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My Faith/Teen Faith

Religious… but not Spiritual

Have you ever had a conversation with somebody that went a little like this?

You: “Do you go to Church?”
Friend: “No, I mean… I’d probably consider myself more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious.’ The whole world is my church. I can connect with God anywhere.”

I would honestly be shocked if you haven’t! A growing majority of Americans identify this way. More and more people are disaffiliating themselves from the Catholic Church and even more from the idea of “church” in general. But this hasn’t stopped people from seeking truth, beauty, and goodness elsewhere. Our culture is increasingly seeking to experience kinds of spirituality that are not rooted in religious tradition, and many people feel that they are able to connect with the transcendental through self-actualization and whatever means they use to get there. More on that later.

Simultaneously, though, we see a growing trend of Christians emphasizing religiosity over spirituality — so much so that their religion becomes devoid of spirituality altogether. In this blog, we’ll explore the two extremes in the hopes of illuminating the middle ground on which we are called to stand. As Catholics, we can learn how to glean the good from each side and live out our faith in a more, holistic, and balanced way.

Catchphrase of a Movement

What do people mean when they say they are “spiritual, but not religious”? Usually, when a person identifies this way, it means that they would rather dissociate themselves from any institution or group. In a world that places great emphasis on labels and categorizations of people, they would rather not label themselves as “religious” so as to avoid being linked to what they perceive to be an oppressive institution.

Spiritualization and Seeking Truth

The spiritual-but-not-religious recognize the deep longing of the human condition and are open to seeking the divine. The spiritual-but-not-religious thirst for authenticity and real relationships, they have the confidence to ask questions many people are afraid of or unwilling to ask, and they place great value on self-actualization, often by means of engaging in wellness motivations and mindfulness practices.

Humans are spiritual beings. We are naturally and intrinsically made for something greater than ourselves, and we will always be searching for that place of total fulfillment. As humans, we are created to be curious and seeking, and these good desires to know truth, behold beauty, and see goodness in all things are at the core of our being. These natural movements and desires of our souls can easily be recognized in all people, especially in many who self-identify as spiritual but not religious.

Humans, however, are also religious beings. On its most basic level, we can define religion as an organized worship of a thing. A spiritual-but-not-religious person, whether they realize it or not, is still engaging in a type of religion. Whether we associate with a church or not, it is in our nature as human beings to claim something as our god and worship it – whether that be a sports team, a hobby, an idea, nature, a political cause or stance, self-healing or self-reliance, wellness practices, a facet of the culture, or even ourselves.

On the Flip Side

While there is a majority of people who would claim to be “spiritual but not religious” there is also a trend toward religion devoid of “spirituality”: a strongly held belief system informed by religion but little spiritual investment or personal relationship with God.

These growing trends in the opposite trajectory are much more subtle. To the untrained eye, religious-but-not-spiritual are practically indistinguishable from any other “religious person.” In fact, from the outside, they look like they’re ticking all the boxes. You see them in Mass every Sunday. They read all the right devotionals. They pray for all the right prayers. Heck, they even look holy. But you and I both know that is not the exterior manifestation of devotion that makes someone holy. Jesus Himself warns us against inauthentic displays of piety in the Gospels all the time!

The religious-but-not-spiritual can be likened to the Pharisees praying out loud in the temple (see Luke 18), or really, they can be likened to anytime the Pharisees are mentioned in scripture. They might have a holier-than-thou attitude. They’re quick to point out the failings and shortcomings of others rather than taking on a posture of humility. They are too-heavy handed with justice and quickly forget mercy. They are obsessed with meticulously following rules and trying to “measure” their own holiness. They get caught up in details and are exceedingly rigid. They keep their focus on the Letter of the Law and forget the Love of the Law.

The religious-but-not-spiritual person is rooted in the Catholic faith tradition and understands it to be the source and summit of all truth. But they are misguided in their theology. Instead of building a relationship with a personal, tender, loving and merciful God, they find themselves leaving offerings at the statue of a distant, cold and rigid “god” for fear of being punished. The danger here is that they will be like Martha, doing all the “right things” but forgetting to sit and rest at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10). Or they will be like the Elder Son who did everything right – who never left home – but still lacked everything in that he still didn’t feel loved, celebrated or accepted by His Father (Luke 15). The religious-but-not-spiritual are governed by a Taskmaster, focused far too much on the structures and rules of religion. They are close to God in proximity, but not in heart.

So where do we stand?

On both sides, there can be a tendency toward self-healing and self-reliance or the idea that I need to do x, y, and z thing in order to achieve or earn the good: whether that be salvation, self-actualization, healing, or a feeling of total fulfillment. On both sides, there is a search for truth, beauty, and goodness in alignment with the natural tendencies we were designed with. In both experiences, the deepest questions of humanity are being grasped at. So we see that there is goodness to be found in the experience of a spiritual-but-not-religious person, as well as dangers. The same can be said about the religious-but-not-spiritual person. There needs to be a balance of the good found in both!

If you’re old like me – or if you just have an affinity for watching old commercials on YouTube – you might remember an old taco commercial which asked the hard questions: ¿Porque no los dos? Why can’t we have both? Well, good news, friends. We can!

We ARE called to BOTH religion and spirituality. We have the best of both worlds! As Catholic Christians, we can imagine ourselves at the intersection of the Religious and Spiritual. That is, we hold that it is possible (and if fact necessary) to grow in a personal, intimate relationship with the Divine and that each person embarks on their own quest to wholeness (for the betterment of themselves and others) but that one can only find the fullness of Truth within the folds of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. It is within the context of the Church, by her Wisdom and guided by her deeply rooted traditions, that a person can truly attain total self-fulfillment in union with God. In this union, we become who we are meant to be. We become whole and holy – the most vibrant version of ourselves.

“It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal…”

That is one of my favorite quotes of all time – and leave it to St. John Paul II to pretty much sums it all up in the most eloquent way possible! Whether you consider yourself religious or not, we are all on the journey together. Human beings are created with a deep, longing desire for fulfillment and spend our whole lives searching, questioning, and yearning for completeness. The fullness of healing and wholeness is only found in the person of Jesus Christ, who brings restoration and reconciles all things to Himself. What we seek – the fulfillment of our greatest and deepest desires – is found in the One who created us.

About the Author

Laurie Medina

I am a Saint-in-progress with a missionary heart and a passion for merging Catholic ministry with mental health care. I love going on outdoor adventures, making art, listening to Penny & Sparrow, and surrounding myself with people that are way holier than me. As you’re reading this, I’m probably curled up on the sofa with a blanket reading Joy of the Gospel…or rewatching Gilmore Girls. You can find me on Instagram @wrappedinhermantle.

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