I recently noticed a woman’s tattoo decorating all of her forearm, a colorful array of plants, birds and symbols. I asked her what it meant to her. She said that she didn’t know, just that it was a way of expressing what she believed. She said it represents her spiritual side. I commented on how beautiful it appeared. It obviously spoke to an important part of her identity. In other conversations, she’s told me that she’s not particularly religious. But clearly, there is a vital, deep spiritual side to her life.
Almost every week I meet people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
By this, they mean that they believe in something beyond themselves. They acknowledge mystery and wonder. They often pray, but without understanding (or wanting to understand) what happens when they do. They value community. They think about the meaning of life. They connect with nature. The vast majority believe in a universal being or Spirit. They often recognize the importance of religious communities and the help given to the needy. But what about organized religion? Not interested.
While it’s troubling to many religious people that so many spiritual people don’t want a thing to do with church, I want to advocate a different position. We should celebrate when people are “spiritual but not religious.”
We should celebrate because we have much to learn from those who have marched out of the church into the fresh air of the world. It’s not always a choice for comfort, entertainment and wild living. Many reject wealth and the worship of gadgets to feed the hungry and teach in the inner city. They’re not rejecting God necessarily, just the easy answers that don’t satisfy their soul search.
We should celebrate because the spiritual but not religious can remind us of what truly matters. They serve as a corrective to a church that has in many ways forgotten itself, choosing judgment, control, lack of creativity, and restriction rather than beauty, life, joy, and freedom.
Finally, we should celebrate because the spiritual but not religious are on a quest. While many people are truly lost, many others are searching in science, in art, in dialogue, in education. They’re decorating their bodies to give expression to what’s in their hearts. They’re setting up altars in the world. All great quests have strange turns, pitfalls and stunning vistas. Those who are spiritual but not religious relish the journey. Many religious people have their sights on the destination such that they don’t enjoy the ride.
Jesus rejected the easy answers, choosing to spend the majority of his time not in a house of worship, but out in the fields, by the lake, and engaging in conversation. He called people together who would worship Him “in Spirit and in truth.” He was attracted to those who felt rejected by the organized religion, and people flocked to his brand of holiness. He walked in such a way that being spiritual and being religious were one and the same.