Thinking about clichés last week, put me in mind of one more than needs some exploration.
This is the oft heard statement “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious’.
It is interesting that the form of cliché that people use to say “I don’t go to Church” has changed over the years.
In the days when I first became a priest people used to say “Well you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’, now they say “I’m spiritual but not religious”
When I ask “What practices do you do that make you call yourself ‘spiritual’ they will often say “Well I sometimes talk God in the car, or before I go to bed.’ Sometimes they will say “I believe that there is as higher power and that everything happens for a reason.’ Then sometimes people might say “Well I believe in the power of crystals, and I have a ‘dream-catcher’ above my bed. I try to be ‘mindful’ too.
These are good practices I think, for an eclectic kind of spirituality. And I am not against borrowing from other traditions either.
Meditation, for example, is a practice hat has been in the forefront of Eastern religion, but until recently (I mean perhaps he 1960s) this kind of prayer has not been common in Christianity, even thought it has been a part of our tradition.
But the thing that worries me about this cliché are two things. First, it is individualistic. As such it cannot have much force to shape a person’s life.
There is truth in the song ‘For The Union Makes Us Strong’ which says ‘Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one!’
In an individualistic age, people are conned I think into believing that their beliefs are theirs alone. In fact beliefs and practices derive from traditions that are collectively held. So while it is necessary that congregations attend to the individual journeys of their members in a way that was not done before, it is also true that modern individualists need to attend to the collective nature of belief. You can’t have spirituality without religion (collective spirituality). Well, you might be able to have spirituality without religion, but only at the cost of a wilful blindness as to where these spiritual practices come from.
Religion represents the collective expression of spirituality, and lets people know that they are not ‘alone’ in sharing these practices.
But the other thing that worries me about the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ cliché is that it is a ‘close down’ sentence but not an ‘opening up’ sentence.
The person who says it says “Here is what I think. It nods in your direction, because you too might be spiritual, but because you go to Church on Sunday, you are ‘religious’ I don’t go to Church on Sunday, I’m not ‘religious’, but that’s ok so don’t raise this question with me.
In a sense, I think that ‘religious people’ could be more ‘spiritual’ and ‘spiritual’ people could be more ‘religious’ because both ways of being are interdependent, and belong together. It is a mistake to separate them because to do so means that the ‘spiritual’ person is relying on their heritage of religion, but not acknowledging it and giving it its due value, or being influenced at the collective level by some other claim on their ultimate values (religion) that is also unconsciously held (like work, family, sporting association).
I am also aware that just writing this is not going to change anyone. People are more likely to act themselves into new ways of thinking, than think themselves into new ways of acting.
Here is an experiment I did in the early 2000s. I thought that the Gospel stories were pretty good, and that they held lots of numinous power, or ‘surplus meaning, following Michael Polyani.
Anyone , religious, spiritual or undefined could these stories, and ask, “So what does this story say to me, and what can we do about this in the next period of time? Responding to the stories is what is important. The God who stands behinds the stories ids not an impersonal ‘higher power’ in whom one has to believe, this God comes with our appreciation of and responding to these stories.
So in the responding and acting, spirituality and religion unite in the group of people gathered to read them.
We did this experiment with a group of Christi9ans from the local congregation, and some other people who were friends of mine.
We had our share of difficulties, but in the end, I think that this form of meeting is a way of getting beyond the exchanges of ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ or this kind of reflection that tries to open up the intellectual holes in this cliché. I guess I’m with Nick Cave “And I believe there’s some kind of path….that we can walk down, me and you.”