Spiritual but not religious

Posted: March 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Just recently I attended a poetry reading. A dreadlocked young man announced, as a prelude to his poem, that he was “spiritual but not religious.” I suppose that disclaimer served as a warning for what was to follow. Indeed, his rap-delivered thoughts were unconventional, hip-hop being his religion.

If there is one religious demographic that is growing as rapidly as having no affiliation with a religious group it is this one, spiritual but not religious. It gives church folk the shivers. How can this be? They are stepping right around us.

To be honest I get them. There is nothing in the world that says you can’t apprehend the mystery of the universe unless you are a part of an organized religious community. Religion is the human response to the wonder and awe-filled experience of the universe. But it is a human response – flawed, distorted and contingent.

What they don’t get – and I use that pronoun, they, loosely – is that a vague undifferentiated experience of the universe is different that the honed spiritual truths and identification of religious practices that work through the centuries. Traditions carry identified truths and practices. You can accept, reject or modify, but they are there. And as they are there you start with something beyond the very limited view of any one human being.

Of course, folks like Whitman, Emerson, Frost and Thoreau, all the New England Transcendentalists would disagree. Nature is your chapel. The heart of the human being the workshop of the spirit. Institutions muck things up. And so forth. They were spiritual but not religious.

I want to introduce another dimension of that discussion. Though spiritual but not religious may be a growing and sizable contingent that we have to regard seriously, considering how serious dialogue might take place among its ranks, the phenomenon may not be that new after all.

If you consider the years of WW II and the couple of decades following as an anomaly in terms of church life, an unusual blip of great institutional church participation (and every other organizational participation), all that followed that super-heated time – including our own time – much more resembles what preceded the blip. What I mean is that actual communities of religious practice have always represented a relatively small proportion of the whole population. And yet many in those earlier times would claim a belief in God, pray and read Bibles. They were spiritual but not religious.

On the American frontier a radically small percentage of the population participated in anything that resembled a church. They had other fish to fry and did. Many of our founders fit neatly into this profile – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. These men were quite read in scripture and knowledgeable about things ecclesial, but like Churchill considered themselves flying buttresses – “supporting the church from the outside.” I think it is fair to say that they were spiritual but not religious.

I have just finished reading a biography of Daniel Boone by Robert Morgan. Many Boone biographies have been written and most are heavily mythological. We have no autobiography written by Boone himself (though a couple were attempted and lost). We do have a few letters he wrote. And the biographies that grew up around him mostly reflected of the needs of the American psyche for heroes.

What we never hear about in the myth-making biographies are the ways in which Boone was a failure at business, heavily debt-ridden his entire life. We never hear about all the suits filed by his unpaid creditors. We never hear how he kept moving west to outrun the taming of the wild that he brought about by guiding people there, fighting Indian wars with those he admired and ending their civilization in so doing. We never hear that by the time he got to Missouri he was an old man, living on reputation, and his sons did most of the heavy lifting. And we usually don’t hear about his most endearing qualities, the ones that made him beloved to his family and friends.

Daniel Boone was another great example of a man who was spiritual but not religious. Perhaps he was soured by his father’s earlier experience of intolerant religion and he steered clear of it. Maybe he found what he needed through solitary experience with the deep woods and those creatures who lived there. Boone was never a church guy. When he went out exploring for months, years at a time he would have a Bible among his things. But he was never a member of the church and is rarely known to attend. Like many of his time, including my distant relative, Kit Carson, he was a Mason. But that’s not church. It could even be anti-church.

So “spiritual but not religious” is not a new thing. It’s an old thing. Perhaps the best way to view this present phenomenon is to set aside alarm and think instead in terms of continuation. This has been the norm in American culture. There are all kinds of people mixed together here.

There are religious people who can scarcely be called spiritual. There are spiritual people who eschew anything that resembles religion. There are both, very spiritual people who live out their faith in a tradition and a community of faith. Add to that mix the generous blending of other immigrant world faiths and you have the American religious palette.

My hip-hop friend who rapped his spiritual but not religious verse was not representing something new. Nothing under the sun is. He was the latest iteration of that type, one that has been with us the longest time. And maybe for those of us who are both spiritual and religious it is a good counterweight. We need those who will help us keep on our spiritual toes and not get lost in the less than important aspects of  churchly structure and life. And maybe, if they will listen, the spiritual but not religious may actually discover something from those who are shaped by a tradition and share faith with others in community. We may need one another more than we know.

  1. John Smith says:

    Reblogged this on THE STRATEGIC LEARNER and commented:
    … the discussion around spirituality and religiousness goes on, with Tim giving it a tremendous boost into thoughtfulness. We too easily dismiss one for the other, while not realizing that both are useful and not at all exclusive.

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