19 July 2016

Spirituality vs. Religion?

Posted in Bible Engagement

by Steve Forward, SU QLD’s Chaplaincy Development Officer and Research & Innovation Coordinator

I sometimes hear people say, “I’m spiritual, not religious”, and wonder what they are really trying to express…

It seems that they are trying to distance themselves from ‘religion’, while communicating their openness to something more to life beyond what they taste, touch, see, hear and smell. I get that.

People can have that sense of ‘something more’ that doesn’t resonate with their religious experiences. Many people have had bad experiences with religion and associate it with strange rules, outdated thinking and harsh judgements. It’s interesting that you can go to Google and type, “Why are Christians…?” and not even finish typing the  word ‘Christian’, before Google auto-completes the sentence with “…so mean?”.

What I find interesting, about this whole “I’m spiritual, not religious” statement, is when I hear Christians say it. In my mind I’m thinking, “No, if you’re a Christian and go to church and read your Bible etc., then you’re pretty much religious as well…” But it’s interesting that even in the hearts and minds of some Christians, religion can be seen as something that they can’t embrace.

So is that it? Is that the posture we should have towards spirituality and religion? Is spirituality ‘good’ and religion ‘bad’ – case closed? I’m not so sure.

Like most things in life, I don’t think it’s that simple. As a Christian, I’m always interested in looking to the life of Jesus for some guidance on questions like these. Was Jesus ‘pro’ spirituality and ‘anti’ religion? Let’s take a quick look and see what we can see…

Looking at his life in the Gospels, it would seem that Jesus’ primary focus was to bring people together with God and God’s good life. He talked a lot about ‘The Kingdom of God’ and said things like ‘this kingdom is in you’ and ‘moving among you’. He seemed to be suggesting that God was close, active, and interested in us, and that if we looked at life with new eyes, we’d encounter this as our reality. Towards the end of his life, he prayed a prayer asking that God would be in us and us in him etc… It seems that Jesus imagined for us a rich spiritual life characterised by a deep divine intimacy with God. Alongside this, he also warned against shallow, showy, selfish spirituality – encouraging people to tend to those things in their lives that might get in the way of the deep, rich spiritual life he hoped for them. So, I would say that Jesus was ‘pro’ good spirituality and ‘anti’ bad spirituality.

And I think Jesus had the same approach to religion – ‘pro’ good religion and ‘anti’ bad religion. Good religion was the kind that promoted good spirituality, drawing people to God and engaging them in God’s good life, and bad religion was the kind that promoted bad spirituality, pulling people and God apart, distancing them from God’s good life. Looking at Jesus in the Gospels, he seemed happy to participate in good religion – teaching in Jewish churches, talking up the Jewish religious teachings, participating in religious observances – but he was simultaneously scathing about bad religion, saving his most savage barbs and extreme actions for religious leaders who used religion to pull people away from God and distance them from God’s good life.

So, I think Jesus would say, “I’m spiritual AND religious” and would go on to dazzle us with his life of divine intimacy with God and his promotion of God’s good life.

Two questions to finish off with:

(1) How would you describe your relationship with spirituality and religion? and;

(2) If good religion points to good spirituality, what would that look like in your life?

Simeon Lawson

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