Religious, not spiritual
Building on what I wrote last week, a few reflections on words recently heard from Nadia Bolz Webber. She described herself as being religious, but not particularly spiritual. She suggested that she often practiced her faith as a habit, even though she often didn’t really feel all that spiritual, all that holy.
It’s the opposite of what we hear often in a culture filled with nones and dones. (Nones are those who claim no religious affiliation. Dones are those who have given up on organized religion.) Increasingly, religious observance is regarded as quaint, outdated, irrelevant, boring, mindless, offensive, oppressive, and if nothing else, optional. Spirituality is embraced. Religion, not so much.
I have a feeling that, like it or not, we are all religious people. We gather regularly for liturgies of all kinds, upholding traditions which engage our spirits (We’ve just come off one of the largest religious events in our culture, an annual liturgy with Falcons and Patriots in procession, Lady Gaga offering anthems in there somewhere.) So the word “religion” could probably stand some exploration, maybe even redemption.
Accounts vary regarding its etymology. According to Cicero, the word “religion” means to choose again (re + lego), to go over carefully. I’ve liked the sense of the word attributed to Augustine (and Joseph Campbell) by which religion literally means “to bind together again.’ Re: again, Ligio: bind, as in ligaments. We could all stand to be brought together again. Can religion do that? Can it help the center hold?
My take on it: Religion without spirituality can, without a doubt feel empty, routine, soulless. Spirituality without religion can lose its way, veering off into individual experience. Religion, with all its foibles, reminds us that we need to show up. We need each other. We need to be in community with people who will be our teachers. That invariably calls for structure and organization, institutions and habits. Tradition matters. Truth be told, even the most non-traditional folks among us gravitate toward tradition.
But neither religion nor spirituality are ends in themselves. They are instruments, vehicles, channels that by amazing grace, allow us to know something of the God who knows us intimately, to love in some way the God from whose love we can never be separated, to serve, even haltingly, the God who came among us as servant.
With that in mind, religion and spirituality and scriptural engagement and social action and polished liturgy and sacred music and fine architecture and compelling preaching and regular church attendance and generous pledging and successful church growth strategies are not the destination. They are meant to draw us into loving and healed relationship with God and with each other. Religion on a good day does that. Sadly, too often, religion trips over itself. It gets in the way.
It’s interesting to me that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Bible. But equally interesting is to note the way that religion is described when it does appear in the New Testament. It’s not about institution or tradition or bureaucracy or rules. It’s about engagement of the heart, showing love to people who need to know love–the least of these. (See biblical citations below.) These days, they seem more threatened than ever.
So whether you are spiritual or religious or some combination of the two, ask today why one should bother with any of it. And try this answer on for size: practice spirit-filled religion that discovers its true nature in serving those in greatest need. There’s no shortage of opportunity to do that.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.James 1:26, 27
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.-Isaiah 58
Jesus said: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6:1-4
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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