Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Religious but Not Spiritual

Many of us know someone who claims to be "spiritual but not religious." This sort of person can come in a variety of forms. There are the people who acknowledge some sort of vague "higher power"; the people who think there's a little truth in all the world's religious traditions (though, as Chesterton pointed out, they tend to have a little bias and essentially say things like, "Christianity and Buddhism have a lot in common, especially Buddhism"); the people who think it more valuable to commune with the Divine by appreciating the wonder of nature on a Sunday morning bike ride than by sitting in a church with bad 1970s decor and design, listening to bad 1980s church-pop music, hearing a sermon that's nothing more than an inspired reading of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You Will Go!" (I actually have some slight bit of sympathy for these people); the people who think that churches need to stop blabbing on about all this "sin" business and just focus on, like, the love, man; the people who think that religions are simply man-made institutions constructed and designed to let a privileged few control the lives of the masses.

Broadly, then, we can say that these are people who are willing to admit there's more to reality than what physics can tell us, but going too far beyond that just leads to oppression and one person imposing their opinions on others. Yeah, we know these people. But they're not the focus of my thought today. Rather, I want to talk about their opposite counterparts: the people who are religious but not spiritual.

Now, this may seem an odd category, because I doubt you've ever encountered someone who described themselves as "religious but not spiritual," but they exist. And it's just as much of a problem.

What do I mean by this term? The "religious but not spiritual" person is one who adheres to religious observances but whose inner spiritual life is lacking. It's the person who goes to Mass on Sunday but doesn't talk to God any other day of the week (or perhaps even on Sunday). It's the person who gets all worked up about the liturgy being conducted according to the rubrics, but cares nothing for what the liturgical actions signify or effect. It's the person who says the Rosary but doesn't pray the Rosary. It's the person who likes to receive ashes on their forehead at the beginning of Lent but makes no attempt at penance during those 40 days. They give the external appearance of religiosity but lack the internal spiritual fervor that should animate it.

This applies not only to what we feel, but also to what we think, for our faith includes a worldview, a set of propositions about the nature of reality--a Catholic spirituality is one with substance and content. The "religious but not spiritual" person, then, is also the person who says they are Catholic and marks the seasons of their life by participating in the Church's rites (e.g. has their wedding in the church, has their children baptized, have Catholic funerals for themselves and their loved ones) but disbelieves in or dissents from Church teaching, so that they are Catholic in name only. They marry while accepting divorce or same-sex marriage; they baptize while disbelieving in sin; they hold a funeral without any thought to praying for the dead or hoping in the Resurrection. They give the external appearance of religiosity but lack the internal conviction that should animate it.

My purpose here is not to attack or demonize or denigrate these people, merely to point out their existence--most of all because they may not even realize they themselves fall into this category.

In both of the cases described above, where there is a disparity between spirituality and religiosity, we can see the problem: one seems to lack shape, the other lacking substance. It's like two people trying to drink a cup of water, but one person saying, "I'll just take the cup, thanks," and the other saying, "Just give me the water, I don't need the cup." Neither is going to quench their thirst.

It's not good for us to do one thing and think another. It creates a disconnect. When our thoughts and actions are not integrated, we lack integrity. A house divided against itself cannot stand: sooner or later, it falls apart. It does us little good to go through the motions. I'd invite all of my readers to examine themselves, their actions, their thoughts, their dispositions, their motivations, to see if they sync up. Don't panic if you find a disparity, either momentary or habitual. Pray to God for a more ardent faith, for a faithful heart, for a receptive intellect. Pray to God for wholeness.


  1. This is so touching and so true. All of us have probably been guilty of this for momentary or longer times. The times I spend more time watching the cute baby or playing with my own than concentrating on the liturgy (and those same times that Nick pokes me and brings me back to reality). Very well done, son!

  2. Nick, you should've asked my permission before writing about me. :-) Seriously though, it's something I have to work on all the time, making sure there is substance along with shape. The Lord knows our weaknesses and, as you say, if we ask for his help and are open to his leading, we may eventually be integrated. Love ya!

  3. To my chagrin, I too much resemble those remarks.
    Thank you for a timely and seldom heard (if ever) topic.
    Keep up the excellent work, me lad.
    Grandpa Jake