Spiritual, not Religious

Spiritual, not Religious

Buddhist meditation…seeks not to explain but to pay attention, to become aware, to be mindful, in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas…

Thomas Merton[1]

One of the underlying components differentiating Churchianity from Christianity is the distinction between religion and spirituality. My sense is that the divergence has only recently become as stark as it is today. An increasingly common response to questions about one’s religious beliefs is this: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Typically, this means that one believes in God or a Higher Power but shies away from participation in a church. Right or wrong, the term religion has come to be exclusively associated with churches. Today, regardless of denomination, worship practices, doctrinal beliefs, teaching, fellowship, or outreach, if it is associated with church, it falls under the category of religion.

Spirituality, on the other hand, has much broader and less well-defined or organized implications. Spirituality, in general, focuses on experiences that are often beyond reason and logic. A spiritual experience may or may not make logical sense because it appeals to other parts of us than the intellect, be it emotional, instinctual, or another subconscious part of our being. Spiritual practices may range from something as secular as breathing exercises to yoga to various rituals and incantations that are not church sanctioned or sponsored. Particularly in the rise of Protestantism, many of the practices of the Roman Catholic church were shunned. The statues and icons used for focused prayer were labeled as idols. The veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was considered goddess worship. The use of incense was suspected as a nod to paganism. Chanting inspired accusations of the occult and witchcraft. Poetry, non-biblical art, dance, and other artistic expressions were excommunicated to somewhere outside of the church.

Many common spiritual practices today come from these formerly common religious practices, often under different names. Silent prayer, a staple of the spiritually contemplative life, is often referred to as meditation. The intent of both silent prayer and meditation is to silence our internal chatter, even though each has numerous variations. Meditation, however, is a more acceptable term to the religion-averse crowd than is prayer. The use of incense and fragrant oils, liturgical dance and reverential movement, rhythmic chanting, extended periods of silence, and many other experiential forms of worship have been expelled from the world of religion and relegated to the realms of spirituality.

While spirituality and religion were once considered essentially synonymous, the separation likely began during the (so-called) Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in the West, which spawned Protestantism as a counter-movement to the Roman Catholic church.. This was an age where intellectualism took center stage as the highest form of human development. Whatever did not appeal to the intellect was relegated to a lesser status, including experiential worship. Large masses of the population learned to read, and the invention of the printing press made reading materials, including the Bible, widely available. It was a major and necessary step ahead in human evolution except for one glaring omission: as we fed our intellects, we starved the other parts of our being, especially our non-intellectual, spiritual nature. Churches, including the Roman Catholic church, began to focus more on explaining our relationship to God at the expense of leading worshippers to an actual experience of our relationship with God.

Religion, particularly in Protestant churches, began minimizing most things that did not appeal to the intellect, while attempting to rationalize what it could not reject. Sermons, instead of being short homilies that were a minor part of the larger Mass, became the primary focus of worship, often consuming half or more of the service time. Charismatic preachers – those who hold audiences captive with their speaking prowess – woo large audiences with extra-biblical, intellectualized commentary on their topic of choice, often a black-and-white description of the “correct” way to interpret select Bible passages. Of course, their topic of choice often includes the sinfulness of man, the condemnation to hell for eternity, and the salvation only available through the church, especially their church. Never mind that these topics are, arguably, of minor significance in the Bible as a whole. The experience of a mysterious, unfathomable, loving, and inclusive God becomes lost to their concrete descriptions of a small, violent, punishing God – descriptions designed more to fill pews with fearful parishioners than to discern the loving acceptance of God.

In some cases, explanations are necessary and helpful. Some events in life, however, either defy an intellectual explanation or are unacceptably cheapened by one. As we experience those types of events, religion often struggles with its ability to offer an appropriate response.

This is the 22nd in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.


[1] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1968, p. 38.

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