Spiritual And Religious

One of the great clichés of our day is the claim to be spiritual but not religious. But “spiritual” is a highly elastic term, so it’s fair to ask people what they mean by spirituality when they say that.

Often the short answer is, “I don’t like organized religion.” If you press a bit, you may hear the standard complaints: church is boring; religious people are hypocrites; you don’t need dogma to believe in God; religions are the main source of conflict in the world; etc.

There’s an element of truth in some of those stereotypes. Church can be boring, though it can also be powerful. Some religious people are hypocrites, but no more than human beings in general. And of course you can believe in any god you imagine, with as much or as little substance as you like. What’s not true is that religions are the main source of conflict in the world, but more about that another time.

Beyond the negative definition of “not church,” though, what does spirituality mean? What difference does it make in a person’s life?

Compared to organized religion, some kinds of spirituality are much less costly and far more convenient. Private spirituality may not require you to show up anywhere or do anything at all. Whatever you choose to believe in probably won’t ask any more of you than you’re already inclined to do, since you’re the one who sets the standards. (Studies show, by the way, that people who are active in congregations give more money and volunteer more time to all sorts of charitable causes, on average, than people who are not involved in organized religion—perhaps because some power greater than themselves is nudging them in that direction.)

If spirituality consists mostly in being fond of nature and thinking there’s some benevolent force whose interests line up conveniently with your own, it’s easy to see how that would be popular—but also how the popularity might lie mostly in the convenience.

Spirituality in the Christian tradition is full of substance, because it comes from the Holy Spirit, who is infinitely greater than we are. St. Paul describes some of that substance when he says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Christians can gauge their progress in spirituality by the quality of their lives. If a person claims to be spiritual but isn’t kind or generous or patient or loving, she may be deceiving herself.

It’s no wonder some people simply declare themselves to be spiritual, just as many declare themselves to be good—as if we could become either good or spiritual just by saying so. No doubt some people can be spiritual, or good, or both, without being religious, and some religious people are neither spiritual nor good. But still, it’s fair to ask what people mean when they claim to be spiritual, and how they could tell whether or not it was true.

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