Spiritual but Not Religious: The Separation of Church and Faith

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Once when I was skimming the Unitarian Universalist Association Bookstore Catalogue, I thought I saw, as the pages flipped past, this title: How to Pray Without Being Religious.  What?!  Surely not.  I flipped back, couldn’t find it, thought “See, it’s all in your head, and what does it say about you, Rev. Minister, that that’s the kind of thing in your head!”  But… then I found it.  There it was: How to Pray Without Being Religious.

“I’m spiritual but not religious.”  How many times have we heard that phrase, or maybe ourselves used that phrase?  What it means depends on who says it.  It may mean that we don’t have a clear theology, but we feel awe sometimes in the world; or we meditate daily but not according to one tradition, or we came out of a creedal faith and are not interested in being part of another one, or we dislike or distrust organized religion but like unorganized, free-form religion a lot.  Conceivably any of those orientations might lead one to a book like How To Pray Without Being Religious.  But when we get to that point – to that title – I’d like to suggest that’s where we need to hit pause.

Because when did religion become the “R” word for us? Why would Unitarian Universalists be concerned to pray without being religious?  What kind of goal is that for our prayer?  Not that it be authentic or fulfilling or transformative or otherwise effective, merely and most-importantly, non-religious.  Almost as if prayer’s very unreligiosity implies its authenticity and fulfillment.  Though this is one of the most religious nations in the world, even here people – especially progressive-leaning people – increasingly identify themselves as having no religious affiliation.   There are a lot of dimensions to this, but for now, I want to focus on the theological dimension and ask us to dig deeper into that the question – with books like that in our denominational inventory, are we ourselves part of that movement?  Are we giving up on religion?

We can’t work on an answer without better understanding the question, including what’s really the difference between spiritual and religious, anyway?  Of course, different people will offer different answers to this question too.  Mine is that spirituality has to do with individual experience, looser definitions and personal concerns; religion has to do with larger, identifiable, community experience and societal concerns.  They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re not mutually interchangeable either.  They aren’t the same and they’re not meant to be.  A religion can’t function authentically without spiritual experience as part of it, and spiritual experience isn’t enough (I think – but of course, I’m biased) without religious dimensions to call us to concerns beyond our very own, and to offer us means for sharing our spiritual experience, and the values they enjoin upon us, with others.

All this is not just semantics. If we affirm that we are always in the process of an ongoing journey of revelation, that means how we define ourselves now will help determine how we define ourselves next – which could include, I suppose, defining our religion right out of existence altogether.

This month our theme is God, which is handy, because this month contains a lot of important holidays and a lot of language about the divine.  And the question of how we refer to the divine is in some cases really about whether we refer to the divine.  Here at First U, I get thanks at Christmas for talking about the nativity.  And at Easter for talking about Jesus and not simply abstractions about spring and new life.  Which is really surprising, because I simply don’t know how – or why – to talk about these holidays without talking about what they commemorate.  And I’m also struck that so far no one has felt they needed to thank me for using more general terminology like ‘the divine’ or ‘the sacred’ – or preaching sermons when they are more humanist in orientation.  But I’m pretty confident we’ve got humanists in the house – (can I get an amen, somebody?).  So my guess is that the more general language and humanist orientations feel like less of a stretch – so no one experiences those services as a concern or a rarity.  But none of this should be a stretch for us when one of our foundational approaches is pluralism itself, pluralism which means I have to talk, seriously and accurately and as deeply as I know how, about Jesus or maybe Ganesha or the Baal ShemTov or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Greta Thunberg, frankly I talk about some of them more often then others because they have shaped theology and history in enduring ways– but they all have a place here and something to teach every one of us.  Which means none should be unwelcome – or a stretch.

Some years ago, there was a debate, very interesting and generative, about what role the language of reverence should have in our religion these days. It started when our then-President, the Rev. Bill Sinkford was misquoted as saying that he wanted to push for the word God to be added to our Purposes and Principles.  Predictably that didn’t sit well with folks – atheists and agnostics and others who don’t believe in God as that kind of singularity for all kinds of reasons.  It didn’t even sit well with the theists, because they too believe that imposing theology is profoundly against everything we are about.  And though it was quickly pointed out that Bill didn’t actually say that – at all – the whole thing continued to ferment.  It led to some fascinating sermons and conversations – in fact, it was a very theologically rich unfolding for us.  Though that denominational conversation was rooted in specific events, the larger issue is perennial.  How do we balance our spectrum of beliefs in our congregations?  And what is the relationship between different points within that spectrum?  How do humanists and theists and those of Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or atheist or spiritual or religious descent or orientation share and speak a faith in which we all find meaning and belonging?  Where does our individual spirituality end and our shared religion begin?  Is there meaning and belonging for all of us in language of reverence?

As is probably apparent by now, this topic can only be done two ways; pretty thinly in one sermon, or more deeply, as I think it deserves, in two or three sermons.  This sermon today begins a deeper process, starting in this month thick with faith and festival and focuses on our relationship to religion, and as part of that, revisits this question regarding language of reverence.  So before I circle back to the r-word, there are three reasons why I think we have to continue to respect and engage language of reverence.

