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.