By Joe Morris Doss
Spiritual Without Being Religious. Really?
Sounds sort of nice, but what does that mean?
In 1960 I was a youth delegate to The 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth. Ike was president and greeted us to the conference. I recall him saying that he was concerned about a future in which so many youth seemed uncommitted and had trouble articulating any belief. He noted that some pundits had dubbed us “The Lost Generation.” Then he concluded, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe.” It was only a short time later that I opened Time Magazine to see a young teenager sitting on a hospital table for an examination before having an abortion, and crying. She was wearing a sweatshirt with the quote: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe As Long As You Believe.” My memory is that my heart went out to her, and I hoped she could believe in her future.
I think of that from time to time, and consider how well the quote spoke to the rising generation’s besetting religious issue. Most young people of that generation were raised either Christian or Jewish, but many more than the previous generations were easing away from the faith handed to them by their family and society. Many of these remained churchgoers and considered themselves “religious,” but they were adhering more to cultural expectations and had less of a grip on what made their belief distinctive and meaningful. They developed, as I put it, a strong Christian memory but they were satisfied with little “belief,” and what they held was largely sentimentality. Ike was right about his anxiety, but in my opinion he had the wrong solution. Belief is not a value in itself and belief in “whatever” can be a form of self-delusion.
The next generations eased on down the line in the process of going from “religious without formed belief” to today’s “spiritual without religion.” A New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer provides information about the latest developments in this pattern of being “spiritual without being religious”: “So many Americans describe their belief system this way that pollsters now give the phrase its own category on questionnaires. In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated — and nearly 37 percent of that group said they were ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious.’ It was 7 percent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians.”
The Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a book on the subject, “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough” (Jericho, 2013). Her frustration resonates for me. What can being spiritual mean without the presence of the divine? I’m not talking about the presence of the divine in beautiful scenes of nature or sentimental memories, but what does being spiritual mean without mining down deep into one’s selfhood to discover the incarnational reality of God in whom human beings live and move and have our being?
I feel a bit guilty in saying so, but without what spiritual mining is about and without living in a community of those committed to one another and to the service of the world, I find the phrase “spirituality” rather empty. What is this spirit, from whence does it come, why is it there and for what?
The Rev. Daniel speaks for me in pointing out that “spirituality,” in and of itself, fits too snugly with complacency, whereas religion challenges the faithful to deal with life and with what requires courage and faith, which absorbs and uses both the pain and the opportunities in facing death, fighting poverty and opposing injustice. Religion, by bringing people together, in community, at regular intervals, facilitates an ongoing conversation about matters outside the self, and making for selfhood.
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
Spirituality without being religious? Really?