“I’m spiritual, but not religious,” is a refrain we hear often these days. As with most popular expressions, its meaning is vague, but it’s quite clear that the expression makes a distinction between being spiritual and being religious with the implication that they are alternatives. A brief reflection on what the distinction seems to mean should give us some insight into a prevalent attitude floating in the air.
I take the expression “spiritual but not religious” to indicate an interest in supernatural reality of some sort lived out with consciousness-raising practices such as meditation, but separate from any particular religious institution. There might be respect for some teachings in some religions, but these teachings are brought together in a personal eclectic mix. This approach to being “spiritual” isn’t new. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau did much to sell Americans and people world-wide on a spirituality of “self-reliance.”
It is telling that I can’t recall ever hearing anybody turn the expression around by claiming to be religious, but not spiritual. This suggests that “religious” people don’t see anything wrong with being “spiritual,” and are not likely to see the two as alternatives. Apparently, “spiritual” people see religion as an obstacle to “spirituality,” but religious people don’t see spirituality as an obstacle to religion.
The Latin root word for religion, religare, means “to bind.” Religious practices live up to this meaning by making connections that bind people with each other and with God. Practices of spirituality are also capable of making these connections, but if spirituality is separated from religion, then whatever good they do for an individual’s well-being, any connections they make with other human beings or God are tenuous at best. Basically, a person who is “spiritual but not religious” follows the spiritual quest alone. The extreme of this would be to live by Plotinus’ famous phrase: “The alone to the Alone.”
Read the rest of this article by Abbott Andrew in St. Gregory's Abbey's Summer Letter, here.