In my experience the declaration that “I’m spiritual but not religious” is often greeted by a collective eye-roll in church circles. For many of us affiliated with formal church or faith organizations, it can seem a ridiculous thing to say.
What we think we’re hearing is “I’m spiritual but not yet religious.”
Often, we presume that the person making this statement is in fact religious, but simply hasn’t seen the light yet and joined our church. We think of this person as a “seeker” and we think that we are what this person is seeking.
Then we ask ourselves what we need to change about the coffee hour or the music at the family service to attract what we presume to be the “seeker.”
We are convinced that a tweak here or a tweak there will somehow bring us to the Holy Grail of full pews and overfunded stewardship campaigns made possible by the vast numbers of people who are “spiritual but not (yet) religious.”
What we don’t take into consideration is that perhaps this “spiritual but not religious” person is not in fact a seeker for what we have to offer.
Perhaps they have found that for which they are looking—and it isn’t our church.
There is a Maori saying, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Looked at through this lens, “spiritual but not religious” begins to make more sense. As spiritual beings, religious observance no longer carries the importance that, as human beings, we place on it.
All of a sudden the theology, dogma, liturgy and hierarchy associated with formal religion is no longer necessary to understand one’s relationship with the divine. In fact, as spiritual beings, the divine dwells within each of us.
I’m no theologian, as I’m sure my more theologically literate readers will agree, but are we not called by Jesus to recognize the divine in each other?
So, before we roll our eyes at those who claim to be spiritual but not religious, perhaps we should honor them as spiritual beings and, as St. Benedict instructs, welcome them as we would welcome Christ.
What would that look like?
Well, it might look like what Rabbi Kerry Olitzky describes in his book, “Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future.”
If we center our approach on the spiritual being and what that person seeks, perhaps we might build new communities of faith and observance.
Moreover, as spiritual beings, if we are free to choose from amongst the myriad and millennia of traditions and observances to find our own “playlists,” perhaps we will re-sort ourselves into new, vital and, dare I say, religious communities.
We can draw inspiration from existing playlists to be sure, but we should be open to new ones as well.
The future is about creating the new, not preserving the old.