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Spiritual But Not Religious: What It Means To Me

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men. Albert Einstein in Living Philosophies

Spiritual, but not religious. I barely remember a time that I didn’t describe myself with this phrase. Someone on twitter recently asked what people meant by it. I’ve written and discussed and written some more trying to become clear on why I use this phrase. I’ve said it so matter-of-factly, I had no idea it would bedevil me so.

Being “religious” in my mind binds me to the folly of an institution that at times uses the names of holy persons to pursue what I perceive as a human path, rather than a divine one. I tend to associate it with fundamentalists and religious conservatives for whom dogma and the rules they deem important often seem, from my viewpoint, to be more essential than what it actually means to connect with God. I recall the words of the prophet Isaiah, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

Being “spiritual,” on the other hand, suggests to me that, first and foremost, I desire a connection with the mystery of God. It suggests a freedom that being “religious” does not. While following the wisdom of Jesus has become my primary path in seeking a bond with the divine, he’s not my only teacher and the outlines of my journey are heavily influenced by other spiritual traditions.

That said, as I’ve explored more deeply my Christian faith, I’ve come to believe that the freedom I seek in being “spiritual” rather than “religious” has its limits. I’m not alone in having experienced a sense of wanting to connect to something greater than myself, yet running away when a so-called experienced someone told me that there was only one right answer that didn’t feel right.

I kept exploring different traditions, went to yoga and meditation retreats, and read self-help books. I picked up tidbits from Hinduism here and Buddhism there, Islam over here, and so on, but I didn’t delve in deeply. Each time I’d hit a place where another certain someone told me there was only one right answer that didn’t quite feel right. I found it in people insisting that there’s was the one “true” way to meditate as a Buddhist, practice yoga in a Hindu tradition, or worship God as Christian, Jew, or Muslim. So I stuck to picking and choosing from all these traditions what worked for me. Except this path had a tendency to create a God that “thinks” a lot like me and wasn’t particularly transformative.

Most of the spiritual writers I enjoy speak about faith as something intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I had always thought of this as akin to helping the poor and condemning the greedy. Yet, I too have sought comfort through my faith, while I pushed back against the parts that might suggest I am not so perfect. I struggled with the afflict the comfortable parts of faith because I believed that I was already mired in the darkness of shame and unworthiness so what more affliction could I possibly need?

My friend Sarah Horowitz speaks about this tendency toward comfort in her book about her recent exploration of her Jewish faith, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper connection to Live – In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). She describes the piecemeal exploration I engaged in as “embracing the aspects of these traditions that reinforce our current preferences and beliefs and ignoring those that don’t. In other words . . . we’re reifying, maybe even deifying, ourselves, focusing on the self-discovery, self-affirmation, and self-expression parts of religion (the “comfort the afflicted” parts) and neglecting the self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence parts (the “afflict the comfortable” parts).

She cites to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg when she says, “in beginning and ending with ourselves this way, we’re never forced to wrestle with ideas that challenge our core beliefs, hold us to more rigorous moral standards than we’re accustomed to, or otherwise push us to grow as human beings.”

In other words, as we all do, I tended toward designing a God that shared my ideas about love and good and bad, and judged me and others as I did. This disjointed pursuit never comforted me as much as I wanted it to, however. I was yearning for more transcendence than that path could provide.

I only started to glimpse what the transformation could look like after multiple Ignatian prayer retreats in daily life, conversations with my spiritual director, and when I took communion again after many, many years. The key to my being able to keep going deeper, though, was that the people I met on this journey never judged me for my doubts or told me I was wrong in my beliefs. They simply listened and shared their own revelations. When I finally took the bread and wine of communion again after many, many years, the damn broke. I tried to hide it, but the tears wouldn’t stop flowing through the remaining service and on my way home.

In a powerful conversation with my spiritual director I finally came to understand how loved I am by God/the divine/the mystery. God loves me how I love my niece and nephew (although, no doubt, even better than that) – even when I’m screwing up. I don’t earn that love, and I don’t need to be anything other than the beautiful, wonderful, human that makes mistakes that I am. In other words, I experienced grace.

Paradoxically, by discovering my worthiness, I have slowly been able to look more closely at when I make mistakes and, in turn, make corrections. Because I am no longer trying to prove my worth, I don’t have to castigate myself into a smaller and smaller person to try to ameliorate my never ending sense of shame. Nor do I have to defend myself to prove my worthiness.

