Spiritual and Religious: Why We Need Both!

Spiritual and Religious: Do we have to choose?

We are well established in the era of “spiritual but not religious.” There have been enough books written on the topic to fill a number of bookshelves if not an entire book store. None of us have time to count how many blog posts have been written on the subject. And generally those books and posts fall into two camps. There are people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” who pan religion as outdated and bad; and there are religious folks who pan the spiritual folks as shallow and undisciplined.

I am not going to do either because I think both groups have things to offer that human beings desperately need.

Let’s start by getting this out there. I am a religious person, I am an ordained priest in a religious tradition (the Episcopal Church, a type of Christianity). But I am not uncritical of religion (mine in particular, or in general.) I am fully aware of the ways my tradition and others have betrayed the trust given them. Christianity has historically failed in our stated mission.

We have wandered off doing our own bullshit, instead of following the teachings of Jesus. Mostly that’s because those teachings are hard, but that’s no excuse.  There is no religion that is immune to this problem, because religions are full of people.

Religion has failed many people

Many of those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” do so because they have been deeply hurt. My religion (Christianity) has waged war in the name of a man who preached radical peace (he let himself be killed rather than have his followers fight for him), we’ve justified slavery, we’ve justified the subjugation of women (despite the fact that Jesus hung out with, debated, and relied on women), we’ve taken part in the wholesale slaughter and cultural obliteration of countless native peoples, and we’ve persecuted LGBTQ persons horribly. (And that is by no means the full list of sins that can be laid at the feet of various forms of Christianity.) My own (progressive) branch of the faith only approved same sex marriage blessings in 2012.

If you are Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu you can probably list a whole host of ways that leaders in your tradition, and followers of your religious practices have done things totally opposed to the guiding tenets of your faith.

The truth is human beings are complicated, messy, and deeply flawed. No human endeavor is ever going to get everything right. But is that a reason to toss the whole experiment? Maybe not.

What is Religion

Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience. – Deepak Chopra

Often we confuse human beings using their influence to maintain a status quo, that benefits them, with religious belief. This is an error, though an understandable one.

At its most basic, religion is a shared set of beliefs and practices by a group of people. Obviously groups and systems are open to corruption, as we’ve seen throughout history. But at its most basic there is nothing anymore wrong with being religious than there is with being spiritual. (The two overlap heavily but we’ll get to that later.) In more communal cultures being spiritual without religion would make very little sense. In our highly individualistic culture me and I is paramount. The group is downplayed.

incense burning

A Human Problem

And so as Deepk Chopra puts it so well, we tend to gravitate toward spirituality, our own experience of that unnamable something beyond our tiny human realm. But before we get too far down this path let’s back up and examine what religion actually entails.

Religion is meant to include and encompass spirituality. Religion is the shared spiritual experience of a group of people that brings them together in religious practice. This is key. While religion in the West has looked a lot like a country club for the last hundred years that was never its primary function.

Religion does not require that you give up autonomy. My own tradition tends to joke (we even have t-shirts) that in the Episcopal Church “you don’t need to check our brain at the door.” The implication being, other places do. It’s a bit smug of us really. But this joke makes clear what people are really afraid of when it comes to religious faith: unthinking adherence to things that don’t necessarily make sense or are just plain wrong simply because it is “how we’ve always done things.”

Why religion still matters

Deepak Chopra is right, and he’s wrong. And I think he’s explained exactly why we still need religion. Back in 2003 I stumbled on a book called “Zen for Christians” by Kim Boykin. (Out of print but available used.) It is both an instruction manual for Zen practice, and the story of her conversion to Roman Catholicism as an adult. In the book she tells a story that has stuck with me ever since. For this story to make sense you need to know that during most Christian worship the congregation reads a “creed” together. A creed is simply a statement of the beliefs of that religious group. For example: “we believe in God the Father…, etc.” (Here’s a link to the creed that my church uses every week: Nicene Creed.)


