November 10, 2009

Religious But Not Spiritual

by Debra Dean Murphy
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together..." (Hebrews 10:24)

The SBNR website puts it like this: “Spiritual But Not Religious” describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed. SBNR people desire a deep experience of life, including the mysteries of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.

On the SBNR home page you can sign up to have “daily affirmation seeds” delivered to your email inbox. There, one assumes, they will sprout and grow, “help[ing] you to believe in your amazing essence and bring[ing] many of your deepest intentions into reality.”

I don’t have to tell you how enormously popular such sites (and sentiments) are. I have recently (re)discovered how prevalent “Spiritual But Not Religious” devotees are on college campuses, even (especially?) church-related ones. Yet no matter the age group or demographic, this business of shedding the “baggage of doctrine and religion” is what it’s all about: snubbing dogma and its perceived strictures, rejecting all forms of religion, especially the organized kind.

But I’m with Bill Cavanaugh on this one: “being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals.” Institutions will always be subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, since they are comprised of people who . . . well, since they are comprised of people.

But the organized, institutional part of religion – the messy materiality of people and practices – is its beating heart. Contra the breezy, anti-establishment tenets of SBNR (which are themselves pretty dogmatic), doctrine is simply the lived and living witness of a received tradition. The Christian doctrine of creation, for instance, is not a proposition to be believed in, a theory of how the world got its start way back when. Rather, it’s a way of seeing all things in relation to God; a way of receiving, offering, loving, and living one’s life as sheer gift.

For the past few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading – The Letter to the Hebrews – has drawn us into the messy materiality of corporate religion: worship and prayer, gifts and offerings, cries, sighs, and tears. This week we are admonished to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s the inconvenient thing about religion: it asks you to do stuff – like worship with other people, love other people, do good to and for other people.

And to do it all regardless of how you feel about any of it.

To be spiritual but not religious, on the other hand, is to be unburdened by such stifling obligation. It is to turn inward instead of outward – to find, as the gospel according to Oprah puts it, “the god within.” This of course sounds like liberation – no commandments to obey, no debts to pay, no community to be responsible to. But it is, in the end, the worst sort of tyranny since the ruler and its subject are one and the same: the human ego.

There’s a Facebook group called “I’m Religious But Not Spiritual.” Having joined it recently, I’ve noticed that it creates a good deal of bewilderment. Is it parody? Is it serious? Does it intend to confuse? The answers, from what I can tell, are yes, yes, and yes. To be “religious” in this world of obsessive spiritual questing is to be strange indeed. For Christians, it is to recognize that salvation – abundant life in the Spirit – is mediated through mundane realities like bread, water, and wine and through a body, Christ’s body, the Church.

Because this is true, Christians – persons who are religious but not spiritual – can appropriate Martin Buber’s enduring insight: “The spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.”


Nola Byrum Boezeman said...

Wouldn’t it be best, ideally, to be BOTH – religious AND spiritual? I don’t think we need to go to extremes – like with the “Religious but not Spiritual” Facebook group. I agree that the “spiritual life” can be an obstacle, especially the way that term is tossed around by the “spiritual, but not religious” and by those with the Oprah-like mentality. But, I don’t think we need to be afraid of being “spiritual,” either. As I’m in the midst of writing a 5 week study on the “Spiritual Disciplines,” I am convinced that the purpose of these “spiritual” exercises is not to achieve personal piety, but to bring us more fully into the world as the Body of Christ. In this case, being “spiritual” is not an obstacle but rather a means of grace that can bring about the transformation that St. Paul describes in Romans 12:2. I want to be religious AND spiritual!

Debra Dean Murphy said...


I suppose that what I'm trying to get at here is how the word "spiritual" is now pretty much devoid of the kind of Christian content you rightly want to claim for it. Of course, the word "religion" has its problems, too. Both terms now function to name phenomena/experiences that are intensely private, therapeutic, consumeristic.

But the whole "Religious Not Spiritual" thing - even on Facebook - brings those bankruptcies to the fore, I think. There's something a bit tongue in cheek about it all, but the humor itself is a way into the strange places these terms and their uses have taken us.

I'm all for the word "spiritual" if it can be recovered for what it actually refers to in the Christian tradition: a range of robust practices that communities engage in to bear witness to the upside-down kingdom of God.

Anonymous said...

