I hear often that people are spiritual but not religious, or that they love Jesus but don’t like the Church. I get it. But the antidote to a thing that has been misused or abused– like religion and church– is not no use, but good and proper use.
So, the question worth asking might be, “What is the good and proper use of religion?” Or simply, “What good is organized religion, specifically Christianity, and, to be even more precise, the Church?”
Some Christian writers are convinced that the best thing to do is to stop talking about Christianity and to emphasize following Jesus and not any sort of organized religion. But this won’t do because there is no unscrambling this egg: Christianity as an organized Way of following Jesus exists, and has existed for a couple of millenia. (Arguably, those Christian writers are ‘following Jesus’ today because Christianity has existed– as the preserver and proclaimer of the faith!)
Others say, just leave out ‘the Church’, because, after all, Jesus didn’t come to start an institution. Other than a re-reading of a key speech Jesus gave to Peter, this view ignores (either out of ignorance or otherwise) that the four Gospels came to us out of early Christian communities. They were some of the last New Testament books to be written, and the stories in it were preserved by…wait for it…churches. So if the Gospels contain some sort of anti-Church or anti-organized religion message, it would be news to the writers!
I have recently been reading James Martin’s (S. J.) marvelous book, ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything’ and came across his warm and winsome discussion of being ‘spiritual but not religious’. I’ve highlighted the parts that really stood out to me:
The thinking goes like this: being “religious” means abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. (Which would have surprised many thinking believers, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Dorothy Day and Reinhold Niebuhr.) Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial — so goes the thinking — stifling the growth of the human spirit. (Which would have surprised St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Or worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world.
Sadly, religion is in fact responsible for many ills in the modern world and evils throughout history: among them the persecution of Jews, endless wars of religion, the Inquisition, not to mention the religious intolerance and zealotry that leads to terrorism.
You can add to this list smaller things: your judgmental neighbor who loudly tells you how often he helps out at church, your holier-than-thou relative who trumpets how often she reads the Bible, or that annoying guy at work who keeps telling you that belief in Jesus is sure to bring you amazing financial success.
There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organizations, and therefore prone to sin. And frankly, people within religious organizations know this better than those outside of them…
…Still, I would stack up against the negatives some positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic Charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King again. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo.
And Jesus of Nazareth. Remember him? Though he often challenged the religious conventions of his day, he was a deeply religious man. (This is something of an understatement).
By the way, atheism doesn’t have a perfect record either. In his book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak points out that while many atheist thinkers urge us to question everything, especially the record of organized religion, atheists often fail to question their own record. Think of the cruelty and bloodshed perpetrated, just in the 20th century, by totalitarian regimes that have professed “scientific atheism.” Stalinist Russia comes to mind.
On balance, religion comes out on top. And when I think about the examples of the maleficent effects of religion, I remember the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, a dazzling writer who was by many accounts a nasty person. One of Waugh’s friends once expressed astonishment that he could be so mean-spirited and a Christian. Think, said Waugh, how much worse I would be if I were not Christian.
“But I’m my own person”
Still, it’s not surprising that, given all the problems with organized religion, many people would say, “I’m not religious.” They say: “I’m serious about living a moral life, maybe even one that centers on God, but I’m my own person.”
“Spiritual” on the other hand, implies that, freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God. The term may also imply that you have sampled a variety of religious beliefs that you have integrated into your life. You meditate at a Buddhist temple, participate in Seders with Jewish friends at Passover, sing in a gospel choir at a local Baptist church (great again), and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church (also great).
You find what works for you, but don’t subscribe to any one church: that would be too confining. Besides, there’s no one creed that represents exactly what you believe.
But there’s a problem. While “spiritual” is obviously healthy, “not religious” may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it’s not just a question of you and God.
Because this would mean that you’re relating to God alone. And that means that there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.
We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. And not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to recognize when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or even wrong.
Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success — a popular idea today. Were she part of a mainstream Christian community, though, she would be reminded that suffering is part of the life of even the most devout Christian. Without the wisdom of a community, she may gravitate towards a skewed view of Christianity. Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.