Spiritual vs. Religious

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 4, 2014

Luke 4:42-44 GNT

One of the common statements today, especially among many young adults, is “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  Perhaps you have heard it.  Maybe one or two of you have even said it.  What got me to thinking about this and instigated this sermon was a request from Mary Lou to list some of the differences between spirituality and religion for one of her support groups at Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services.  So I quickly jotted down some random thoughts of how I personally differentiate spirituality and religion.

But then I thought of how the idea might make for a good sermon.  I remembered having read something about spiritual vs. religious in one of Diana Butler Bass’s books.  So I pulled her books from the shelf and searched until I found it.  And here is what Bass, contemporary commentator on religion and culture, has to say in her book, Christianity After Religion:“In the United States, some 30 percent of adults consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’ . . . [Adversely] In 2009, Princeton Survey Research Associates found that only 9 percent of Americans consider themselves ‘religious but not spiritual. . .”  The trend seems to be that “the word ‘spiritual’ is a far more appealing [positive] term than ‘religious’ [which often is viewed as negative].”  “The phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the contemporary way of trying to explain some sort of connection to God, separate from, in tension with, or in opposition to religious institutions.  The same polls that find religion on the wane also find this thing called ‘spirituality’ on the upswing. . .”

Interestingly, for much of history, the words “religious” and “spiritual” pretty much meant the same thing.  But in the 20th century, the words began to diverge, and “The word spiritual gradually came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience, while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal ritual, and adherence to official denominational doctrines.”2  

Well, from Diana Butler Bass I turned to the Internet to see if anything popped up when I googled “spiritual but not religious,” and as you might imagine, I got several hits.  I will refer to at least one of those momentarily.

But if we were to write the word “Spiritual” on one side of a chalkboard or flipchart and the word “Religious” on the other side, what might we find?  This, by the way, is something that Diana Butler Bass has done quite a bit during her workshops across the country.  Here is what I came up with:

First, on the Spirituality side:

Activity that is good for the soul or spirit

Something that gives one a sense of connecting with or experiencing the Sacred

Gives one a feeling of harmony with the universe

Is an individual emotion; something one feels or experiences

Spiritual practices could take the form of scripture or other devotional reading, prayer, meditation, yoga, reading or writing poetry, immersing oneself in Nature, gardening, Nature hiking, cultivating bonsai, Nature photography, painting, music, sewing, bird feeding and watching, even volunteering in a way to help other people.Spiritual practices can be enjoyed privately as well as in company with others of like mind.

And then on the Religious side we might put:

Activities that are more organized and structured

Related to an institution or following the teachings of a revered leader

Attendance at structured, set services

Something one does (as opposed to something one feels)

Religion collectively mobilizes to make changes in the world or create aid organizations such as orphanages and hospitals or volunteering to help others, such as construction projects, mission trips, volunteering at homeless shelters or soup kitchens, and so on.

Religious activities include prescribed institutional rituals such as confession, sacraments, prescribed prayers and singing.

Religion generally is practiced in community according to set and expected actions and specified beliefs or doctrines.

Religion connects us with a whole history of people and their journey, stories, struggles, traditions, and rituals.

As a negative, religious institutions can become flawed and oppressive.

And so, at first spiritual and religious may seem to be quite separate or different.  But upon closer examination, we find that spirituality and religion can intersect—both in daily life and in the place where one practices religion.  Or to put it another way, the spiritual and religious often can and do overlap, as in the case of prayer, singing, Bible study, volunteering in the service of others, etc.

I am not sure how strongly I agree with this next statement, but the online religious resource beliefnet contends that both “the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ . . . connote belief in a Higher Power of some kind.  Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power.  And, finally, both connote interest in rituals, practices, and daily moral behaviors that foster such a connection or relationship.”

Shifting gears somewhat, in the brief passage I read from Luke, it appears that Jesus was both spiritual and religious.  In the story I read, at daybreak he went off to a lonely place to meditate and pray.  Several times in the gospels it is written that Jesus would go off to a deserted place for prayer and spiritual refreshment.  But then he also celebrated the Jewish religious festivals and attended services in the synagogues, and even taught and preached in them at designated times.  I don’t think for Jesus it was a matter of spirituality OR religion, one or the other.  But rather, spirituality AND religion.  The two don’t have to be exclusive one of the other.  One should be able to nurture his or spirituality at church, within organized religion, through small group studies, music, sermons, and such.  But one can also supplement his or spirituality outside of organized religion through personal reading and study, meditation, gardening, nature hikes, and the like.

Diana Butler Bass states that of late “The real switch has been among those people . . . who now are heading toward a new self-understanding and public expression—a longing, perhaps—to be ‘spiritual and religious.”  United Church of Christ minister and writer, Lillian Daniel, is a good case in point.  Lillian wrote some time ago, “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  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 deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

As you probably have gathered by now, personally, I don’t think one has to choose to be spiritual OR religious, to the exclusion of one or the other.  I, personally, enjoy my private spiritual practices—reading and meditating, bird feeding and watching, Nature photography, Nature hikes, reading and writing poetry, create bonsai gardens, and the like.  I find these activities to be spiritual practices that nourish my soul or spirit.   But I also enjoy and am strengthened by my religious practices—attending worship and singing the great hymns of faith, leading communal responsive readings, saying prayers on behalf of our collective congregation, the Wednesday evening communal dinners, giving my monthly offerings, and serving together in ways that help make the world a better place.  The truth is, there are many things that we can do together as a religious community that we could never do apart if all of us only engaged in private spiritual activities that made us feel good.

So, from my perspective, it shouldn’t be a question of spiritual OR religious, or religious but not spiritual.  For Jesus, it was spiritual AND religious.  And ideally it should be for us as well.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

1Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion.  New York: HarperOne, 2012.  Pp. 66, 67, 87.

2Bass, p. 67.

3Bass, p. 94.

4Lillian Daniel, “Spiritual but not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  United Church of Christ daily devotional, Jan. 9, 2011.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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