“I’m spiritual, not religious.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I could personally pay off the Canadian and American national debts and have enough left over for a lifetime supply of Chai Tea Lattes (my insanely expensive Starbucks addiction). Hyperbole aside, the revival of interest in “spirituality” in recent years has been accompanied by distrust for and disinterest in “organized religion,” especially among disenchanted Christians. People have discovered the transformative power of spirituality: the power to realize their highest goals and ideals, the power to overcome negativity, and the power to forgive. But what does it mean to be “spiritual, not religious”?
On the one hand, it reflects indifference and discontent with organized religion. People doubt religion’s ability to provide answers to our questions in today’s world. Also, they see how organized religion has contributed to global conflict and local abuses. On the other hand, it reflects a renewed interest in the ancient wisdom of sages from various religious traditions, re-tooled to suit modern sensibilities. But what would it mean to be “spiritual” without being “religious”? Let’s explore some problems and prospects.
Promisingly, interest in spirituality cultivates inner growth and self-realization, often leading to social and personal betterment. It helps us find “true north” on our ethical compass when we’ve lost our moral bearings. Moreover, it recommends openness to many different religious traditions and promotes tolerance. Problematically, however, it disconnects spirituality from its source, resulting in an arbitrary process of combining aspects of spirituality from different religions (or no religion). When we remove spirituality from its religious context, we lose its source of power. Individualistic spirituality, devoid of community, responsibility, and accountability, comes up empty.
We should embrace spirituality and tap into the renewed interest in spiritual awakening. It will enrich our lives and rejuvenate a world longing for deeper meaning. We should realize, however, that spirituality apart from religion will not yield lasting fruit. Once severed from its fountain source, the wells of wisdom will eventually run dry. Vibrant, lasting, and sustainable spirituality is grounded in a particular religious tradition and community. We rediscover spirituality not by turning away from religion, but turning toward it, probing more deeply for fresh theological resources. Christianity, for instance, has a rich and deep reservoir of approaches to spirituality that remain largely unknown and untapped by the modern skeptic and searcher. We would do well to rediscover these, since spirituality devoid of religion makes for shallow ground to cultivate our souls.
Mark Scott Ph.D (Harvard)
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology