“I’m spiritual, not religious” is a popular Millennial colloquialism used to express both a distance from rigid religious institutions, but also a confirmation of belief that there is divine purpose to life. It is a term I have used as well while struggling to understand my place in a world where I hate what “Christian” has come to mean, but I still deeply value the teachings of Jesus Christ. If you relate to this struggle, consider joining me in saying the opposite: “I’m religious, not spiritual.”
The Problem Isn’t Too Much Religion, It’s the Lack of It.
“Republicans… Ya’ll need Jesus.”
The religious institutions and organizations of the West haven’t lost their way by taking their religions too seriously, but rather by abandoning their religion all together. They have replaced core foundations of Christianity like caring for the poor, seeking equality, and advocating for justice with greed, fascism, and tribalism.
While it’s true that many operating under the name “Christian” shout about “God’s law” as they fight to segregate the LGBTQ community, diminish women, and persecute immigrants, these are not “laws” - they are out-of-context phrases cherry picked from Scripture. The greatest law of Scripture, declared multiple times by Scripture, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This has been supplanted in Christian culture with, “Love your party above all else, and suspect your neighbor.”
The hypocrisy of this isn’t even subtle anymore. While Evangelicals claim that same-sex marriage will ruin the country, having multiple affairs with three wives and molesting women is just fine. While rampant immigration can raise reasonable questions and disagreement amidst well-meaning people, now we are OK with proactively kidnapping children and breaking up families. One could say we need the teaching of Jesus now more than ever.
Spirituality is a Mask for Hedonism
What do people mean when they say, “spiritual?” Often, it refers simply to our outlook or feeling that “God is in control.” It is a way we categorize whatever personal affectations or habits we have kept from our childhood communities. It means that we are uncomfortable with the restrictions of religion, but enjoy the comforts it may bring us. Whatever we mean when we say it, we usually aren’t referring to our actual CHOICES.
So while modern “Christians” don’t burden themselves with obligations as demonstrated by the Church in the Book of Acts: the sharing of resources, the need for a common table, or the need to reach across social barriers, they indulge in all the narcissistic aspects of spirituality. False Christians love adorning themselves in symbols and trite sayings. They love sensory-jarring concert performances parading as “worship services.” They complement themselves with sermons that reinforce their lifestyles by condemning others and ignore the major choices asked of us by the Gospel.
Religion is About Choices, Spirituality is About Feelings
In the end, religion is about choices. When we look at Saints and those who have actually used religion in a way that contributes to making the world a better place, what they have in common is that they made hard choices based on deep convictions. The religion of MLK wasn’t “comfortable.” The religion of Ghandi wasn’t about “feeling good.” The religion of Mother Teresa wasn’t about “personal realization.” Their religions were about valuing others and being a part of something greater than themselves.
Truly religious people make personal sacrifices and change their lifestyles in ways that most people would find undesirable. They go without so others can have more. They chose to lose material battles in the hopes of winning greater victories for humanity. They give up on their own ambitions to serve the needs of others.
Spiritual people focus on how they feel. They do things that make them feel good. They do “good deeds” that are convenient, then congratulate themselves for how good they are. If something makes them feel bad, then they feel entitled to get rid of it, avoid it, or leave it. Their minds are consumed with their own inner experience and void of the needs of the world around them.
Too Many Rules Killed Good Religion, but Rules Are Necessary.
“Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.” - James 1:27 NJB
So yes, modern day religious organizations are often repulsive with rules ranging from silly to out-right bigoted. But if you look under the surface, you will find that the rules most organizations adopt are the ones they already follow. They use these false rules to feel good about their lives, while judging and looking down on the lives of others. And in this way, it is perfectly understandable why religion is seen so negatively.
However, the rules of real religion are very few and very important. They are rules that help us identify and constrain our worst impulses. They are rules that give us clear direction when making difficult moral choices. Most of all, they are rules that would make the world a better place if we follow them. Thankfully, they are so simple, you don’t have to be a theologian to understand them:
The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill the law. All these: You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and all the other commandments that there are, are summed up in this single phrase: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love can cause no harm to your neighbor, and so love is the fulfillment of the Law. - Romans 13:8–10 NJB