According to a recent Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is a growing trend. At one time these words (spiritual and religious) were used interchangeably. Not so much today.
In contemporary speech the word spiritual is more associated with personal or private experience, while the word religious is usually connected to communal, institutional, and organizational religious life. Those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious reject traditional organized religion as the sole or the most valuable means of advancing one’s spiritual growth.
In this passage in 1 Corinthians Paul is still contrasting the wisdom of God that is expressed in the message of the cross with the wisdom of the world, which is the wisdom of the domination system, the way things normally are. And in this context he talks about what it means to be spiritual. Now let’s be clear from the outset: Paul connects Christian spirituality with Christian community. We can discuss whether or not we agree with Paul, but for Paul himself, there is no such thing as being spiritual but not religious. Paul’s understanding of being spiritual is inseparably connected to life in the church, the community of faith.
So how does Paul understand spirituality and what bearing should this have on our church and individual lives? First, Paul says that to be spiritual is to recognize the generosity of God in the many good gifts God has given to the community.
Paul writes, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12). The gifts Paul has particularly in mind are the gifts that he mentions in chapter 12 of this letter, gifts that build and enhance community life. The gifts he mentions in chapter 12 are by no means exhaustive; they are representative of the kind of gifts that God gives to the church, so the church can function as the body of Christ in the world.
When Paul admonishes the church in 12:31, “Strive for (or seek or pursue) the greater gifts” he most certainly is not talking to individuals, but the church corporately, telling the church as a whole to give precedence to those gifts that edify and strengthen community. This is why Paul favors the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. He argues that while the gift of tongues primarily edifies the person who expresses the gift, the gift of prophecy edifies the whole community.
Authentic spirituality is rooted and grounded in God’s grace, expressed in community life through gratitude. The gifts given to the church are given by divine grace and the community responds in thanksgiving. I have said many times that I don’t believe a spiritual life is possible without some experience and expression of gratitude. Paul typically begins his letters with thanksgiving. He opens this letter to the Corinthians by saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4). In Jesus Christ we have tapped into an endless reservoir of grace that cannot but overflow into expressions of gratitude.
Paul also says, “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). Paul is not saying that God withholds these gifts, rather, the unspiritual do not recognize and acknowledge these gifts that come from God. And while Paul is not eliminating personal gifts, his clear focus is on the gifts that God gives to the faith community. We learn in church – in our worshiping, praying, studying, and serving together – how to be a grateful people. I would agree with Paul that one critical aspect of authentic spirituality is the gratitude we experience and express as a result of God’s abundant generosity and grace.
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A second point Paul makes about being spiritual is that to be spiritual is to be taught by the Spirit so that we are able to exercise spiritual discernment. Paul says, “Those that are spiritual discern all things” (2:15a). And once again, he has in view the way our life together in community shapes and forms our spiritual sensitivities.
Stephanie Paulsell, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School and writes for “The Christian Century,” in a presentation at Georgetown College told about being mentored by an Episcopal priest at the University Church where she attended graduate school. She assisted him at the altar on Sunday’s as they celebrated the Eucharist. After several weeks of assisting, the priest asked her to take a turn as celebrant.
She loved what the priest did at the altar on Sundays – she thought it was beautiful and mysterious – but she had grown up in the Disciples’ tradition with a very different ritual of Communion. She thanked the priest for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” The priest said, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do this in order to find out what it means.”
What she learned was that faith is not a linear movement from right thinking to right action, that she did not have to wait until she had everything figured out before she led the Eucharist. She discovered that it is possible to act our way – worship and pray and sing and serve our way – into new ways of thinking.
Everything that Paul says to the church at Corinth about being spiritual, he assumes that their spirituality is worked out in community. Worshiping and serving together in community encourages us to act our way into new ways of thinking and being.
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In the Isaiah text (58:1-9a), the prophet chides and chastens the covenant people of God for going through the motions of repentance – fasting in sackcloth and actions – without making any attempt to change.
The prophet tells the people that the fast God chooses is one where the bonds of injustice are torn asunder and the oppressed go free; it’s where the hungry are fed and the homeless poor are given shelter. Only then says the prophet will the light of God break forth like the dawn in their midst.
Now, it is true that many churches have completely ignored this prophetic call to justice and mercy. This, I suspect, is one among a number of reasons why the number of those who say they are spiritual, but not religious is on the rise. The church has embarrassed and disappointed them, maybe even oppressed them, and so they have given up on religious community. I get that. I do not doubt that there are plenty of Christian communities on both the left and the right that are stymied by dysfunction and are stagnating due to a toxic spirituality. But instead of abandoning the church altogether, I wonder if a better solution might be to find a healthy church where social justice and mercy are practiced and a healthy, transformative spirituality is taught.
I am glad that in the Western world we are moving into a post-Christian era. During the era of Christendom, which began when Constantine united Empire and church, healthy forms of spirituality which included restorative justice diminished. Now that Christendom is falling apart maybe more of the churches that remain will actually become light and salt again, rather than simply being extensions of the Empire or heralds of a civil religion controlled by the wisdom of the world. There is a movement afoot right now that is crossing denominational and doctrinal barriers to reinstate social justice as a non-negotiable component of authentic Christian discipleship. A place it should have occupied all along.
Paul says that spiritual discernment is nothing less than having the mind of Christ. Paul writes, “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ?” (2:16) Notice again, it is “we,” not “I.” It is the community that has the mind of Christ, and we nurture the mind of Christ within us individually as we worship, pray, study, share, and serve together communally.
I am not going to argue whether or not it is possible to be spiritual, but not religious. There may be persons who are not religious and are far more spiritual than I am. Who am I to say? I am no one’s judge. But I can say rather confidently that Paul would not have given any thought to that possibility, because for him, spiritual discernment was learned in the context of a worshiping, praying, sharing, serving, studying, caring, and loving faith community. This is where the mind of Christ is best nurtured.
In one sense, spirituality exists whenever people struggle with ultimate meaning: when they wonder where the universe came from and question their place in it; when they ask about their life’s purpose or what happens to them when they die; when they are drawn into a larger story and struggle with how their lives fit into the larger scheme of things. Whenever people are moved by beauty, love, mercy, social justice, compassion, and matters of the common good, or whenever they crave solitude and a relationship with a greater Something or Someone, they are venturing into the realm of spirituality. I wonder, however, if such promptings and movements can be sustained without the discipline, discernment, challenge, and inspiration that a healthy, transformative religious community provides.
As I was researching this topic online I came across the SBNR (Spiritual, but Not Religious) website. I read on the home page: SPNR.org serves the global population of individuals who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. But then as I looked closer I noticed that the last posting was dated June, 2012. It looked to me like the site had been started and then abandoned. This, I think, illustrates the problem. Healthy, transformational spirituality is hard to sustain and practice without a faith community.
Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in an article for TIME: “To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.” It seems to me that a healthy faith community provides that window. Rabbi Wolpe said, “Together is harder, but together is better.”
We do not eat the bread and drink the cup alone, we do it together. It doesn’t matter whether or not we know what it means – we are learning how to love one another, and in learning how to love one another we are learning how to love God. Amen.
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Chuck is the Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky (ibcfrankfort.com) and the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith” (nurturingfaith.info).