testament professor of mine said in my last year of seminary.  I don’t remember what we were talking about, but he made the comment that “You can’t follow Christ without a community, and the people of Jesus’ times understood this because they weren’t individuals.”  That’s a hard statement for us to digest because it doesn’t quite make sense to us modern Americans.  He explained that back in Jesus’ day, people weren’t individuals.  Individualism—the tendency to see ourselves as individuals first, part of a group second, was a modern concept.  Back in Jesus’ day, the phrase, “be your own man,” or “just be yourself” would have made no sense. 

In Jesus’ day it was your family, your community, and your religion that gave you a sense of identity.  The people of his day identified themselves by their community (Jesus of Nazareth) and by their tribe (the twelve tribes of Israel).  They had no concept of being anything but religious since their religion, Judaism, was their identity.  To say that Jesus hated religion and came to abolish it simply wasn’t true.  Jesus’ religion was part of his identity. 

The professor’s statement made me realize that claiming that we are “spiritual but not religious” is a view of faith that arises out of our cultural trap.  We modern Americans are trapped in a perspective that is uniquely American and modern.  America is obsessed with individualism.  We worship the individual.  We worship those who stand out from the crowd as individuals and seem to have made it, whether we are talking about Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Sydney Crosby, Tom Brady, Taylor Swift, Brad Pitt, or any one of a thousand different people. 

The sociologist Robert Bellah was one of the first to really talk about the American obsession with individualism.  In his groundbreaking book, Habits of the Heart, he pointed out that America was settled by individualists who were willing to leave family and friends to strike out on their own in a new land. This ethos has stayed with us, but nowadays it seems like it is on steroids.  He even coined a term for this kind of religious individualism: Sheilaism. He coined the term after interviewing a woman named Sheila Larson, who told him that “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way.  It’s Sheilaism.  Just my own little voice…  It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.”  Bellah and his researchers noticed in this that people were creating their own religion based on their own beliefs, and that Sheila wasn’t alone.

I was an adherent of Sheilaism (well,… Grahamism, actually).  And the movement from being an individual to being part of a religious community was hard on me.  That’s one reason my Ph.D. dissertation explored the movement from an individualistic to a communal spirituality.  I realized that to grow spiritually we need to become part of a spiritual community, but for many Americans that is very difficult, especially since modern culture has become so much more individualistic than even when I was a kid.

Our passage for this morning has something to say about this individualism.  The prodigal son was an individualist.  He wanted his money, his share, of his inheritance so that he could go out and do his own thing, be his own man, and find himself.  But when it all went bad he realized that he needed something beyond himself, and that to find it he had to both rejoin his family and his community.

Basically, the point of everything I’m saying is that being “spiritual but not religious” eventually makes us neither spiritual nor religious. Why do I say this?  Let’s look at several reasons.

First, the “spiritual but not religious” crowd treats spirituality like a smorgasborg or buffet.  I want you to imagine that after church you go down to the Sheraton in Cranberry Township for the Sunday brunch.  You get up from your table and make your way to the buffet.  There’s so much yummy stuff.  You can get a freshly made belgian waffle with syrup, whipped cream, and blueberries.  You can get crepes.  You can get eggs benedict.  You can get muffins and danishes.  You can get bacon and sausage.  Sure, there’s healthy stuff there, but you’re not going to eat much of that.  You’re not there for that.  But then think about how do you feel afterwards? Sluggish?  Tired?  A bit sick? 

Being focusing on taste, not health, is the whole reason for being there.  People who are “spiritual but not religious” treat faith and spirituality like a buffet.  They pick and choose among all the religions and their teachings to take what feels good, tastes good, and is easy.  By and large they aren’t choosing the tough parts about practicing faith and growing spiritually—things like being part of a community that pushes you to pray, study, become self-disciplined, work together, and care for people and situations beyond yourself.  Growing in faith takes work, commitment, struggle, and learning.  The “spiritual but not religious” crowd treats growing spiritually like all it takes is a walk in the woods.  They say things like “Well, I find God more in the woods or in a park than I do in church.”  So?  Often I do too?  But the woods don’t push me to grow.  They don’t push me to care about others.  They don’t push me to feed the poor, help the afflicted, care about the oppressed.  Growing spiritually isn’t just about feeling good.  It’s about being pushed to stretch and grow beyond ourselves.  When we pick and choose, like in a buffet, it dulls our senses rather than enlivening them.  It really makes us neither spiritual nor religious.

Second, despite what the video clip says, Jesus was religious.  Jesus was a deeply religious man.  For example, in scripture what name did the disciples give Jesus?  Often they called him “rabbouni” or “rabbi.”  He was a rabbi, acting out of the Jewish rabbinical tradition.  That’s why he had twelve disciples.  That was typical of rabbis in that day and age.  Rabbis (the term means “teacher”) generally gathered a group of disciples (students) around them, and they would live together while the rabbi taught them day-to-day how to live in obedience to the Law.  By gathering twelve disciples around him, Jesus was living out of the Jewish religion.  He also was known to worship and read in the synagogue, and he spent time in the Temple.  He might have caused problems there, but only because he overturned the tables of the moneychangers he saw as corrupting the religious practices of the Temple.  He was protecting the religion, not trying to abolish it.  He was trying to reform it, but that’s different from hating it or wanting to abolish it. 

Third, the “I’m a follower of Jesus, or “spiritual but not religious” crowd also ignore what religion does that is crucial.  Religion offers teachings, practices, rituals, and opportunities that open people up to God.  These are opportunities that the “not religious” crowd often doesn’t think about. Everything at Calvin Presbyterian Church is geared towards engaging us in activities that stretch and grow us spiritually.  We worship, offer and take classes, engage in times of prayer, are part of small groups, give to charity, and engage in a LOT of mission.  Everything we do stretches us to grow beyond our self-complacent spirituality.  Our spirituality is a lived out spirituality that pushes us to reach beyond ourselves in many, many ways.

It’s this opportunity to practice faith and spirituality that’s the most important.  What we want to be is spiritual and religious, because the combination is powerful in helping us actually grow to be deep spiritual people.  But when people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” they are saying that they are spiritual but really don’t want to practice their spirituality in any way that may cause them to really grow.  It’s kind of like saying, “I’m into nature, but I don’t like to be outside.”  “I’m athletic, but I don’t do sports.”  “I’m a learner, but I don’t believe in education.”  “I’m an actor, but I don’t believe in plays, films, and television.” 

To grow in anything you have to be stretched to grow.  What stretches people who are “spiritual but not religious?”  Walking in woods?  That’s not stretching.  That’s relaxing.

The basic problem of being “spiritual but not religious” is that doing it on your own, according to your own whims, following your own way, creating our own practices, and being our own guides actually pulls us away from being spiritual.  It makes us neither spiritual nor religious.  Not being religious kind of makes us like a spiritual water spiders who can skitter all over the surface, looking at interesting things, but unable to go into any depth.  We never discover what’s deeper down because we stay on the surface. 

I’ll close with a parting comment by reminding you that we still have to listen deeply and carefully to what people who are “spiritual but not religious” have to say to us about us.  I may have argued against what they say, but their criticism of us is still legitimate.  When they say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” they are reminding us that we are deeply called to be spiritual and religious, rather than religious but not spiritual.  We are called to be beacons of light, and not just empty lanterns.