Spiritual But Not Religious

A friend was telling me recently about her experience with one of those on-line dating sites.  The sites consist of profiles of people that you can look at to see if the people interest you, and these profiles contain of lots of information about the people, including religion.  My friend said that by far the most common response in the religion category was “spiritual but not religious.”

Then I read a newspaper article that talked about the ways Americans mix and match faiths, including both beliefs and practices, and even regularly attend religious services at more than one place.  Loyalty to a particular denomination or faith is increasingly rare, as people explore alternatives, and often find their spiritual needs met better outside of church communities.  These are the people who often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Believe it or not, I was the one who coined that phrase.  (At least it seemed so to me.)  Back when I was just out of high school, it seemed like everyone was either associated with a church or was not interested in such matters.  I didn’t know about Unitarian Universalism at the time, so religion meant Christianity.  I didn’t go to church after high school— but it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in the issues addressed in churches—on the contrary, it was because I was supremely interested in those issues.  My own path of spiritual growth meant I needed to find my own words to describe my religious experience.  Creativity and spirituality are closely tied for me, and I needed to be free from the bonds of tradition to find my own expression.

So I described myself as spiritual but not religious, but I had never heard anybody else use that phrase before.

Yet this phenomena was already common in Emerson’s day, as we heard in the reading.  He describes a situation where public worship is on its way out, churches are closing, and “It is already beginning to indicate character and religion to withdraw from the religious meetings.”  Character, and even religion itself seen as belonging to those who withdrew from religious meetings!

Emerson was at the center of the group of Transcendentalists, Unitarians who were seeking direct religious experience.

The Unitarian religion was still relatively new.  It embraced the Enlightenment which had taken hold by then, and ideas and beliefs had to pass the test of reason.  Science was blossoming, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Unitarianism was very rational.  In part it was responding to the Second Great Awakening, a revival movement that preached hellfire and brimstone.

But already a generation after the birth of Unitarianism, Emerson and the Transcendentalists were finding it too rational and dry.  They emphasized direct experience, found the divine in Nature, and read the texts of eastern religions, especially Hinduism, which were available in English for the first time.

Emerson himself might have used the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to refer to himself.  He studied for the Unitarian ministry at Harvard.  But he only served a congregation for two or three years, finding himself not well suited for the ministry.  Yet he preached from the lecterns of the lecture circuit across the country and had a wider and more influential ministry than he ever would have had by confining himself to one congregation.

What he preached was, essentially, what I would call spirituality.  Emerson’s main message was that religious truth was to be found in direct experience.  This experience is personal and private; it cannot be taught or imitated.  “We must go alone,” he says.  We must listen within ourselves, withdrawing from others, rejecting authority, standing on our own.  Truth, says Emerson, “is an intuition.  It cannot be received at second hand.” (Div School Address, p. 95)

He preached that everyone is capable of such intuition, such direct experience of truth.  He preached that revelation did not occur just in biblical times, but that it occurs now and always, over and over fresh for each individual.  He preached that it is our gift and our duty to listen to the voice of the spirit.

Emerson’s signature essay is called “Nature”, and it is in nature that he finds his connection with the divine.  So many of us, whether we call ourselves “spiritual but not religious” or not, find our deepest experience of something we might call divine when we’re alone in nature.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  I am glad to the brink of fear.  In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. . . . In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. . . . I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear . . . than in streets or villages.” (Nature)

How many of us can relate?   The best way to a direct spiritual experience is to be outdoors, ideally in the wild, and in solitude.

So many people, on hearing I’m a minister, tell me they don’t go to church but they go into nature.

There is a sense that religion is a set of beliefs that bear no relation to the direct experience such as Emerson describes.   Religion is seen as a set of beliefs, a set of rituals, an institution, a book, a set of rules for behavior, dogma and hierarchy—none of which necessarily facilitate an experience of the divine.

There is a well-known saying, “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.”

This view of religion is contrasted with spirituality, which is seen as a positive thing.  I have heard spirituality defined as the human spirit, the spirit of the universe, breath, life, connection.  A butterfly, I heard recently.  “Chase it, and it will elude you.  Stop awhile and it will alight onto your shoulder.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we are open to finding truth and meaning in many ways.  As a creedless people, we place religious authority in the conscience of the individual.  Our religion has nothing to do with dogma or hierarchy.  In fact, we go so far the other way, we are the subject of jokes.

Question:  How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer:  We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb.  However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, you are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Unitarian Universalism today bears little resemblance to the religion that most people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious.  In fact, it bears so little resemblance, some people question whether it is even a religion at all.

I have heard it said that Unitarian Universalism is a stop on the way from the Methodist church to the golf course.

But it can also be a haven for those going the other direction—those who call themselves “spiritual be not religious.”  Many of those people wish to stay unconnected and uncommitted on Sunday mornings, but some of them might be overjoyed to find a community of covenanted seekers.

What religion has that pure spirituality doesn’t have is the community.

I have a friend who regularly attends a Presbyterian church, yet is very into New Age spirituality.  She has been practicing meditation for 20 or 30 years, has done yoga therapy, which includes visualization, also transformational breathwork, which she describes as guided breathing meditation to get you to an altered state.  She is open to and has explored other aspects of New Age spirituality as well, especially reiki.  She says these things get to something in her, something that feels like a release and can make her cry.

But she also needs her church.  She feels a connection to her church community, much more than to any spiritual community.  She also sees the church as a place to pursue social justice work, which she sees as an important expression of her spiritual and religious life.

Spirituality by itself is self-centered.  We crave the experience of the transcendent, we yearn to feel immersed in the ocean of Being, to know that we are not alone and unconnected in the universe.  And those experiences happen most often in solitude.

Such experiences are also by their very nature ephemeral.  They don’t last.  The butterfly may alight on your shoulder, but then it flies away.  But such an experience can change everything.  The experience of being released from the confines of a separate sense of self, feeling at one with the Whole, calls us to an obligation to this Whole.

Ideally, religion gives us a context for expressing the experience.  Religion gives us a context for carrying out that obligation.  Religion gives us a community of love where it is safe to be vulnerable.  Religion gives us a community of humble power to help us seek justice in the universe.

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t prescribe a spiritual path.  It only requires that we be on one.  Our purpose in religious community isn’t to debate the merits or the errors of various spiritual paths.  The purpose of our covenantal religious community is to find a pathway of loving kindness among our diverse beliefs.  We can do that by opening ourselves to listen beyond our own assumptions, leaving room for the complexity and imperfection of language, finding ways to speak to each other about our spiritual experience, upholding the beauty of our tradition that affirms that revelation comes to all of us.

If we can do that in our congregations, the reputation of religion just might turn around.  And all those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” might find that there is a religion worth coming out to join on Sunday mornings.