Over the last decade, I have had countless conversations with friends that would label themselves spiritual but not religious. This posture is a growing trend. Almost without exception, I find myself coming back to the same conclusion after these conversations. We are all wired to explore. We all experience things in life that we cannot explain. For so many people, the awareness of powers at work in the world can be attributed to a divine source. There is interest in conversations about ancient texts. There is a natural desire to understand healing and forgiveness. But these questions hit a road block when the point of view shifts from God, to the way humanity organizes to express their faith.
This is the point in the conversation that things get tricky for me. I am a church girl. I was baptized as an infant. I was in the pew every Sunday. I was a youth group officer, a retreat leader and a religious drum beater. Then I went to seminary and became a youth pastor. These are usually not interesting talking points for non-religiously interested humans. My life experiences define the things that repel them.
A fascinating thing has happened as I explore these conversations. The more relationships that I have built with non-religious people, the more I have seen God – in their questions, in their seeking, in their faith. There is a lack of fear in saying things that many of us have been taught were off limits. There is no such thing as a bad or wrong or too stupid question. There is not an preset belief about what you should or should not believe. From that space, the most seeking, pure, holy questions are asked.
So, back to the original question. What if religion is not spiritual? I don’t think it is. Religions are belief systems. Religions contain rituals and moral codes. Religions are rooted in culture and history. Religions are humanity’s attempt to communicate the experiences of the supernatural and organize those moments into a road map for living. Religion is not bad. But it is not fundamentally good, either. Religions, all religions, have failings and shortcomings. They have ways to communicate with followers that push them toward more devoted lives. But there are plenty of religious expressions that fall short of connecting followers to life giving strengths like love and peace.
I fully believe that the Divine Mystery of God is best celebrated as just that, a Divine Mystery. When we take the questions and wonder and expansiveness and beauty out of our practice, we drift far from Spirit and rally around expressions of uniformity. It is in these moments that religion becomes dangerous. When religious communities become about conformity and rule following and power, they lose the delicate connection that is rooted in listening and responding. When I think about religious communities that have traded their process of discovery for the lie of security, I often witness an obvious disconnect with spirituality. In these religious expressions, division and exclusion thrive. Unfortunately, these are the religious communities that attract the attention of the world. They are loud. They are politicized. They are machines of culture. And in mixing these things with the name of God, most un-religious seekers are not only uninterested but completely turned off.
For the sake of good, honest, ‘what if’ kind of living, may we shed the labels and the pre-programmed questions and answers long enough to listen and hope and ask. Together.