The saying,” I’m spiritual, but not religious” has been around for many decades now and has become a mantra for people leaving established religions but wanting the world to know they are still believers — in something. And that is a problem. When we are not clear about our worldview and what we specifically believe is true about life and faith, we can easily skim the surface of living and not experience its blessings. I get it! Many people have experienced “bad religion” and been hurt by judgemental religious beliefs and practices. Others have followed a belief tradition that has slowly lost its significance but has continued to provide community which is so important at this time of rapid worldwide change.
When there is so much uncertainty, humans seek to be connected to something sacred that is larger than ourselves. Abraham Maslow wrote, “Human beings have a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence.” (1) In his hierarchy of needs, basic bodily needs are at the base of the triangle and spiritual needs are at the top. The desire to connect with the intelligence that permeates the universe is an innate need. So, we can say that humans are all spiritual beings. Cindy Wigglesworth wrote about Spiritual Intelligence, the many aspects of our spiritual life and how we can evaluate and intentionally grow spiritually. (2) What can we say about religion? Religion is the form in which spirituality is shaped, experienced and expressed through a wide range of beliefs, rituals, practices and narratives — both scriptures and stories.
When people say they are not religious they mean they are not part of a recognized organized religion. A common characteristic of many organized religions is a certainty that its beliefs and rituals are the one and only way to salvation; that only it offers the correct way to perceive our true nature and our relationship to the rest of existence (God, nature, the universe). Although this certainty provides connection/belonging, meaning and purpose, it also stifles growth.
Art Freeman, my New Testament professor at Moravian seminary over 50 years ago, wrote a paper in 1998,which stated, “I understand a deep hunger for spirituality to be inherent in being human, and we can neither be understood nor satisfied without it….when a person realizes who he or she is within the cosmos and discovers the spiritual dimensions of him or herself and of life itself…one is no longer alienated from a part of one’s own being and existence and all of the possibilities are available for living.” (3)
Religion’s purpose is to provide context and encouragement for expanding our awareness of who we are and who God is in our life. It also provides a community to help and encourage us to live our lives to the fullest.
Religion is, by nature, conservative. By that I mean it anchors us in beliefs and community so we can go deeper and not be pulled this way and that by many surface things or “flavour of the year” ideas. However, the shadow side of an anchor is that it can be too rigid, not allowing any movement. This prevents creativity, growth and change as new information such as scientific discoveries about the nature of life emerge.
I believe that just as everyone is spiritual, everyone is religious. We are religious in the sense that we have a belief system, a value system and rules and rituals that guide our decisions and our behaviour. These may come from family, culture, race or nationality. They provide us with a history and an organized way of making decisions based on what we believe to be true or sacred. Often, growing up in these systems, we are less conscious of the way they influence us than we would be of a religion that has a printed rule book and defined way to salvation.
Religion also provides a community to help and encourage us, so we can live our lives to the fullest. However, we and our religious leaders need to be aware of the shadow side of religion. If we are not aware, we can become embroiled in religious wars, values conflicts, and ego behaviour that is contrary to spiritual teachings about love and other values that hold us together as a human society.
The Christian church is currently going through a radical change. People have sensed this since the turn of the century. Christianity has been the fastest declining religion with respect to percent of population. Churches are closing at a rapid rate and without good leadership people are leaving, not just the church, but the Christian faith. As I cited in my July blog, Brian McLaren’s recently published book: Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned (4) He wrote ten chapters on why people leave the church and ten chapters on why they should stay. Christianity itself is wrestling with its primary beliefs and the meaning of its central symbol, the cross, as well as its most important sacrament, communion. While this is scary, it is a recognition that growth is necessary within a religion if it is to stay relevant and fulfill its mission to help people grow spiritually and act lovingly.
Brian Swimm, a physicist and mathematical cosmologist writes about the human journey in a spiritual way. His writing affirms the common characteristics between spirituality and scientific discovery. In his lecture, The Foundational Order of the Universe. (5) Swimm says there are three laws that guide the way the universe unfolds, and everything is an expression of these three: Communion, Differentiation and Subjectivity. If you take any one of these away the universe would collapse.
Communion is the law that states we are all connected. No one or no thing exists outside of this communion/connection web. Physically we are all made of the same elements, and spiritually we are connected to the whole creation/universe.
Differentiation affirms our uniqueness. Even though we are made of the same stuff, we are not all the same. The universe loves diversity. Humans, at our level of conscious, have an ego. Unfortunately, we love to be better or more important than everyone else, not just a part of everything. Religions have had the same problem, many asserting that it is the only one who has the truth. This has led to dualism — separation of matter and spirit, them and us, strict boundaries of right and wrong, and distancing ourselves from the values of the wider community.
Subjectivity is the third law. This is the most difficult to demonstrate and the most controversial. Subjectivity asserts that the universe has an inner life. It is not just physical stuff, inert matter that we can move around at will. We tried to do that with the material elements of the earth because we believed it was just stuff that was not alive. As a result, the Earth is dying and pushing back to maintain its balance/life (climate change, natural catastrophes, etc.)
We too have an inner life. To survive we need to have an awareness of and a relationship with this life. This is what spirituality is all about and what religion should be encouraging. We are given a quantum of energy at birth, and we have the task to identify ourselves, create ourselves, weigh who we are and self-disclose. It is our primary responsibility to differentiate and become our unique selves. There is no model for who that will be. This a totally creative process. It takes tremendous courage to be who we are. We are commissioned by the sacred universe to do this work. (6)
Science is mostly about the material world and relationships. Cosmology is a developing philosophy that is bringing together science and spirituality. Spirituality is about both the outer world and the inner world. It is about having an intimate relationship with ourself, our neighbours and the power of the universe who knows our name. Brian McLaren writes in a previous book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that the church of the future will be one that becomes a school of love; helping people of every age and ability to become their best selves. In my next blog post I would like to deal with the question, “How do we hear the voice of God — the inner voice of our heart, the wisdom of the Spirit”.
1. Abraham Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 337
2. Cindy Wigglesworth, Spiritual Intelligence, SelectBooks, 2014
3. Journal of Pastoral Care, Spring 1998, Vol. 52, #1 P. 7
4. Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022
5. Brian Swimm, Canticle to the Universe, sivideo.com
6. My notes from listening to Brian Swimm’s lectures