Spiritual, not Religious, Part 6

Spiritual, not Religious, Part 6

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Matthew 3:11

The term spirituality is derived from the concept of Spirit, generally meaning not physical. In broad terms, spirituality seeks to integrate the part of us that is spirit with the part of us that is physical. Interestingly, religion seeks to do the same thing. The word religion has the same root as the word ligament, so the shared meaning implies a tying together or joining. In our bodies, ligaments join one bone to another. In religion, the joining is the spirit with the physical. Of course there is no actual separation between what is spirit and what is physical except in our own imperfect perception. So the rejoining is an act of conscious awareness – aligning our awareness with reality – more than any actual structural change.

The opening passages of each of the four Gospels tell the story of John the Baptist, who was a prophetic religious figure who immediately preceded Jesus. He claimed his ministry as one of preparing the way for Jesus. John gained his title as “the Baptist” because he baptized people in the Jordan River as a symbol of washing their old selves clean so a new being could emerge, a new birth, a rejoining of their origins with their current reality. John pronounced that while he baptized with water, the one coming after him – Jesus – would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. There is a connection between the Spirit and fire that is referenced throughout scripture. This fire, however, is not a physically consuming fire, but a purifying fire that does not destroy the physical creation but reunites it with its spiritual roots. We see this type of fire illustrated with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6). The connection between spirit and fire is described again when the Spirit overcomes the disciples after Jesus’ death as tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4). It is one thing to be rejoined with water and another entirely to be rejoined with fire. The latter is of an exponentially higher level of intensity than the former.

In a recent Daily Meditation, Father Richard Rohr discusses the difference between knowledge that is cold and knowledge that is hot. He writes, “The spiritual truth is this: there is a difference between knowledge ‘on ice’ and knowledge ‘on fire.’ For many Christians, their belief is often just knowledge ‘on ice,’ not experiential, first-hand knowledge, which is knowledge ‘on fire.’”[1] Rohr continues, “…there is a difference between intellectual belief and real trust. There is a difference between talking about transformation…and stepping out in confidence to live a loving life.”[2] This difference has become the dividing line between religion and spirituality, even as they both profess to lead us to the same unifying types of growth. Religion has come to focus on the intellectual, talking about aspect of our life with God. Spirituality, on the other hand, focuses more on leading people to a direct experience of and with the Living God.

It would be overly simplistic to say that religion teaches cold knowledge and spirituality teaches hot knowledge, but I believe there is a thread of truth there. To use the analogy of falling in love: we can read books about love, we can observe people in love, we can write books and poetry about love, yet never have the actual, all-consuming, often-messy experience of being in love. The intellectual, or cold knowledge of love, even in abundance, is many levels of intensity less than the hot knowledge, which is the actual experience of love. If our experience of God is primarily intellectual – listening to sermons and reading and discussing the Bible and commentaries – I suggest our knowledge is cold. Unfortunately, this is the primary knowledge being offered by many churches today.

An art teacher once told me that the color red brings everything else to life in a painting. Red brings the heat and passion, it puts spirit into otherwise inanimate colors. There is a haunting passage in the book of Revelation where an angel of God is assessing the churches in Asia Minor. To the church in Laodicea the angel says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot…So, because you are lukewarm…I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:14-16). To continue the analogy, cold knowledge may be preferable to lukewarm, but hot knowledge – the knowledge from actual experience – is where the life is at. And this, I fear, is where Churchianity falls short. Cold knowledge is safer and asks less of us. Churches may offer solid knowledge, but unless it is also sprinkled with life the knowledge withers and dies.

This is the 27th 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] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, July 7, 2021, http://www.cac.org.

[2] Ibid.

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