Organized religion rubs many spiritual-but-not-religious people the wrong way. Some don’t like its rules, its claim to be the sole source of salvation or its often male-dominated hierarchies. The list goes on.
This is a familiar conundrum discussed in United Church circles — and not just by those in the pews. It’s safe to say that a fair number of United Church ministers couldn’t be in their jobs if they were required to be in more than essential agreement with the Christian canon.
To a certain extent, this whole issue depends on how you define the terms “religious” and “spiritual.” I know there are many people who don’t fit neatly into such categories. If “religious” is defined as identifying with a religious denomination, then we can agree that one can be spiritual without being religious. But can one be religious without being spiritual? That’s a more difficult question. There must be many people in the world who regularly attend church without believing in God; they go because of the community aspect or for some other reason. I know people like this, and I’m sure most readers do as well.
You can’t go very deep into the religious-versus-spiritual distinction before it becomes useless. Some people call themselves spiritual, not because they have any belief in God, per se, but because of an attraction to new-age philosophies of energy fields and astrology charts and so forth. And for those on the religious side, there is a long and sometimes tragic history of one church attacking the credentials of another.
In other words, defining yourself as either “spiritual” or “religious” ultimately says very little about you.
But the issue is nonetheless unavoidable. The late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, noted that he found it almost impossible to have a coherent debate with Christian leaders because each one would pick and choose which stories of the Bible to defend. In one well-known exchange, Hitchens sparred with Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister from Portland who describes herself as a liberal Christian. She said many parts of the Bible were not to be taken literally, and that she didn’t believe, for example, in the doctrine of atonement — that Jesus actually died for our sins.
She asked whether Hitchens made a distinction between her beliefs and those of fundamentalist Christians. Hitchens responded, “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
So, then: if someone’s going to question whether you can even belong to the church you help lead (and we must admit, it was a fair challenge by Hitchens), you may have to make hard decisions about whether the “religious” label fits you — by which I mean, the extent to which you can really identify with one denomination over another, or any denomination at all.
I personally don’t worry much about the question and won’t go asking others if they’re religious or spiritual. I’m of the mind that you should just decide for yourself what you believe, and if you don’t feel comfortable in a given church, then find a place where you do. It may not be in a church, and that’s okay.
But that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not in a pulpit.
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