As she tells it Kim was preparing to be baptized and called her spiritual mentor (a Roman Catholic nun) and told her that she needed to call the whole thing off. When her mentor asked why she didn’t want to be baptized Kim replied: because half the time I don’t believe whole portions of the creed! Her mentor replied with something like this “Oh is that all? Not even the Pope believes all that all the time, that’s why we say “we.”” Kim’s mentor went on to explain we have ups and downs in our lives and in our lives of faith. And when she couldn’t say the words of the creed the rest of the church would carry her with their we. And when she was doing great and her mentor was having a dark period, Kim would carry her with her “we.”

It is similar I think to the reason my tradition uses the Book of Common Prayer, a set of prayers we use every week. That’s right, pretty much the same experience, every week. It might sound totally dull but we do it for the same reason as the statement of faith is printed in “we” form.  Our prayers carry us, even when we aren’t “feeling it” that week. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a spiritual experience that week or just showing up, the words are still there, the meaning is still there. And it (and the other members of my congregation) carry me when I need that. (And neuroscience has now showed that religious people are right: doing something over and over again, like repeating prayers even when you aren’t feeling spiritual actually changes your brain.)

Spiritual and Religious: Desert Times

The Abrahamic traditions use the desert as a spiritual metaphor. The desert is where change happens, it’s where struggle happens, it’s where we find ourselves lost and wandering. It might also be where we encounter Holiness face to face in a way we could have never imagined.

But the important part is that we acknowledge that it isn’t always roses and lollipops. Sometimes yoga is just hot and sweaty and tiring, you don’t want to draw, or meditating turns into composing your grocery list over and over again. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try your spiritual experience is empty and barren and dry.

Spiritual deserts are pretty lonely places for individual believers. (But I’ve written about surviving a spiritual desert before!)

Community Matters

You could give up. And if you are doing this all by yourself (what we often mean by “spiritual but not religious”) you might, you might decide there’s nothing out there; or that you are a spiritual failure. You might walk away from the whole endeavor and forget about the joy and the connection you’d once found, or be convinced you imagined the whole thing.

A spiritual desert is a hard place for individual practitioners. When the Jewish people wandered in the desert for forty years they didn’t do it as individuals, they did it as a group. They had one another, and a whole host of leaders to call them back over and over, to remind them of their story, of who they were and where they’d been.

Religion acknowledges that sometimes our own spiritual experience isn’t worth shit. That sometimes we’re depressed, and empty, and tired and we need to lean on the experience of other people. That reliance isn’t a crutch. It isn’t cop out. It’s part of our journey together. It is how we can hold one another up, support one another, love one another. It’s how we can help one another down this path called life.

A Spiritual Gift to Religious Folks

We’ve been lied to. Personal spiritual experience is vital, but it isn’t the only thing. I don’t want to be a little island, all alone in a big stormy sea with only my own experience to rely on. I for one don’t want to do this life thing on my own. Community saves me, and it can save our spirituality. “Don’t give up!” we call to one another, we lean on one another, we carry one another, and we walk the journey together.

Community for the journey is the gift that religions have to offer. But the folks who focus on spirituality? They have a gift to offer as well. Because they are the wakeup call for all those religious groups who have wandered way too far from the path. It happens, we’re human, and we mess up. Give us thousands of years and we are certainly going to go astray now and then.

Those spiritual pilgrims striking off on their own are a wakeup call, a warning that just maybe we’ve been on cruise control for too long. Maybe we’ve fallen prey to comfort and the status quo and totally abandoned our spiritual journey. We could probably all name religious groups who have abandoned their founding principles to hook their wagon to power, wealth, or some other distraction.

Working together for a better humanity

When we fail, (which we will) when we are less than the best that religion can be, we need each other’s voices calling us to account, naming the hurts, and calling us back to the journey. Putting religion back into spirituality is about putting community back into it. That’s messy, but it’s vital as well.

Spirituality all on it’s own eventually veers off into problematic territory as well. It can become completely self focused, narcissistic, and vapid. Spirituality all by itself doesn’t push me out of my comfort zone, it doesn’t force me to confront my privilege or my blind spots. It takes a community of other people to do that. And anytime you have people with a shared (even if it is diverse) spiritual experience journeying together you’ve got a religion.

Religion needs the lone mystics pointing out the ways in which it has abandoned its mission. And spirituality needs the shared wisdom of human experience, the critic of our fellow practitioners to make it a tool for growth and maturity and not simply a spiritual buzz.

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