Spiritual But Not Religious? Come Talk to Me

If you’re a person who studies religion, teaches religion, or practices religion in some professional capacity, you probably saw an article recently (probably “liked” or recommended by several of your professionally religious Facebook friends) titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”  

In the piece Lillian Daniel, a UCC pastor, complains (quite wittily) about what happens when strangers discover her vocation. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” people confess to her—a litany that often concludes with: “I find God in the sunset.”

As a professor of religious studies I can relate to some degree. I, too, have found myself an unwitting listener to the personal and sometimes bizarre reflections of total strangers on airplanes, who seem to believe that the word “religious” in my job title means I am someone good to talk to.

There was the guy who told me he’d had two wives in different states for several years till one of them found out; he was going to visit his estranged son. There was the woman who told me about her years working the carnival circuit until she had been raped. One enthusiastic Evangelical with a laptop showed me every picture from his recent mission trip to Haiti. And once there was a man who, as I graded my students’ papers, was reading them over my shoulder and offering his comments.

While this last particular episode was fairly annoying, I generally don’t mind listening to people’s stories as long as these strangers aren’t asking me questions about myself. (Incidentally, Rev. Daniel’s and my experiences are directly opposite of a cartoon I keep in my office, in which a man with a t-shirt on that reads “LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS,” says to another man, “It guarantees me an entire seat all to myself.”)

I also share the Reverend Daniel’s frustration with people who might use “spiritual but not religious” as code for “I don’t really think about religion at all because it’s boring or difficult or irrelevant to my pursuit of self-interest.” One statistician of religion suggests that America is well on its way to becoming a nation of “310 million people with 310 million religions,” each tailor-made to suit themselves. As someone who has made a career out of the life of the mind, and whose cultural, political, social, and theological leanings are all oriented around the ideals of selflessness and generosity (not that I have a Christ complex or anything), such an individualistic approach to spirituality often comes across to me as intolerable shallowness and lack of character.

But if I step back and think more carefully, I see that it’s probably not fair to stereotype these folks as “bland” or “self-centered” or cowardly sunset people who are too weak for big-league religion—any more than it’s wise to characterize all self-identified religious people as “brave enough to encounter God in a real human community.” (It may surprise some readers that Rev. Daniel’s denomination is the United Church of Christ, which I have heard dismissively called “Unitarians Considering Christ” by Christians of more orthodox leanings who see the UCC as, well, spiritual but not religious.)

Some religious people do indeed exhibit almost supernatural patience and compassion for their fellows, and it often does require great courage to stay in a congregation even when there is conflict and pain and, most of all, disappointment to be found there. But I also believe that for many formerly religious people, the act of leaving their religious traditions, of opting out of the human communities into which they were born or which no longer felt like home, could itself have been a tremendous act of courage.

In my experience as a college professor, “spiritual but not religious” is my bread and butter; it is the very thing that drives many people into my classes. For better or worse, it is often the conventionally religious students who seem satisfied (sometimes smugly so) with shallow understandings of their own traditions—to say nothing of anyone else’s religion. Meanwhile, some of the spiritual students (though certainly not all) are those who work the hardest to figure out what they can believe in or sign on for, while still maintaining a sense of personal integrity.

Outside of my professional life, the issue for me (as I presume for anyone out there who is still reading) is also quite personal, because I cannot confidently call myself either spiritual or religious. (In fact just this week a student approached me because he thought I would be the perfect advisor for a new “secular alliance” he hopes to start on campus.) I certainly have decades of experience being religious, such that my worldview is irrevocably American Protestant. And I have had more years of religious education than I care to count, including a Master of Divinity degree and a doctorate in Christian ethics. I think and talk about religion for a living, and I also read religious/spiritual materials, usually Buddhist, in my free time. I am married to an ordained pastor, we baptized our child when he was born, and we have several Christian icons in our home.

I have visited houses of worship in several traditions, practice hatha yoga semi-regularly, and have been on a Zen retreat. I deeply appreciate, at least on an intellectual level, the importance of history, tradition, and community. I occasionally attend a local Protestant congregation, full of wonderful human beings who generously tolerate my spotty engagement, where I have also taught adult Sunday school and led a women’s retreat. And while I enjoy sunsets, especially in the winter, I do not necessarily commune with God there.

But most Sundays I don’t go to church because, frankly put, it bores me; I am tired and church fails to provide any compelling reason to get out of my pajamas. (Were I living in a large, cosmopolitan city where churches with high liturgy, weekly Eucharist, beautiful architecture, and trained musicians abounded, my story might be quite different.) Although I like the people at church very much and I wish to support them in their hours of need, I am still unwilling to prioritize membership. I have an emotionally demanding job that takes up all of my time and psychic energy during the academic year, and I would honestly rather get work done in my off hours than act as an usher or sit on a church governing body.

Moreover, my child hates church, almost as much as he hates vegetables, and I cannot readily explain to him why he has to go when I myself would rather not. Does this make me completely lame? Perhaps.

It is certainly true, at least from a certain perspective, that it is easier to stay home on Sunday mornings (or Friday or Saturday evenings, as the case may be) than to go listen to the bland proclamation of what passes for sacred truth in many American congregations, or to allow oneself to get involved in the complex life of a community. But just because people are not showing their courage in a religious community does not mean they are not courageous anywhere. I, for example, have spent countless hours in committee meetings discussing the liberal arts and doing my part to hold together a tightly-knit community of diverse scholars, administrators, and support staff who have made it our life’s work to educate the next generation of global citizens.

At least once a week I have a crisis of faith and want to give up. But I don’t, because the people around me remind me again and again that our communal project—which we all help shape and by which we are in turn shaped—is worthwhile in the long run, despite the short-term pain we must endure.

If all of this makes me boring to the confidently religious, I guess I can live with that. But I am actually quite fascinated by someone who takes the time to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” when they could simply have said, “Hmmm, interesting,” and put in their ear buds. It makes me feel less alone as I wander in my current religious wilderness. I am actually energized and encouraged by the quests of those who are seeking something true, even if they don’t know anything other than that it’s not religion.