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Another Take on Spiritual But not Religious

By September 27, 2014 No Comments

Jim Bratt is away today. We thank Paul Janssen for being our guest blogger.

The church is hardly crying out for another take on “spiritual but not religious.” Googling the phrase yields a fairly impressive 2,940,000 results, many of which tumble about the internet like a sock that never manages to find its way out of the dryer. (What? Again!?) It’s more than a meme: it’s a staple of conversation on airplanes (better, my clergy friends, to take a fat book with you than to hear yet another fellow passenger tell you why she’s spiritual…), in after-worship small groups (tsk tsk! say the good churchified to the barely-distinguishable from pagan spiritual…), even in the op-ed pages of major newspapers. You won’t have made your way through the 20teens without having heard at least a dozen folks tell you why they’re spiritual, but not religious.

I’d long since made peace with their protest (because I’ve usually heard in wrapped in some form of protest), interpreting it to mean something like “I want to get all the good-feeling grace of God stuff you people peddle, but without the institutional obligations. Don’t want to be asked to teach Sunday School. Or to dress up on Sunday morning. For that matter, to wake up an hour later than I usually do (which somehow equates with “early”) just to haul it into a room where a fumblemouthed preacher yuks up the liturgy and yaks up the sermon. Certainly not to sing songs whose words scream ‘1843!’ Or talk into the air as if someone were actually listening.”

That’s the sort of place my Myers-Briggs “J” side goes when it’s had just a bit too much to drink and all inhibitions are off. Which means I’m listening to my “J” talking, not to the folks who are actually saying it.

I’m learning that what “spiritual but not religious” means to me is not at all what people have actually meant, when I shut down long enough to listen. Here are a few other possibilities.

“I want to exercise my spiritual muscles in a context that will actually enhance their growth, not bind them so tightly that they have nowhere to go—but where someone else wants them to go.”

“I’m beat up and bruised enough: I need to stay away from places that will detract from my humanity. And that’s what I’ve gotten too much from religious institutions.”

“Yes, I do want to be intensely, passionately involved with God, but not in such a way that the God-thing becomes a colossal time-suck.”

Each of these interpretations resists the “ligio”—the bindingness of religious practice. Many of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd have too often encountered church life as a series of “heavy, cumbersome loads” put on their shoulders by leaders unwilling to bear the loads themselves. What they’re looking for is salvation from the church.

Not “looking for the salvation that the church can provide.” But “salvation from the ossified ligaments” that the church of their memory or imagination does in fact provide.

I’ve been doing some work lately on the notion of “salvation.” Most of my life it’s been a more or less forensic/juridical concept. I’m bad, can’t do better, deserve to be sentenced, but, in the words of a campfire song of my youth, “Jesus took my burden all away.”

What I’m finding is that there is another vision, or version, of salvation; one that has enough warrant in the Scriptures to satisfy those who need doctrine to be tied to some authority beyond Oprah or Rob Bell. You can find it in Psalm 118:5 (“When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord, he brought me into a spacious place”) but it’s not hard to find elsewhere—a metaphor of salvation as “spacious place.” Someone once said he went before us to make room for us, right? Not a few folks contend that Jesus spoke in parables, not because he wanted to explain the world to us (thus close it down) but to open us to the wide-open alternative vision that is God’s fair reign over the (constrictive, anti-human) powers that be.

I seem to recall that AA Van Ruler once offered up the aphorism that goes more or less like this: “God did not make us human to become Christians, but made us Christians to become human.”

That, I suspect, is what the “spiritual but not religious” crowd may wish. They’re really not trying to be snippy (how dare they poke at the institution to which I’ve dedicated my heart and soul!), just trying to be, well, human. Trying to get a little breathing room, away from sanctuaries as cluttered as attics with both physical artifacts and mental attitudes that come straight out of the 1940’s. Looking for authenticity more than answers, for dignity more than doctrine. Maybe even listening for a voice that cuts through the accretions, a voice without guile that says simply, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” If “spiritual but not religious” is what it takes for me and my ilk to speak plainly what Jesus said plainly, well, bring it on.

Paul Janssen is the Pastor and Teacher of United Reformed Church in Somerville, New Jersey, a congregation with a history of standing on the cutting edge of ministry in the RCA. He is loving being near Gardner Sage Library at New Brunswick Theological Seminary (and Speer at Princeton).

Paul Janssen

Paul Janssen is the pastor of the United Reformed Church in Somerville, New Jersey.

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