Religious vs. Spiritual


When I was visiting a dying parishioner in the middle of the night, I spoke in the hallway with an orderly about religion  I don’t remember how this conversation got started.

He said to me that he was spiritual rather than religious.  What he meant was that he had invented his own spirituality, his own conception of God, and his own theological confession ansd system, as far as it goes, probably with a lot of help from various religious traditions. He sees religion and religious as words that describe “organized religion.” A public religion like Christianity must be organized to exist.  Only private beliefs need no organization, and yet they are dependent on the religious traditions from which they borrow. Apparently, the spiritual do not need a community to be spiritual.  One can walk in the woods on Sunday while the church is at worship.

To claim being spiritual rather than religious means that one did not need to go to church or share the Christian confession in any of its forms from Roman Catholic, to Orthodox to Anglican, to Lutheran, to Pentecostal, to Baptist.  The orderly chose his beliefs from Columns A, B, C, D, and so on.  I assume that he thought that his foundational choice of spiritual over religious was superior.  The religious would be Christians who share together church life and a common confession.

You will meet people who think like this.  Be aware of the challenges of defending the faith and witnessing in these situations.  What are they?  Among them are a disdain for the church; a freewheeling view on doctrinal matters; and a demotion of Christ from his true status of Son of God and second person of the Holy Trinity.  Eastern religious elements may be part of  this private religious opinion unconnected to the church.  The irony is that a religion like Buddhism for which I have respect may be part of someone’s private belief, but it exists only in institutions.  The Three Jewels of Buddhism are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddhism has a body of teaching and is embedded in religious community that is the Sangha, or monastery in whose life Buddhists, monks and laity, participate.

I suppose, what is believed by the spiritual can be easily changed whenever such masters of religious traditions desire.  There is no stability or firm commitment to confess a certain body of teachings.

One must be patient with those who regard their spirituality to be superior to the Christian religious tradition.  One must have respect for their seeking, but be clear that Christ is the end of the search.  We witness to the fact that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14), as Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John.  Home-made religions do not share with Christianity, and for that matter, other historical religious traditions, a continuity in time or a universality of place.

What tips may be helpful when talking to “the spiritual?”

  1. Listen
  2. Clarify one’s own religious commitment.
  3. Listen
  4. Respond and then let be
  5. Depart amicably, if possible.

Michael G. Tavella

May 11, 2020


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