By Joan Ball
Reading through some of the more than 3.6 million articles that show up on a Google search of the term spiritual not religious one thing is clear — not much is clear about this growing but difficult to define category of believers. While the term has been used for decades in recovery and new age circles, a widely cited report from LifeWay Resources stating that 72% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves to be “more spiritual than religious” has spurred interest in the perceived distinction between spirituality and religion and its implications.
Beyond the loose sense that spiritual is less rigidly defined and more inclusive than religious, it is tough to pin down a firm definition of spiritual not religious. Apply the term within the context of a specific faith tradition like Christianity and spiritual not religious can become downright confusing.
The more spiritual folks I encounter tend to push against systems and dogma and call for a more organic expression of their faith. They refer to themselves as followers of Christ rather than Christians in an effort to distinguish themselves from the “other Christians” who, they believe, have given Jesus a bad name. Being the hands and feet of Christ in the world by loving God and loving neighbors of all genders, races and sexual orientations trump the “culture wars” for more spiritual than religious Christians.
The religious folks view this departure from doctrine, creeds, traditions and a more literal view of Biblical teachings to be an attempt to have one’s spiritual cake and eat it too. The road to salvation is narrow, the religious say, and the pursuit of holiness through obedience to the teachings of Jesus, the Bible and church hierarchy is at best neglectful and at worst a cop out fueled by spiritual laziness or a lack of discipline.
As an adult convert to Christianity who was an atheist through my 20s, became spiritual not religious in addiction recovery in my 30s and had a Christian conversion at age 37, these distinctions challenge my sense of the life of Jesus and what it means to follow him. My unfolding understanding of Jesus is that he was both spiritual AND religious. He did not despise tradition – what we might call “organized religion” – as much as those who corrupted it with their selfish and hypocritical behavior. He advocated freedom, yet was completely submitted. He served the poor and downtrodden but retreated frequently to commune with the Father. He hung out with outcasts and criminals but was not afraid to name their sins and call them to repentance.
So what if both sides of the spiritual not religious argument are missing something? What if radical love and service do not have to be at odds with obedience and holiness? How would religious institutions be impacted if their members were more spiritual in addition to being devout followers? What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love and service? And what if both pursued a more humble, less contentious understanding of the other in the spirit of dialog rather than debate?
I am not sure what this kind of spiritual AND religious faith might look like, but I am willing to live in the tension to find out.
Joan Ball is the author of “Flirting with Faith: My Spiritual Journey from Atheism to a Faith-Filled Life,” blogs at Beliefnet.com and teaches in the business school at St. John’s University in New York.