I find irony in this b/c in my studies in the discipline of nursing I look at incorporating “spiritual care” not “religious care” into nursing practice. Meaning caring for the whole person not just the disease, respecting the beliefs of my patients and what impacts those beliefs have on their health and care. I find people/patients/practitioners shy away from “religious” conversations b/c of their preconceived notions about dogma and conversion but rather identify with spirituality as it pertains to their believing in a higher power. But even in that there is confusion – I had a patient assessment that asked about a pt’s beliefs in general and received many answers stating their denomination not simply whether they believed in a higher power or what their faith was. (Granted it may have been how I worded the question).
There is a lot to be gained by a spiritual assessment – much of which can also be attributed to organized religion such as participation in a place of worship, resources that can be found through the connections in that community or lack of any connections and what that means for a person. Although I may be misconstruing this I find it interesting how different disciplines can find different values in the same words.
Sara Hubbell

Debra Dean Murphy said...


Thanks for complicating all of this - in a good way! Yes, "religious care" would be odd terminology in your field. I think that the dualisms we've inherited from the modern project make it hard for us to find the right language (let alone the best practices).

I admire the emphasis in nursing on treating the whole person. (I've been reading Wendell Berry this week on this idea). Would that such a holistic approach was embraced by medicine generally. But "spiritual care" still sounds like a bit of an add-on to me. I don't have a better alternative. I just think that paying attention to the terms and their use can help us be clearer in our speech and our deeds.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Debra. I love the quote from Bill Cavanaugh - too true. I have been working with the Advent texts recently and Malachi 3: 1-4 leaps out at me with it's words of refining fire and fullers' soap. One of the greatest failures of modernity has been it's underestimation of evil. This would be one of my biggest concerns with the SBNR sites and attitudes. Would I be able to find words like I find in Malachi 3? I am grateful to be part of a religion that recognizes and addresses the sin in me and in the world.

mountainguy said...

While I think that most of so called "spiritual but not religious" are excelent persons looking for a less restricted and dogmatic-yet spiritual lifestyle, I think it easyly leads to some kind of "McDonalization" of spirituality and sentimentality, which is very dangerous for real spirituality.

weewilly said...

Bill Thomas

religious is a term used by all religions to gain favoritism with governing authorities. Under this umbrella these organiza-tions hope to escape the attention needed to bring to justice the oppressors of the poor and needy,

Doug said...

I find myself in agreement with Debra on the use of the term spiritual but for reasons that Bill Cavanaugh has expounded powerfully on in his recent book on The Myth of Religious Violence religion is deeply problematic.

Back in the early church disciples could get away with simply being known as those who were followers of "the Way".

Adam English said...

Thanks so much for your insight! Great piece. Hope you're doing well - Adam English from Campbell University.

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks to all for the responses. I would just reiterate, in response to Doug's comment, that I have no particular attachment to or investment in the word "religion." But in response to the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon, it can be a useful trope, a way to recover the performative, densely embodied practices of Christian discipleship over against the flimsiness of the signifer "spiritual."

PamBG said...

I'm conflicted here. I have sympathy for what you say even as I believe that the Church in general has unrepentantly done a lot of damage to many people. I agree that a person can't just decide to opt out of community and then pretend to be on the moral high ground. But the church needs to do an awful lot better at nurturing authentic community and spirituality.

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Pam: Agreed.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned seeing this "spiritual but not religious," mindset on college campuses. I experienced this at a small liberal arts Christian college as well.

As someone who works alongside youth the two times I have seen this language pushed was at a treatment facility for youth with addictions, and the other was in an evangelistic Christian movie geared toward youth that is due out in January.

I appreciated Sara's comments as a nurse because after talking with nurses and nuns in hospitals it seems that the medical community has hardly scratched the surface of creating classes that deal with spirituality in medical school. How do relational human beings relate without attending to the whole person? Can we?

Is saying that we are "spiritual but not religious" a way to level the playing field in order to make more connections with people? I wonder if it is a way of brushing off the baggage instead of dealing with it head on because we know that takes more time, love, and work. Churches never hurt people, it is always people in relationship with each other that hurt one another.

Freida said...

I hope to see some more posts in here though It would be great to see this blog space in activity.


Doug said...

This issue of language probably plays out differently in Australia to the way it does in the States. the debate here is played out across the culture generally rather than within the christian tradition.

I was at a conference held by the Christian Research Association(CRA) this week where they reported that they had identified four groups:
1. largely secular in orientation - around 50% of the population
2. Spiritual (not religious)
3. Religious not spiritual
4. spiritual and religious

I must confess that I am reluctant to call myself religious because of my understanding of this as a privatised form of faith disconnected from the wider claims relating to public life that follow from being a disciple.

I dislike the time spiritual because as used in Australia it tends to be associated with an approach that disconnects the spirit and the body.

We face a huge problem of language and I am inclined to deny that I am either spiritual or religious but some one who is simply a follower of Jesus.