I have compassion for myself and accept that most of the time I had no idea what I was doing, but I was genuinely trying to do my best. When I hurt another, starting from worthiness means I can acknowledge my mistake and make amends when I am able. I still screw up regularly, I still get defensive, and I still get down, but I find myself returning to the light far more quickly. I rarely ask “what’s wrong with me?” But I’m still on the journey.

So I’m delving ever more deeply into the mystery surrounded by a community that seems equally enamored with this exploration rather than with telling me the “one” right way to believe. These experiences have made a profound difference to my life. I’m also able to find beauty in the diversity in what people find to love in Christ’s, Buddha’s, Mohammed’s, and others’ teachings and how to follow them. Even when I disagree, I’m learning to stop and listen because I am more comfortable accepting that none of us, including me, have all the answers.

I’m still perplexed at times that I have formally become an Episcopalian and I have many moments of my intellect/ego telling me I’m deluding myself and simply escaping or giving my power to an institution. Perhaps it’s true, except I’m more joyful than I can ever remember having been. I have some fundamental disagreements with other Episcopalians and Anglicans, and yet I decided to join them anyway because I love the church I’m in.

My choice is similar to being a U.S. citizen. I don’t agree with everyone in this country and I’m not a fan of this President. Yet, I’m still here and a part of working to make this place a little better each day. While I’m often embarrassed by us, overall, I think we’re a pretty great bunch of people and I count myself as incredibly lucky that I’m a part of this ongoing experimental community. An institution made up of humans is bound to have people who disagree and make mistakes. Being a part of it no longer scares me (as much).

I know so many people feeling profoundly lost and disconnected as I was for so many years. I can’t help but think that so much of this feeling comes from a lack of deep spiritual connection. I wish they could experience the love and transformation I have. The revolution hasn’t just been in discovering my worthiness, but in learning to trust in the voice and steps leading me forward. I still have anxiety about the uncertain future, but it’s significantly diminished and has far less hold over me. I’ve seen this kind of transformation not just in myself with Christianity, but with my friend Sarah in her exploration of Judaism and in others who’ve reached deeper into their Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions.

There is a reason after all that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous put so much emphasis on putting our trust in a higher power, in turning over our lives to God as we understand it. We don’t have control of the world and it’s a lot easier to give up that control when we can let ourselves believe deeply in something greater than ourselves and our worthiness in the realm of that mystery. But that something also challenges us to look at where we’ve made mistakes and to make amends, not just to comfort ourselves.

So now I’m probably somewhere between spiritual and religious. While I don’t want to be put in a box of someone telling me what I have to believe and how I have to practice my faith, I’m finding value in structure, rituals, and spiritual practices that have been passed down through the centuries and millenia, and, most importantly, in community. Participating in this community is not always easy, but I’ve been enriched when I do.

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2 Comments

  1. I have been a part of organized religion all my life and firmly believe the benefits are well worth ones time. The social element of a church always has been an important part of my life. However, over 3,400 different christian sects saying they are the true path to salvation has always bothered me. 61 years ago I asked mom why there were different churches all preaching from the same bible and she stated that at that time there were 634 different sects. She emphasized that basic beliefs are the same but minor disagreements caused churches to schism. I attend the Methodist church in Whitehall and the national organization is about to split into 3 separate churches over LBGQT issues. Just what’s needed…..2 more sects. How is it that Christians can’t agree to disagree?
    I made the preceding observation as a prelude to how I differentiate between my spiritualism and my religious practices. To me, there is an obvious wall between life and death that no one can truly see beyond. That wall is real but so is the other side of that wall. Being at my fathers and brothers side as they were dying left no doubt in my mind that a window opens to the other side that you can see through before your spirit (soul?) leaves your body. Stan distinctly said as he was dying with true wonder in his voice “Oh, I see!”
    Organized religion provides the social contact with others but spiritualism provides the ability to believe in the other side. Unfortunately, organized religion tries to provide an answer to the unknowable. The wall that separates life from death is impenetrable and we all have to wait to see what is truly there. Because that wall exists it allows people to create religious beliefs based on what they choose to believe even though it is truly unknowable.
    Because everyone is different and everyone has different demons to address in their lives I have grown to believe that the trials and tribulations we all face in our lives does not preclude ANYONE from that doorway to the other side where we all get to say in wonderment; “Oh, I see.” No one is excluded.

    1. nosaintjennifer says:

      Well said Dave. I couldn’t agree more. Love you.

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