Question: Many people today say they are “spiritual but not religious.” What do they mean by saying they are “spiritual” and how is this different from being “religious?”
Answer: The term “spiritual” is difficult to define, so you will have to ask people who say they are spiritual what they mean by it. For that matter, what do they think it means to be “religious?” If they define themselves in terms of what they are not, they should have some notions of both what they are and what they are not. It would also be interesting to learn of the personal experiences of religion of people who claim to be spiritual, which are often negative.
These two terms can be treated as distinct concepts. I think to be spiritual means, for starts, to believe that our lives, the world, and the universe are more than just material existence. At least on the level of our lives, there is some meaning and purpose to our existence beyond just eating and drinking, working and sleeping, and having sex and procreating. The spiritual person seeks spiritual meanings or purposes in these mundane realities.
Here is the credo of a man who was spiritual, but not religious.
To be religious means, for starts, to believe that there is some divinity beyond or within our lives, the world, or the universe that we can personally relate to and that gives meaning and purpose to our lives, including our eating and drinking, working and sleeping, and having sex and procreating. The religious person seeks the sanctification of these mundane realities by means of rituals.
I said above “for starts” because these beliefs are irrelevant unless they involve a practice. I can believe all kinds of things, but unless my beliefs involve some sort of behavior I can’t see what difference they make.
The behaviors of spiritual and religious people might not be all that different in actual practice. Both spiritual and religious people might perform good works. They want to do those things that make the lives of other people better. Both spiritual and religious people might feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless, welcome refugees, and work for justice and peace. And they both might organize to accomplish these tasks more effectively. There are charitable, ethical, and relief organizations as well as churches, synagogues, and temples. Both spiritual and religious people can be supported by communities of liked-minded believers, although religious people surely will be.
Spiritual and religious people might both engage in rituals. Buddhism, at least in its original (Hinayana = “little conveyance”) form, has been regarded more as a spirituality than a religion because it worshiped no gods. Gautama Buddha detached himself from all things, including the gods, although some later Buddhists worship the Buddha as a savior-god who replaced the old gods (Mahayana = “great conveyance”). The Buddha (“Enlightened One”) rejected the rituals of the orthodox Hindu Brahmans that did not, in his experience, lead to a rich inner life. Hinduism has lots of rituals involving offerings to deities. But Buddhism inevitably developed rituals of its own, some of which are quite elaborate.
In fact, some spiritual ritualizations can be more elaborate than some religious rituals, involving the use of physical objects and bodily gestures and chanting and often focused on a relationship with the natural world. But what ritual can be simpler than the Quaker practice of meeting in silence until the Spirit inspires someone to speak? Spiritual people might also meditate in silence. The difference is whether people are cultivating a relationship with a deity. Religious people are, spiritual people usually are not.
I also note that people can have rich inner lives without being particularly spiritual or religious in their beliefs or actions. They cultivate their imaginations to produce great works of literature, music, or art or to follow their hunches to make scientific discoveries. Needless to say, great artists and scientists can also be spiritual or religious.
Some people can be both spiritual and religious—if their religion puts them in touch with spiritual traditions. Christianity has a number of spiritual traditions, some contemplative, others more action-oriented. Each Roman Catholic religious order represents a spiritual tradition. For me, the more interesting question is whether people can be religious but not spiritual. There have been religions (like those of ancient Rome) in which it was deemed sufficient just to perform the rituals and the good works as acts of obedience to the deity. The piety is expressed in the performance as such in the expectation that the rituals are efficacious.
I think Judaism and its Christian offshoot come close to being religious but not spiritual. To be sure, these two religions have had their mystical movements. But Judaism and Christianity affirm the basic goodness of the material world because it is God’s creation. It is not given more meaning as a spiritual reality. For Jews and Christians the meaning of life or the purpose of the world (cosmos) is to delight the Creator. We perform the liturgical rituals and serve the needy because these activities please God, not because they fulfill some spiritual purpose. Those who do such things might find these activities personally fulfilling. But they are all done soli Deo gloria—“to the glory of God alone.” This does not imply that God is needy, as some anti-religious critics have suggested. But rather in serving God we are serving a reality bigger than ourselves. Worship, for example, is not just praising God, who doesn’t need it, but getting out of ourselves, where often all our trouble is. A Latin definition of sin is incurvatus in se—turned in on ourselves.
Christians relate to God body to body, not just spirit to spirit—although we summon our deepest imaginations to aid us in worship and service. God comes to us bodily in Christ (the incarnation) and Christ relates to us bodily in the sacraments (Baptism, Holy Communion). We respond with bodily worship and charitable works. We celebrate this body-to-body relationship at Christmas when we receive the Lord of all creation as a baby born in very worldly circumstances; Christmas is not just a spiritual idea.
A religious practice cultivates a spirituality. Spirituality can be defined as the practical way of expressing one’s relationship to God or whatever spiritual reality one believes in. The Christian religion with its body-to-body relationship to God in Christ will cultivate an incarnational spirituality. There are different schools of Christian spirituality, but they will include practices of worship centered in the written Word of God and sacraments that use earthly means that convey a spiritual reality to our physical bodies, and through our bodies to our embodied mind. Christians will find ways of caring for the earth as God’s creation and our temporal home. Christians will support and participate in ministries that tend to the physical needs of suffering bodies. Christians will also take care of their own bodies to remain healthy and strong for the service to God and neighbor. This will include ascetic disciplines that subdue the body such as fasting and and exercise (ascesis in Greek means “practice,” as in the bodily training of athletes), both of which which we will need to resume after the season of Christmas feasting.
A religion tends to organize these practices into “rules.” This is really what a lot of “spiritual” people resist. Organized religion has a propensity for being rule-bound, because social organizations need rules of operation. The danger of rules is that people think they are bad people if they fail to observe all the rules. There’s no doubt that some religions have legalistically enforced the rules. The problem, as the Protestant reformers discovered after they got rid of a lot of the rules of the medieval Church, is that if the rules are relaxed, people don’t observe the practices at all and therefore don’t reap the benefits that the practices provide. For example, there are benefits to fasting; if you don’t fast, you don’t receive the benefits of fasting. This also applies to people who want to go on a diet for health reasons but then don’t observe it strictly because, well, it’s inconvenient (I’m invited to a party) or it’s demanding (I didn’t think ahead of what items I need to have on hand to do this diet). I don’t know what spiritual people do about these weaknesses of the flesh. Truly religious people (at least Jews and Christians) will confess their specific shortcomings, resolve to do better, and try again with God’s help. That’s called grace, unmerited love and forgiveness. But grace is too big a subject to get into here, because it’s what the divine-human relationship is all about.
Pastor Frank Senn
Orthodox Christian penitential ritual