Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Spiritual? Religious? Or Both?

Dear Friends,

I told Cindy I was a pastor and saw her eyes glaze over as her expression became guarded. “I'm spiritual, not religious,” she politely explained. When I asked what that meant to her, a litany of complaints about the “church” poured out. After a woman in a church offended her, she was done with what she called “religion.” I asked again what she had meant about being “spiritual” and she enthusiastically described her rituals, practices and beliefs. I told her that what she had done was simply to reject the historic Christian doctrine that had been part of her upbringing and invent her own personalized religion by creating a customized doctrine and incorporating some new age rituals. Her response was angry denial. Then she paused, thought about it, laughed and said, “I guess you're right, I did do that...” And then she thought again and said, “Is that wrong...?”

The majority of Americans say that their Christian religion is very important in their lives. They attend church, pray and read their Bible. But of those who are unaffiliated with a church, like Cindy, nearly 40% would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, and most of them cannot effectively articulate what their spirituality means to them. It’s difficult to talk about spiritual concepts when those terms mean different things to different people. To some, spirituality is simply “feeling good about myself.”

The dictionary definition of “religious” is faithful devotion to God, church beliefs and observances. Those who are religious adhere to Biblical teachings that are apostolic, classic and historic – the foundation of our faith that has been understood and taught for thousands of years. But many who have had a negative experience with the Christian church use the term “religious” as a denigrative slur when they refer to those who are faithful to the Triune God and to their church.

In the early church, “spiritual” was understood as “that which relates to sacred matters that affect the spirit.” For the early church, religious and spiritual went hand-in-hand. You couldn't have one without the other. The apostle Paul describes the spiritual life as becoming one with the Spirit of God and Paul’s writings contrast the victory of spiritual living over living according to our weak and flawed human nature. Christians who have the mind of Christ do spiritual things in accordance with His Spirit. So for the early Christians, “spiritual” meant integrating Apostolic teachings within their day to day lives. It meant living a godly life.  

But in the 20th century, spirituality became separated from religion and “spiritual” evolved to mean a person's private thoughts and experiences that foster a sense of psychological well-being. God was now one option among many. 

And while those who are “spiritual but not religious,” have shunned the teachings and rituals of the Christian church, some, like Cindy, have filled that void with their own customized belief system and religious rituals. A BBC television show called, "The Spirituality Shopper" followed a person each week as they browsed through the practices of different religions to assemble their personalized set of rituals. One woman chose a combination of Buddhist meditation along with Jewish Shabbat meals followed by Muslim Sufi dancing where you twirl around in circles until you reach an ecstatic trance. A medical doctor enhanced his spirituality with Hindu Yoga, Islamic prayer and Shaman drumming circles.

When we separate out spirituality from classic Christianity in order to choose non-Christian doctrine and rituals, we must reject the God of the Bible if we are now following  different gods. According to the Hindu religion, every yoga position represents a different Hindu deity and holding the pose expresses our worship of that deity. Our new  narcissistic concept of having everything “my way” fosters this cafeteria approach to selecting the rituals and practices that bring us the most pleasure; and in doing so, we have become our own god. A theologian wrote,“Spirituality today just means that you are in touch with your divine self.” 

2000 years ago, authentic spirituality was understood as being how the teachings of Jesus Christ manifested in the behavior and day-to-day life of the believer. It still is today. Believers in the ancient church practiced Christianity that contained mystical elements such as meditation, the soul's mystical union with God and Lectio Divina – the simple prayerful contemplation of Holy Scripture. These authentic spiritual experiences are what many people are seeking today and they can still be found in the Christian religion that they left behind. In leaving the church and the Christian faith, too many today are struggling with an unfilled void in their life that only the God of the Bible can fill. Our culture has described them as the “nones” and we need to pray for them. They are today’s spiritual homeless.

Lord, heal their pain; open their eyes to 
Your truth through Christ and may they 
choose the path that leads to You. Amen

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