“Spiritual but not religious” - A revisit on ‘religion’ - Joseph Trace
Updated: May 12
In Joseph's words: "This my hot-take on the term “religion” and it may not be what you would expect, so bear with me because I have a tonne of groundwork to do to salvage this wreck."
A modern perspective
Our contemporary culture still holds value in the spiritual avenue of life. It may be said that with the secularisation of culture that we are witnessing in society, the importance of spirituality is dwindling with it. But we know this isn't true. The need for spiritual nourishment does not change dependant on our context of faith.
People of the modern day still strive to feed their souls no less than days gone by. Pseudo-Buddhism, the occasional Eastern proverb, yoga and even the ‘nice warm and fuzzy thing that Jesus said in that one book.’ All these lie in the realm of possible choices available to people in the grand “spiritual Pick n’ Mix”; evidence of the extent to which consumerism has pervaded our spiritual lives . The world as it is, is driven by choice and for most that choice is to stand by the mantra …
“I am spiritual but not religious.”
A stance arrived at in each case individually. A natural outflow from a society in which ‘having your say’ is at elevated value. People need spiritual nourishment and a system of beliefs to live by (hopefully that will feed into each other). So, what do we do? We create our own. Curating our own list of doctrines and values to suit our purposes. To keep us comfortable.
Religion is the opposite of this. It is casting aside what you want in an effort to conform to something greater, for good or for bad reasons (will reach that point later). And, on top of all this, “religion” is a term with baggage. It’s conflated with hypocrisy, legalism and judgement. It’s no wonder people won't touch it with a 10-foot pole.
What religion means regardless of its perception
The Oxford English dictionary defines religion as the “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”
A pretty neutral term, right? Neither explicitly good nor bad, but the potential to be either. And this is where I'm afraid to say “I hate religion, but I love Jesus” is far too simple an answer. It has all the right sentiments but misses the potential to further understand the problem and the opportunity to express our faith in a more sacrificial love.
Because our ‘beliefs’ (our knowledge of God upon which our faith is built) and our ‘worship’ (our service in reverence to God by which we are fed spiritually) are needs in our walk of knowing God that are here to stay. The problem of all these conflated terms instead lies further beneath. The problem lies within us.
We need a structure, but not our own
It is through the parable of the prodigal son that we can truly understand the problem behind the word religion, the one that we hold. It is within the elder son: the committed son, the obedient son, but also, the disloyal son. Upon the father receiving the younger brother home with celebration the parable continues...
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:28- 32)
The older brother shows the danger that can be found in religion, that we can seek to own it for ourselves. That even in our relinquishing to God, it can sometimes be tempting to take hold of it as if it were a bargaining chip. To engage in a project of self-salvation, forgetting that our inheritance is far beyond anything we could ever earn. This may be obedience to God’s law but it is disobedience to His love.
Because our ‘beliefs’ and our ‘worship’ are needs in our walk of knowing God that are here to stay.
“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith."(Philippians 3:7-9)
This passage shows obedience to the love that God has for us. To put all our wants, expectations and self-reliance aside and see them as the obstacles that they are to serving our Father. And seeing them in their meagreness in comparison to what the Lord has to offer. For some people these wants and expectations may come in the form of shirking ceremony and discipline that is indicative to practiced religion for the restrictions they think may come with them.
Others may hold too strongly to the sense of security that they may find in ritual and observance of letter and law. Paul sees the folly in all these that he can want or look to gain himself. Compared to all that comes through Christ, he sees them as naught to himself and rather recognises the righteousness given to us from God.
When we make religion our tool to wield it becomes foul, but when we make our way into it in an act of service and worship, it is something entirely different. We have the opportunity to give it up, to gain it in an entirely different way from God. As a dedication and participation in seeking and embracing the mystery that is our God completely involved around us.
So instead of seeing “religion” as this tormenting boogie man why don’t we see it in a way that makes room for all the good that comes with it? To take the opportunity to celebrate in communion, prayer, baptism, lent, art, song and dance. Because all of these our God has given to us so we may give them back for him.
Let us do this by seeing the difference between “our” religion (the one that gives us the comfort of control) and God’s religion that He has given us.
Joseph Trace is a Graduate of Architecture at The University of Auckland and an avid painter and carver in his spare time. If you have any thoughts about spirituality and religion, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.