Spiritual, but not Religious

Dear Friends in Christ,

We sometimes hear people say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” In our present age, it is fashionable to champion some type of spiritual relationship with God, while rejecting all the formalities and dogmas of organized religion. Such people view these formalities and dogmas as things that inhibit spirituality, a spirituality that is highly personal and individualistic, and is concerned with being a good person, perhaps with some borrowings from existing spiritual traditions such as yoga, meditation, and centering prayer.

While not wanting to denigrate others’ personal experiences, we Orthodox Christians must take issue with the false dichotomy between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Religiosity is something that is under fire in our age, as being dogmatic is considered a fault akin to being biased or inflexible. Certainly, there are intransigent ideologues, and there are those who follow a religion because it’s what they grew up with, without ever taking the time to examine their presuppositions. This is not what we Orthodox are championing, for sure. Religion can be used as a crutch. The answer, however, does not lie in a retreat to a generic, individualistic, and self-created spirituality.

When we undertake a road trip, we gather our map or GPS, we plot out our course, prepare some snacks and other provisions, and set out on the journey. Along the way, we travel along a road with guardrails, signs, and interchanges. Hardly anyone, except perhaps an urban planner, would stop his car and marvel at a well-constructed highway interchange, pondering the complexities of bringing three or four highways together in one place. Nor would most people ponder the maps or GPS devices they use and marvel at the cartographic skill of the engineers. These things are tools that we take for granted. Yet if we did not have the maps or the highways, we would not arrive at our destination.

It is the same thing with those who are “spiritual, but not religious.” When one sets out along a self-created route, there is no external thing against which to measure progress. In such a vague, self-created system, one must ultimately rely on his or her feelings and secular notions of progress and success. As new techniques and philosophies are discovered, one adjusts along the way. The effect is often akin to driving down the highway not knowing where one is going. Joyriding can be fun, but not forever. Religious traditions and practices such as reading the Scriptures, attending Divine Liturgy, keeping the fasts, and saying our daily prayers are the maps and guardrails that keep us on the path to Jesus Christ.

That’s not to say there isn’t a treasure trove of spirituality in our Church, though. Anyone familiar with Orthodoxy knows the vast amount of spiritual literature that is available; the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; the Philokalia; the Lives of the Saints. The Liturgy itself contains many hymns which provoke our repentance and augment our spiritual joy. These profound texts provide all one could ever need for a lifetime of growth. But these resources only work in our lives when we keep them in the context in which they were written: the Church. They were not written by people who were independent, but rather by people who while they maintained a deep, personal relationship with God, also maintained an equally close relationship with their fellow men and women. Love permeated everything they did, a love that is not expressed vaguely with nice sentiments, but in a community.

In my last message, I mentioned that we always have things to be thankful for, even in times of difficulty. It’s been my great joy to baptize five people at our mission since I wrote those words. These five people, along with others whom I have received in to our Church this year, have come from diverse backgrounds, but all had a common objective: to have a life with Jesus Christ in the most authentic way possible. They found our Orthodox Faith, which has maintained the proper balance between religious observance and personal spirituality. Some of them travelled a great distance to come to our Church, in fact. As we approach the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, I encourage you to attend liturgy with us and find the framework to support your spiritual journey.

Yours in Christ,
Fr Anastasios