Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Spiritual NOT Religious

Q - I am spiritual, but not religious. Am I going to hell for ignoring “religion” although I embrace spirituality (which includes good actions and values)?

A - Thanks for the question. First off, your eternal destiny is not for me or any other human being to answer, but God alone. When the Bible tells us to "not judge", it is referring to judging the state of another person's soul (for a longer explanation on judging, click here). So, whether or not you will go to heaven is not something that I can answer. But, I know this - regardless of what we have done in the past, God is forgiving as long as we seek out and ask for his forgiveness with a contrite heart.

Before I answer the rest of the question, there is another underlying issue I want to deal with. We cannot earn our way into heaven by doing good things. This is because we could never do enough good to pay the price that our sins have cost us. While we must reflect our faith in our works, it isn't enough just to be a decent person and do good things, because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). This is where the good news of Christ comes in. Even though we are sinners, God comes to offer us forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus' sacrifice for our sins.
"They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God--to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus."
- Romans 3:24-26
So, is being spiritual and not religious enough in the eyes of God? I don't know. But, there is a false dichotomy in this thought. You cannot be truly spiritual without religion. Why? Because religion properly gives boundaries to what is a proper spirituality. I could be a spiritual atheist, but is this going to help me get to heaven?

Cardinal Levada answered a question a few years ago about this subject that might help.

Let me say in general, you raise the question as one that is a phenomena that we look at the idea of spiritual versus the religious. Let’s take cannibalism for example. What is the spirituality of cannibalism? I would say eating is the doctrine. But is there really a spirituality of it and is it a good one? In other words is every spirituality, a spirituality of good? You know today is Halloween there are people who embrace a spirituality whose doctrine is witchcraft. They want to get in touch with a spiritual side but our tradition tells us that there are good spirits and evil spirits. There is good and bad in the spiritual as well as in the human corporeal realm, so spirituality without doctrine is an amorphous spirituality that can be anything I want to make it. People want to break out of what they consider are constrains and limits of those religions. So they say I am spiritual, not religious. But in effect a real spirituality has to involve religion because religion is about how you order your human life vis-à-vis God. That spirituality, there is a kind of popular sense in saying, oh well, I am trying to find something that is helping me to be better that’s spirituality. But religion means that you are face to face with some options that you have to make about whether there is a God and what that God may be asking and what that kind of relationship he wants to have with you, his creature. There is a whole sense in which modern man is saying I don’t want to be a creature. Religion is always going involve a concrete challenge to us in terms of our relationship to God.
There are several types of people who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious".

The first kind of are non-Christians. They may identify with some kind of higher power, but their belief system is quite nebulous.

The second kind are Christians who are quite sincere in their desire to have a personal relationship with Christ, but want to do so without the perceived "baggage" that comes with the idea of being "religious". Now, if you look at the root of what being religious means, you won't find the baggage in the word itself. The definition of religious is not a negative thing.

So, the negativity associated with the word doesn't have to do with definitions or any other objective reality. Rather, it has to do with the perception that there is a rigidity and a formalism that doesn't translate into true transformation of hearts in religious practice. Certainly someone can go to church (any church) and not have a relationship with Christ. But, religion doesn't have to be the cause of such problems. Thus, they are making a dichotomy out of spirituality and religion - spirituality has to do with a personal relationship with God and religion is an institutional and man-made construct that keeps us from a true relationship with God. This is simply a false dichotomy. This understanding has grown stronger since the emergent church movement has picked up steam and post-modernism, eastern prayer, etc. has crept more and more into Christianity.

Religion is not bad - it is good. Religion should be personal (but never private). Religion is when we choose to be bound to God, and if we base religion on such a definition we can see how religion is never a negative thing and in fact how someone can never be spiritual but not religious.

In modern evangelical Christianity (especially in the emergent church movement) this statement can be translated into - "I am a Christian who doesn't subscribe to a particular church or denomination's understanding of doctrine or structure. I am the only one who can authoritatively interpret Scripture for me. I love God and think that the rules aren't for everyone."

They might compare a "religious" person to a Pharisee, who only cares about rules, while the followers of Christ wanted more than just rules. Again, this is a false dichotomy, because Jesus had all kinds of rules, including the fact that he called 12 men to run his Church in a particular manner.

To be "spiritual" isn't enough. A pagan, a witch, a Christian, or a devil-worshiper can all be spiritual and not subscribe to any religious practices. The bible in fact says that religion is a good thing, but it should be a pure kind of religion.
"If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
-James 1:26-27
In other words a religion that isn't enfleshed and lived out does us no good and can become Pharisaical.

In the same manner a spirituality that doesn't have any kind of religion as a guide runs the risk of being self-centered, feel-good, anything-goes, and/or false.

To be spiritual and religious - that is what it means to be in the heart of Christianity - the Catholic Church.

I hope this helps.

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