Spiritual But Religious

This essay was originally published in September 2011 at Creedible.com.

On August 31st, a colleague and long-time friend of mine, the Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel, published a short reflection titled “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” in the United Church of Christ’s Daily Devotional series. In it, she described her frustration with some airplane conversations she’s had, in which seatmates assure her that they find all the spiritual sustenance they need outside established religions. “Being private spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she says. “Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?”


Lillian is a gifted writer, and when she chooses not to pull punches, she hits hard. I found her piece simultaneously refreshing and discomforting. I knew quite well that those who pictured themselves in the seat of the “spiritual but not religious person” would likely be deeply offended. It took me quite some time to decide to share it with my friends, many of whom are religious, but many of whom are not, on Facebook.

My predictions were not disappointed. It’s been one of the most discussed things I’ve ever shared. Some condemn her for her condescension, while others praise her insight. What I think I’m seeing in both responses is very deep pain from people who’ve experienced significant hurt because their spiritual insights and foundations have been censured. And I’m seeing it equally from the spiritual but not religious, and from the spiritual and religious.

So I’m taking a step back, because it seems to me the only way to really begin a conversation about this precious part of ourselves is to tell our own stories. How did I come to choose a faith community to nurture my spirit? How did you choose you path to nurture yours?

Obligatory warning, Gentle Reader. I chose a faith community, and I’ve stayed with it. I’m not unbiased here. I chose a way because I think it’s a better one, and although it may not be better for everyone, I think it probably is for most. But I’ll get to that. Here’s the story:

I was raised in a pretty straightforward New England Protestant church family – both the congregation and my own birth family. That meant Sunday School, church picnics, and the awareness that it was very important to my parents. They sang in the choir, served on committees, and my mother taught Sunday School (though not to me).

As I entered my adolescent years, I rejected it all. Mine was a fairly mild expression of adolescent rebellion (my parents might disagree with that), but on the topic of religion, I was adamant. Well, almost. I would not take part in the Confirmation Class, but I chose not to fight the weekly battle to stay home on Sunday mornings. I sat in the balcony, got involved with a youth ushers program because it was better than doing nothing for an hour, and took solace in the three hymns we got to sing.

I like to sing.

I would not have described myself as “spiritual but not religious” in those days. The term spiritual was about, but it hadn’t lost its anchor in the house of faith. I’m pretty sure I would have said I found more inspiration in the mountains than in the church, but I wouldn’t have connected it to God, either.

But my presence in the community of faith was a powerful influence, and so was the movement of God in the world. Yes, I’m convinced that God worked directly with me, sometimes through music, sometimes through relationships, sometimes through the wonders of nature, sometimes through literature, sometimes through family. One a special, startling night while I was in high school, I heard God’s voice for the first time and knew it for what it was, even if it was telling me I’d just done something stupid and my next task was to apologize.

How did I know that voice? I’d been trained to recognize it in a community of faith. I’m not sure we’re always concretely aware that that’s what we do, but it is. In the ancient stories, and in the comforting presence of the occasional person whose serenity just glows, and in the hymn lyrics and sermons and the rhythm of the prayers, I found the tools to recognize Who was Speaking when I heard the Voice.

It was still a struggle, a couple years later, when that Still Speaking God started pushing me not just to participate in a house of faith, but to consider being part of its leadership. I held off the voice of God as long as I could (which wasn’t, actually, all that long, though it certainly seemed so at the time), and then sought out the path to seminary.

I think the spiritual life is hard. God’s is not the only voice I’ve heard in my time. There are the siren calls of the commercialized media, the body’s insistence that want is the same as need, the way greed masquerades as wisdom, and the cries of those who mistake prejudice for revelation. From within and without, the spirits fly back and forth, calling, summoning, commanding, beseeching. John, in his first epistle, was not kidding in the least when he urged his readers to test the spirits, because they aren’t all from God. No, the spiritual life is hard.

Coming to religion made my spiritual life just a little bit easier. Muslims have been learning to discern the will of God for about 1400 years; Christians for about 2000. Dating the founding of Judaism is much more difficult, but it’s at least 3000 years. Hinduism is probably impossible to date accurately, but it could go a thousand years or more before that. Millions of believers and practitioners have created, argued, considered, rejected, reconsidered, renewed, revised, and reformed the families of faith the world over.

The fact that we still get punchy (sorry, Lillian) even with all these centuries of spiritual treasure at hand just demonstrates how hard this truly is. Those who find their path to spiritual enrichment on their own, or with a small self-selected community, have my complete and utter admiration. They’ve accomplished something magnificent.

For the rest of us, I’d recommend a path with company. With guides who sometimes disagree and argue with each other, and who can be remarkably arrogant, too. But company. Companions. Friends. Pilgrims, to walk not an easy way, but one that’s eased.

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