“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” This claim became fashionable in the second half of the 20th Century and remains so, but how valid is it? Words change their meaning over time, but this isn’t just about words – it’s about values. When we use the word “spirituality” in opposition to religion we are separating concepts that originally belonged together. Until modern times, spirituality existed only as part of religion.
Spirituality can be bought for cash. All manner of trinkets and pictures, lectures and retreats, books and online guides promise easy routes to self-awareness, inner healing, and fulfilment. Spirituality is generally seen today as a personal, or even a private, experience. In this way of thinking, spirituality may sometimes be experienced in company, but its quality is judged by personal feelings. OK – it is good to seek inner peace, the ‘buzz’ of ecstasy, and psychological wholeness; but should it end there? Humans are social beings, and the truest manifestations of our humanity are expressed in our attitudes to one another – and the things we do for each other. Sadly, the spirituality that many people seek is without repentance, without commitment, and without God. Cheap solutions are rarely worth the price. There is a cost to true spirituality, but it’s not measured in any earthly currency. Jesus warned us to lay up treasure in heaven. That’s priceless.
Cheap versions of spirituality rely on belief in the separation of body and soul. That’s not a Christian doctrine. It derives from Plato, whose philosophy proposed that reality exists in ‘forms’ (something like shadows, or ideas) rather than material existence. Very spiritual – but no earthly use! It’s true that St Paul spoke about a conflict between “flesh” and “spirit”, but he never suggested that “soul” could be saved independently of the body. His hope, and his teaching was of a bodily resurrection (spelt out at length in 1 Corinthians 15). The ultimate spiritual act, according to Paul, was that we should present our bodies to God (Romans 12:1). Note that! It matters, because everything we are is contained within our body.
I am writing from a Christian perspective, but I don’t apologise for that. It’s the faith that I know. More than that, it’s a spirituality that works, not just by making people feel good, but by enabling them to do good. It starts with trust in a man who lived a perfect life. Then, in his undeserved death and his well-attested resurrection, he provided resources for ordinary people to live in the power of God.
Spirituality that ends with personal satisfaction is incomplete – and selfish. More than that, it’s self-deceiving, because it relies on limited resources. Yes, we need to ‘stand on our own two feet’, which is fine while the good times last. But, when our luck runs out and the cold winds blow, we need to draw on external reserves. We need to build our life on strong foundations, rather than shifting moods and passing emotions. Money may bring you food and a secure home; it may seem to bring friends – but see where they are when you hit the hard times. Hope is where spirituality comes in – but be sure that your spiritual roots are planted in good soil.
There are sound reasons why many people shy away from the “religious” label. The word carries some unpleasant baggage – institutionalism – arbitrary rules – hypocrisy – intolerance – authoritarianism. Who wants to be branded with such negatives? But, as St James said, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27 New Living Translation). Some people have distorted the faith of the church, but the solution can’t be found in island spirituality. Yes, some people have distorted the faith, but faith is not distorted. Faith doesn’t consist in wavering interpretations of doctrine, but in the reality of trust in a personal God. But personal doesn’t mean my private interpretation – it means trust in the God who is the same for everyone – the God who is. When you connect with the one true God, you find yourself connected to a whole world – and the people in it.
Rejecting religion makes sense when the system that presents itself as religion tries to wield power and to impose rules that hurt people. Measure the truths of religion and spirituality by the actions of those who espouse them. True spirituality, doesn’t hate, it doesn’t condemn, it doesn’t hurt. It loves. And love has meaning only when you have people around to receive your love.