Friday, December 02, 2011

What does it mean to live a spiritual life?

Earlier this week, Father Stephen Freeman offered some thoughts on living a spiritual life, beginning with a nod to those who claim to be 'spiritual but not religious':
It has become a commonplace to hear someone say, "I’m spiritual but not religious." Most people have a general understanding of what is meant. I usually assume that the person holds to a number of ideas that are considered "spiritual" in our culture, but that they are not particularly interested in "organized religion." I understand this, because organized religion can often be the bane of spiritual existence.
Regular readers will recall that I wrote about the 'SBNR' phenomenon in early September and that I've promised to revisit the topic. The post that you are now reading is not that promised follow-up, which I still hope to produce once I feel free enough from other responsibilities (namely, teaching and everything that comes with it) to pull together the various thoughts on the whole SBNR business that have been percolating in my mind since that initial September post. Stay tuned.

Though I plan to say more on issues related to the SBNR phenomenon in another post, for the moment I would like to remind readers of my skepticism regarding the 'spiritual' part of the term 'spiritual but not religious.' I'm sure that Father Stephen is correct in suggesting that some SBNRs "hold[] to a number of ideas that are considered 'spiritual' in our culture," but I also have the impression, based on reading as well as various personal encounters, that some other SBNRs are wholly indifferent to anything that might be labeled as 'spiritual' and simply embrace the SBNR label because it sounds better (or more thoughtful, or less judgmental) than simply admitting that they aren't interested in the realm of the transcendent.

In any event, the real reason that I decided to call your attention to Father Stephen's post is to highlight some paragraphs that explain very well what SBNRs are missing out on:
I am an Orthodox Christian – which is not the same thing as saying that I have an interest in "organized religion." There is much about organized religion that I dislike in the extreme, and I occasionally see its shadow seep into my experience within Orthodoxy. But I repeat unashamedly that I am an Orthodox Christian and admit that one clear reason is that I am not very "spiritual." Without the life of the Church and its Tradition – I could easily drift into a shapeless secularism – living a mediocre existence, marking time until my time is done.

The shapeless contours of spirituality often reflect nothing more than the ego within. How can I escape the confines of my own imagination? It is, of course, possible to ignore the question of the ego’s input and be satisfied with whatever we find comfortable as our "spirituality." But, as noted above, I do not think I am an inherently "spiritual" man.

The Church is spiritual – indeed it is far more spiritual than "organized." It is standing in the midst of the holy (whether I am aware of it or not) and yielding myself to that reality that largely constitute my daily "spirituality." I pray and when something catches my heart, I stop and stay there for a while.
The point that Father Stephen makes here about tradition is critically important. Life with other religious believers can be messy and difficult, frustrating and even disillusioning, but it also provides the only context in which being 'spiritual' makes sense. As Lillian Daniel wrote in the article that prompted my first SBNR post, "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." Without the support and guidance of authority and tradition, 'spirituality' can too easily turn into navel-gazing solipsism.

All of this leads me to the following question: what do we actually mean when we use the term 'spirituality'? One of the reasons that I insist so strongly that 'spirituality' is inseparable from religion is that, without religious moorings, 'spirituality' comes to mean whatever its speaker wants it to mean, losing any stable sense of meaning that can be shared with others. I have sometimes found it easier to establish common ground with adherents of other religious traditions than to do so with 'SBNR' types. People of different religious necessarily disagree on foundational matters, but we can at least agree that foundations are essential. By contrast, the SBNR position seems to treat all foundations as superfluous.

At times, I have jokingly labeled myself as 'religious but not spiritual,' if only to emphasize the critical grounding that religious practice provides for those who wish to live a spiritual life. If I were not rooted in a particular religious tradition that includes concrete beliefs and rituals, I would not be capable of the kind of inner movements that might be termed 'spiritual.' Thus, it may be hard for me to appreciate the motives that some might have for labeling themselves as SBNRs. Nevertheless, I do take the SBNR phenomenon seriously as a pastoral problem, and that is the dimension that I intend to focus upon next time I write about this issue. AMDG.


At 12/03/2011 3:42 PM, Blogger Robin said...

My sense is that many of the SBNR folks are engaged with a spirituality in which the focus is themselves. The idea of a transcendent One who encompasses and is far beyond and yet walks with with us has become a foreign and untenable idea in our culture.

I am interested to see this semester that my college freshmen, most of whom would probably describe themselves as religious and be a bit baffled by the word spiritual, and most of whom have at best a rudimentary understanding of their faith commitment, be it Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim, are easily able to articulate a confidence in a God who is beyond them, powerful, holy, and dependable. (Maybe their understanding isn't rudimentary after all!)

At 12/04/2011 12:40 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


The idea of a transcendent One who encompasses and is far beyond and yet walks with with us has become a foreign and untenable idea in our culture.

I wonder about that, both on the question of how dominant that sentiment would be, and what it even means to speak of "our culture" nowadays. Contemporary society is increasingly fragmented in some respects, but maybe there is still a dominant culture to speak of. I'm not sure where I would come down on all this - I have to think more about it.

. . . most of whom have at best a rudimentary understanding of their faith commitment, be it Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim, are easily able to articulate a confidence in a God who is beyond them, powerful, holy, and dependable...

That's why I think there is a kind of integrity in what might be called the 'RBNS' position that one doesn't from being SBNR. I guess that there are probably still people who go through the motions of being religious but don't feel any kind of spiritual connection, but I suspect their numbers have been reduced by secularization. From what you're describing, it sounds like even those students who are religious in a "rudimentary" sense are able to articulate a sense of spirituality in spite of their own protestations of bafflement. I take that as one proof of the value of religious foundations - they do provide a context in which people develop spiritually, even if they're not consciously aware of it or would be reluctant to describe themselves as 'spiritual.'

At 12/05/2011 1:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that I - most respectfully - can't share your position.

As a young child, the Catholic faith permeated our lives, from the minute we awoke to the minute we laid our heads to rest and invoked the protection of our guardian angels. The clergy we knew was respected and held itself to highest standards. Scandals were about as likely as UFO abductions.

In the recent past, this has not always been the case, and more than a few people have been disappointed and even hurt. How a theologian who baptized his jets on his many travels "Shepherd One" while his crew shredded reports of underlings acting as if they desperately craved millstones can be declared to have lived with "heroic virtue" eludes my limited intellect. I can on the other hand understand why some feel they can't agree. Christ, after all, offered a very different parable of a Good Shepherd. Might one not contend that solipsism is not limited to the SBNRs?

Spiritual but not religious is still preferable to not spiritual and not religious.

At 12/05/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


I readily agree that many bishops, priests, and religious have failed in their obligations and have been responsible for both grave scandal and serious crimes. We need to work hard to earn back the trust of the faithful, but we also need to work to show that living a faith-filled life is worthwhile in a world in which many live contentedly (and morally) without any transcendent reference points.

My key point here is that the question of how one defines 'spirituality' makes a difference - I'm not willing to take all claims of being 'spiritual' at face value.

At 12/05/2011 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your graceful reply.


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