On Being “Religious”


A Sermon from First Congregational Church of Minnesota        May 25, 2014 1

Acts 17:19-31

Have you been to the Areopagus?  Not the one in Athens, but some place where people excitedly talk about ideas and concepts, where debating is the favorite intellectual sport, where folks are always hoping to hear something new.  In class, maybe, or at a gallery opening, or during a rousing political discussion, or maybe Faith on Tap?

That’s where Paul was when he spoke the words we heard this morning, or perhaps more accurately, where he preached the sermon we heard this morning from the book of Acts.  He was a skillful speaker, and part of his skill was his ability to frame his words in the style of the people he was speaking to And so, addressing the Athenians at the Areopagus, he used the rhetorical style of the Greek philosphers.  To my ears, this is one of the most articulate and compelling of Paul’s speeches – but perhaps that is because I am more like an Athenian philosopher than a Judean shepherd or fisher. .

If Paul were somehow to come into the twenty-first century, and found himself at the modern American equivalent of the Areopagus, I suspect that he would not comment on how religious we all are.  I think he would likely say, “I see how ‘spiritual but not religious’ you all are in every way.”

“Spiritual but not religious” has its own acronym (SBNR) and a whole body of writing by theologians, sociologists, denominational executives, and cultural observers.  Estimates vary as to how many Americans describe themselves as SBNR, but all of the estimates are large enough to demand our attention and pique our curiosity.

You can appreciate, I am sure, that various authorities define “spiritual” and “religious” in different ways.  For this morning, let me use – and expand a little upon – a pair of straightforward definitions from Amy Hollywood of Harvard Divinity School.  Here’s how she puts it:

Religion has to do with doctrines, dogmas, and ritual practices.  To which I will add institutions, hierarchies, and enforcement.

Spirituality has to do with the heart, feeling, and experience.  To which I will add individuality, freedom, and universality.

The meaning of the label “spiritual but not religious” depends not only upon the definitions of the two key words, but also on the middle ones:  “but not.”  “But not” means that the two are incompatible, opposite, in conflict with each other.  “But not” means that you have to value one side more than the other, that you have to choose one side over the other, that you have to defend the side you choose and criticize the side you don’t choose.

In my experience (and this is from my experience and not from a review of the astonishingly large literature on the topic), people who feel “spiritual but not religious” came to that feeling in one of three ways.

Some are critical of “organized religion” (always an amusing phrase when applied to our beloved United Church of Christ …).  They are alienated by the presence of pettiness and politics in institutions that they had hoped would be somehow “above” those human foibles.  They feel exploited by requests for money and volunteer time, and disappointed by their experience of church members’ hypocrisy – not living up to their highest ideals.  It is not difficult for them to point to misbehavior by individuals or provincialism of institutions.  If we are honest, we have to agree that some of this critique is discouragingly accurate.

A second group has experienced heartbreak or harm from a church or religious group, or has seen a heartbreak or harm to someone they love.  In recent years we have heard many stories from the GLBTQ community about churches and religious groups that have marginalized, ostracized, and sometimes openly demonized them.  Similar stories have been heard in years past from people of color, divorced persons, persons with disabilities, persons with mental illness, and all of their loved ones.  Religion holds no charm for those who have had these experiences.

A third group is made of those who simply find nothing that they need in religion or churches.  The traditions they encounter in churches – the words, music, and rituals – seem empty and do not give them a sense of encountering the Divine.  The live in communities of friends and family that feel rich enough to meet their needs for nurture and support.  They find a sense of reverence somewhere else (mountains, oceans, BWCA), and if they want to change the world, they do it through causes and organizations in the secular world.

Just as it is easy for “spiritual but not religious” people to be critical of religion, it has been easy for religious people (aka people of faith) to be critical of the SBNR’s.  Spirituality by itself does not build community, does not extend help to the needy, does not work for healing and justice.

But neither kind of criticism is very helpful.  What is helpful is to recognize that “spirituality” and “religion” (both in quotation marks) are intimately connected to one another; there is an ongoing tension in their polarity

We can see the same kind of polarity in poetry, for example.  On the one hand are the disciplined forms, like the sonnet or a limerick.  On the other hand are the infinitely many ways that a creative writer can express feelings and heart in a sonnet or humor in a limerick.  The same is true for music:  there is always tension between the technical skill of a performer and the emotion and passion that are possible when those skills have been mastered.  Athletes adhere to demanding and sometimes rigid training schedules so that they will be prepared to make moves in competition that they have never practiced.

In the particular case of the life of faith, though, there is more going on than just a polarity.  No matter how excellent a job we might do in honoring the gifts of religion and the church (tradition, story, ritual), and how excellent a job we might do at nurturing our personal sense of spirituality (prayer, study, action) – a living connection with a living God cannot happen through our efforts alone.  A living faith invites us into a relationship with the Holy One, and into the realization that we are not in control of that relationship.  Moreover, there will be times in our lives – maybe many times, maybe few – there will be times in our lives when our human resources will not be adequate to the challenges that will face us and the tasks that will be before us.

You may remember the words from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, words that are often read at weddings:  “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Even though couples often hear these words as if they were a Biblical valentine card, they are actually rather ominous:  they predict burdens to be borne, unlikely truths to be believed, setbacks to overcome with hope, and sorrows to be endured.  Paul knew, and we know at some level, that bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring are sometimes beyond our human capacity; in those moments we turn to God for what we need.

And when we make that turn, we depend upon both “religion” and “spirituality” (both still in quotation marks).  We depend upon the traditions of the faith that have been curated by the church.  Like the curator of a museum, the church through the centuries has identified, protected, and displayed the texts, rituals, and words that have nurtured, comforted, and inspired the faithful.

I’m reminded of something that happened at the University of Illinois when I was there as a graduate student.  Because of a building project, the main quad was torn up and all winter people walked across it, making paths between the buildings.  When spring came, they put the new sidewalks where the paths already were.  The traditions of religion are like those paths – they mark places where those who came before us have walked, and they are often a good places for us to walk, too.  That’s “religion” at its best.

And we also depend upon our own transcendent experiences, our personal history of sacred encounters, and the wisdom of those who have cared for us.  And some of those persons may even have been curates – an old fashioned name for a clergy member.  (Both “curator” and “curate” come from the Latin words that means “to care for.”)

So if we encountered Paul at some modern Areopagus, perhaps we would answer something like this:  “Oh, we are both spiritual and religious – sometimes one more than the other, but never one without the other.”   And that would spark a fascinating conversation, indeed.  Amen.

5 thoughts on “On Being “Religious”

  1. How I miss your sermons even though I am more of a farm girl than philosopher, I do appreciate the thoughtful grinding of ideas (kind of like a flour mill). Taking the definitions you shared, I feel relieved that I am both spiritual and religious and not afraid to own that. You give me affirmation and ways to honor both sides. Keep on preaching sister.

  2. I like the way you show both real tensions between organized religiousness and individual spirituality and also the ways that, rightly understood, they need each other. The U of Illinois story is a good one: there are reasons the paths are where they are, even if sometimes one takes a short cut or goes off the path.
    Thanks for sharing this good sermon, Sandy.

  3. Yup, lots of nodding as I read. I work with a lot of SBNR folks out here on the “left coast” – and sometimes dig into Roman history to make laughter about it (those rabble religions, not upstanding, respectable cults like US) to have a discussion. Mind you, as a chaplain I have the luxury of working mostly in small conversations and am able to be more selective in how I choose to phrase and discuss things so we can talk and heal and grow together with fewer barriers from what they associate with this or that word or institution…

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