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Spiritual but not religious? 

By Tom Ryan, CSP


For a long time spirituality has been defined as the lived dimension of one’s faith, what faith looks like in everyday values and behaviours. And one’s faith generally referred to one’s religion. Thus the words “spiritual” and “religious” were often used rather interchangeably, as if their meanings were much the same.

With our transition into a new millennium, however, that view of things began to fade among some. The identifying tag being invoked by an increasing number of people — “I’m spiritual but not religious” — made it clear that the overlap between “spiritual” and “religious” could no longer be presumed. What precipitated this development?

No single answer can be given. Not all people who now describe themselves in this way came to where they are now for the same reason. For some, their weariness, disillusionment or anger with a particular religion or church may have led them to reject all established or institutionalized expressions of faith. This rejection is not necessarily a denial of the existence of God, but organized religion has ceased to be for them a means of connecting with the Divine Presence. 

For others in our increasingly secular society, religion may never have been part of their environment and upbringing. They have no experience of religion and don’t feel like they’re missing out on anything. And yet, they have experienced something “out there” at different moments of their lives, an Ultimate Reality, a Presence, that they willingly attune to or engage with. In other words, they are spiritual but not religious, and their spiritual practices are guided by their intuitive, rational and experiential understanding of life.

What might such people have to gain by engaging with religion? One analogy for reflection in this season of springtime in which many people are heading for their gardens is this: the role of roots in the process of growth and development. Roots absorb, stabilize and store.

Roots absorb water and nutrients that are delivered to the rest of the plant. They also stabilize. Think of the roots of trees in wet environments. They expand the width of the trunk to stabilize it. And roots can be swollen energy storage containers as well. Tubers and tap roots hoard starches, sugars and water, holding food and water reserves that enable both plants and people to survive harsh conditions such as drought or frost. Parasitic roots merge their roots with a host plant’s roots, taking water and nutrients from them.

Similarly, a faith community like the church has absorbed and processed over centuries of human experience wisdom for living that provides a sense of purpose, happiness and peace. It delivers those nutrients to the rest of the community/plant in a variety of ways, one significant example being spiritual practices.

Life makes many demands upon us, and it is difficult to keep one’s balance in the midst of caring for children, earning a living, preparing meals, maintaining the house, yard and car in addition to one’s personal health and well-being. Spiritual practices help stabilize us. They help us protect certain life-giving values and priorities, like making time for God on a regular basis and offering assistance to the needy.

If the spirituality of someone who is “spiritual but not religious” is grounded in the realities of incarnate life — is, in short, healthy — it will lead to religion. Why? Because we are incarnate beings, embodied spirits. And thus the realm of the purely “spiritual” will never suffice. We need sensual, material, embodied rituals that enable us to express what is in our hearts and minds. And the experts in such rituals are the religions of the world. In Christian practice, these rituals are called sacraments, with their material elements of water, oil, bread, wine, hands imposed on a head, the exchange of rings. Other tried and true forms of prayer such as the Divine Office, prayer with beads, adoration of the blessed sacrament provide us with stability in our growth and development.

And these treasures, handed down by communities of experienced fellow travellers, are kept in store for us in the form of evolved traditions, sacred scriptural texts, inspiring stories of the lives of holy men and women, retreats, university courses, libraries and museums.

The latest Angus Reid Institute survey revealed that an increasing number of people are opting for the “a la carte” approach to spirituality, picking and choosing bits and pieces from a wide range of offerings that are available in the spiritual marketplace. But if one’s spirituality is to transcend the digging of shallow wells, to go deep and strike oil, it will lead to religion. For it is communities of faith that have roots which absorb, stabilize and store, making possible ongoing growth and development in all of life’s seasons.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.