According to the most recent surveys of religion in America, somewhere between a fourth and a third of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
Many of my friends identify this way. Their beliefs fall on a wide spectrum from “I believe in a higher power with whom I communicate and pray to,” to “I think I believe in God but why would I bother going to church?” Some even admire and follow many of Jesus’ teachings specifically but don’t claim membership in any particular faith community or tradition.
When we’ve talked about their skepticism regarding organized religion, they often express sentiments along the lines of:
“Religion just seems like a lot of rules;”
“The people are self-righteous and hypocritical;”
“I don’t like what the Church teaches regarding politics, money, or moral issues;”
“How do I pick just one religion? There’s so many, which is the right one? And if I pick one, am I then saying that I think all the other religions are wrong or going to hell?”
Yet despite all these reservations, my friends tell me they sense within their heart they belong to something bigger than themselves. As a high school teacher of theology and religious studies, I’ve walked with many teens and young adults as they’ve struggled to reconcile their desire for God with the shortcomings of religion and the humans who comprise them. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from those conversations.
Feed the fire
The most spiritually alive people are the ones who never stop searching. If you have questions, ask them. If you want answers, pursue them. Read, study, discuss, pray, worship. You aren’t the first or the last person to walk this journey, and the overwhelming majority of human experience tells us that there are real answers to be found.
Most traditions teach that God is infinite, mysterious, and inexhaustible — but that we can still learn and know a great many things. Mathematics and numbers are infinite — we will never know all there is to know about them — yet we can still learn algebra and calculus. The same is true of God: we can come to know him even if He’s a mystery.
So, as the Good Book says, “Seek and ye shall find.” This is important whether you are religious or not. The ongoing search helps the spiritual seeker to find answers and keeps the religious person from settling into stale ritualism.
One of my college friends stopped going to Mass in the middle of our freshmen year because he said he couldn’t stand the people. According to him, the church-goers were either hypocrites — at church on Sunday after binge-drinking and random hook ups on Saturday — or blind sheep just doing what they were taught by their parents.
His experience caused me, as a religious person to ask myself: Am I self-righteous? Am I a hypocrite who talks the talk without walking of the walk? Am I mindlessly clinging to comfortable traditions? Am I letting others do the thinking for me?
At the same time, there’s also a voice in my head asking me: Can’t I still learn from imperfect people? Aren’t I also imperfect and hypocritical in some ways? Couldn’t I reach out in service, rather than look down in judgement? Am I letting other people’s shortcomings stand between me and my spiritual growth? Isn’t learning to love and be loved by imperfect people part of the spiritual journey?
Being part of a team
Perhaps this is why so much of St. Paul’s writing (1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Galatians especially) focuses on teaching imperfect people to navigate community conflicts: the conflict is part of the point of the community.
If Jesus had wanted to, He could have said, “Alright, now everybody listen to my words but then do your own thing and don’t get in each other’s way.” But He didn’t — He assembled a community (in Greek, the word is ekkelsia; in English we use “Church”), and gave it a mission (living and seeking the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven) and leaders (apostles) to guide it.
Down through the years, this community has developed a vast tradition of writing, music, art, and architecture from which we can learn and grow. And as frustrating as community can be, it can also be an amazing support system. A strong community:
· prays for and with you;
· celebrates spiritual milestones with you;
· guides your conscience on important personal and social issues;
· accompanies you on journey;
· benefits from your gifts and contributions;
· gives you opportunities to step into leadership roles;
· teaches you;
· picks you up when you fall down;
· corrects you when you go astray;
…the list could go on. Sure, I may be able to find some of these on my own, but to really go deeper in the spiritual life, I need community and they need me.
Spiritual AND religious
A wise spiritual mentor once told me that religion without spirituality is dead, and that spirituality without religion is lost.
Without a vibrant personal spirituality, religion becomes mere tradition — blind obedience going through the motions. Religion becomes what Jesus referred to as “whitewashed tombs” — pretty on the outside but a rotting corpse on the inside.
Without a strong religious community, spirituality becomes entirely about me — my own thoughts, desires, and whims. Spirituality becomes me shaping God in my image, rather than the other way around.
Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, God bless you. I encourage you and pray for your on-going search. Here’s an ancient prayer from St. Benedict — one that I believe anyone can pray no matter how religious or unreligious you may be. I invite you to find a quiet moment to read and pray it with an open heart and mind.