I’m spiritual, but not religious. In popular vernacular, I’ve understood this to mean that to be spiritual is to have subjective, internal feelings and notions of the divine, but to be religious is to be committed to a particular concrete practice, a community, a tradition. It’s an immensely popular idea, almost a dogmatic tradition unto itself. And I get it. At its best, the descriptor acts as a principled resistance to cold dogmas, heartless practices, brittle words that wound rather than heal in a complicated, harsh world. Fair enough; we need some resistance here. We need dissenters to keep us honest because God knows religion gets just as destructive and deranged as anything we humans get involved with. It’s why the Scriptures have the prophets.
But in the end, the line just won’t do for me. Initially, it has a nice ring to it; but the notion ultimately leaves me hollow. Like those massive conifers we saw in the Scottish Highlands–magnificent, towering and gutted to the core. Devoured from the inside, there was nothing left to hold them strong, nothing to hold them in their beauty. They’d fall, with great heaves, and rot into the wet sod.
In the end, it’s not vague notions of faith that keep me steady and rouse my hope. It’s Jesus, the one who was murdered on a heavy Roman cross and who rose again out of one particular tomb. It’s Jesus’ very particular and very difficult (if not insane) words about loving enemies and laying down my life, alongside instructions to care for the poor and the stranger and widows (what the Good Book calls ‘true religion’), that arrest me. I’m to resist the allure of power. I’m to turn away from greed. I’m to pursue love of neighbor and submission to God’s people. This Jesus makes demands upon me. Jesus asks me whether or not I will follow. I can obey, or I can disobey–but either way, it’s something solid, something that stands in my way, something that offers to hold me fast, if I’ll have it. It’s very particular.
Abstract ideals don’t have the grit I know is required to save me. Rather, it is Jesus’ body broken in the bread, Jesus’ blood spilt in the wine. It is my actual neighbor actually sitting next to me (someone I may not like, if I just get to choose), as we eat and drink together. It is the songs we sing and the Scriptures we hear. It is our commitment to living in this actual world (not the idea of a world). To say I’m spiritual but not religious would be, for me, like saying I believe in community but don’t want a friend or I love the wild but would never actually set foot in a forest. I need the real stuff.
Jesus, the harshest critic of distorted religion in history, didn’t set up general spiritual concepts. Jesus got dunked in water, gave us bread and wine around a Table – and then said, “Keep doing all this. Together. In my name.”
In a creative roundabout that showed no disrespect to St. Paul’s original line, T.S. Eliot once wrote an essay resisting popular notions that dismissed Christian doctrine and practice as primitive and unenlightened. “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” Eliot wrote. Eliot insisted that our vague ideas about religion (the spirit of the day) inevitably degrade into false, if not self-serving, caricatures. But the particular, the actual details, the demands even – that’s where the fire burns.