On Being Religious But Not Particularly Spiritual

Opened up the morning paper to find an article based on a Pew Research study that reveals that the number of people in the U.S. who are unaffiliated to any religious group has jumped to 19.6%, up from 8% in 1990. The study also reveals that Protestants are no longer the majority faith group, down to 48% of all people who claim a religious preference. Here’s the Washington Post article on the study, which gives a good overview of its scope, which includes how people in different faith groups tend to vote.

I read this article right before I opened the daily devotional book I’m working through–A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader, edited by Rueben Job. The topic today was Wesley’s belief that Methodists should be “as difficult to hide as visitors in a foreign land,” mostly because their faith and practice would make them seem, well, not a little strange to the rest of the world. Today’s Scripture reading was 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, where Paul talks about all he and his companions endured as strange people who brought the good news to the world.

It was an interesting juxtaposition, especially when I read a comment by one reviewer of the Pew study, who said that American perceptions of religion (especially Christianity) will change “if those in charge of various organized religions are smart enough to alter their doctrines in order to coincide with the changing of social norms.” The more relevant the church becomes the culture, the more the culture will pay attention, or so the thinking goes.

The prevailing worldview among the unaffiliated (most of whom are not atheists) is that it is better for one to be “spiritual and not religious,” which means, it seems, ¬†that one’s “faith” is personal, malleable, and not dependent upon any community or other person. A “spiritual” person tends to view the world through the lens of personal experience rather than any foundational text or teaching, or any communal discernment. It’s very easy, then, for the “spiritual” person to adapt their belief system to the norms of the culture to the point that the culture and the faith essentially become one.

It’s interesting to me that much of liberal mainline Protestantism has actually bought into this worldview, trumpeting the value of being “relevant” to the culture and calling for changing the traditional and biblical worldview because it’s outdated, primitive, and “irrelevant.” What’s fascinating about that, however, is that the churches that promote this worldview are those that, in the main, are declining more rapidly. You would think that a church that’s more “relevant” would be more attractive to the culture–more “spiritual but not religious”–but the study reveals that is simply not the case.

The other side has its problems as well. Conservative Protestant churches are also generally in decline, though not as rapidly as the mainline churches. Interestingly, they also seem to promote a kind of “spiritual but not religious” vibe from the opposite direction. Where the liberal Protestants are always talking about a personal spiritual faith experience in the present, conservatives tend to talk about a personal spiritual faith experience in the future, focusing on getting into heaven as the primary goal of faith. It’s no wonder that the church and “religion” is less important to both sides–it’s all about the quintessential American value of “me.”

Tom Long, in his thought-provoking book Preaching from Memory to Hope, points out that what’s really going on in American culture is a revival of “the gnostic impulse”–a morphing of the Platonist view that spirit and body are opposed to one another, and that divine “spiritual” knowledge is superior to any system of belief that requires anything from us like community, accountability, confession, or submission. Indeed, says Long, the “gnostic impulse” is “a counterforce, a reaction that erupts here and there in church history in response to what is seen as the barrenness and oppressiveness of what the church is teaching” (65). When the going gets tough with the culture, in other words, the gnostic impulse is to simply “go with it” and cut loose from the moorings of church, text, and practice. Even those who still hold on to Scripture as normative will tend to read it through the lens of experience and truncate the text to fit their particular worldview.

When I think about this, I begin to understand that my own worldview is a lot more religious than it is “spiritual.” Oh, I think spirituality is important, certainly, but as a Wesleyan I think the words “spiritual” and “discipline” go together. It’s not my own spirituality that matters, it’s the spirituality that emerges from long engagement in prayer, Scripture study, and disciplined work over time with a community of faith. That discipline is what we might call “religion”–not the devotion to denomination but rather a devotion to Christ who offers a particular worldview and way of life. Jesus was not a gnostic who invited people on a spiritual journey to their own enlightenment. He only offered the way of the cross–a disciplined devotion that is lived out in community. The individual life matters within the context of the larger mission of God’s redemption for the whole world–a mission that seeks to break the brokenness of sin and death, rather than merely adopting that brokkeness as normative for human life. Jesus does not simply bless our way of life, he wants to transform it and in order to do that we have to submit to his Lordship and way of life–a life lived out in community with others.

So, color me as someone who is striving to be religious but not particularly spiritual. I think that’s what Wesley was calling us as Methodists to be–people who gave themselves to a particular community and a particular way of life lived out under the discipline and Lordship of Christ. Those who live this way will always be in the minority. The culture will see them as “weird” as best and dangerous at worst. Our call is not to be relevant, but redemptive; not to be “spiritual” but sold out to Christ in every aspect of our lives.

Today, I’m looking at this study as a good thing rather than a bad thing. I think the decline of the gnostic Protestantism of the left and right is a sign that God is up to something new–perhaps a fresh reformation of faith that will make us relevant to God and his kingdom once again!




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