First, we need this language because we need to be able to honor not only different religions and world views, but also, more personally, that spectrum of theology from one pole to the other, from atheism to theism, that includes us all in all our particularity: Humanists, Agnostics, Mystical Humanists, Mystics, Deists, Panenthiests, Pagans, Buddhists, and more.  Our religious diversity is unique in the history of the world, and it all matters – and our language needs to uphold that.  Because reverence is spiritual, as well as religious.

More fundamentally, we need to embrace a language of reverence because as a movement we are a religion and not a philosophy.  Though we count many philosophers and many atheists in our number, we are a faith tradition.  This means that we inherently value that which is ineffable and even incomprehensible but which we nonetheless seek to express and honor and deepen our sense of.  We have Sunday worship services, we ordain and call, we pray and meditate, we invoke and aspire, and though we may not mean the same thing when we say words like God or spirit or saving grace or blessing or redemption or sacrifice or power or miracle or human or evil or good, we use all those words here and we must feel entitled to continue to do so.

Most fundamentally, we need to embrace a language of reverence because we experience reverence.  There is profound intrinsic importance to human verbal expression.   We are always rightly impressed by instances of languages having many words for what others sloppily lump together – like the many Eskimo words detailing snow in all its variety – because that linguistic range and precision reflects a range and depth of experience, a more nuanced understanding than our own.  Eskimo language happens to be polysynthetic, which means rather than adding words to create phrases, they often combine root words to create one word that is the equivalent of a phrase in, say, English.  This means we can get to what they’re saying, but their way takes less room.  Of course scholars suggest that the linguistic tendencies of a language also reflect their environment. But as we know, language isn’t just a mirror; it can also be a bridge, showing us different understandings that can either refine or change our own.  This is why we are so struck when we notice when a language or culture has a word or phrase that another, perhaps our own, lacks entirely, though we too know the experience.

To use a secular example, schadenfreude comes from the German words for “damage” schaden and “joy” freude and refers to the pleasure one may take in another’s misfortune.  It may be purely petty or not, as in the pleasure one German Jew wrote that he felt as a child when Germany lost some Olympic medal rounds in 1936.  It may not be a laudable, spiritual or religious impulse, but until one learns of the word, one has no way to know there are others who have, right or wrong, felt this.  It is a part of the human condition that we recognize and may consider further, when we have the word to distinguish it.

So – reverence.  A unique, powerful, blessed, wonderful part of being human is that we experience this on levels that spark our souls and move us, even if briefly, even if only momentarily; they lift us, unutterably and repeatedly throughout our lives.  Experiencing reverence, we must have language to express it.  Anything less than that is a denial, even a silencing, of that experience, that precious dimension to what makes being human worthwhile.

How we verbalize reverence is its own fascinating, complicated, hotly-contested conundrum.  Back when this was an unfolding debate, UU minister the Rev. David Bumbaugh wrote, “The once powerful images and metaphors that enabled the religious community to stand in judgement on the powers and principalities of the day are now servants of the status quo, of conventional thinking and practice.”  Therefore, he says, “to call for us to use traditional language and symbols and concepts to speak about what is deepest and dearest… is to ask us to employ a tongue that has been so corrupted and exploited as to fail to convey the very depths of reverence the times call for.” (GA sermon, ALOR, p. 20-21)

Is he right?  I’m not sure the language of Judaism and of Christianity, which is what he’s talking about when he says “traditional language and symbols and concepts,” I’m not sure they were ever so pure to begin with.  Sure, there were prophets standing in judgement over the powers of the day, but there were also false prophets, false messiahs and frequent accusations back and forth about who was authentic and who was not.  And winners write history; those judged authentic according to the books we have inherited in the bible are not necessarily the more valorous or sacred, though they are definitely the ones whose views prevailed in the end.

And we religious liberals know plenty of examples of biblical language and values, condemning what was then considered corrupt, which we gladly view very differently today.  Is Biblical language too tainted to be relevant these days? To answer this requires looking at what the Jewish and the Christian language actually offer, whether language can ever be ‘reformed’, invested with new meaning or interpretation or at least differently nuanced.

And apart from these Western traditions, what about using words from other world religions and traditions?  Do the ethics of multiculturalism and interfaith appropriation come into play?  Part two of this sermon, in January, will consider these questions, with reference to particular words such as: rapture, sacrifice, revelation, mission, grok, dao, and the mysterious, Hebrew word whose meaning we have lost in the sands of time, selah.

But in the meantime, I have to end with this point: Why are people embracing this tired, exclusivist, limiting dichotomy, spiritual or religious?  OMG, people, why aren’t we embracing both?  Spiritual and religious?  Heck, not just embracing, holding out for both, nothing less will do.  Spiritual – experiences of transcendence that are personal and spontaneous and renewing and self-oriented, those are rich and inspiring and necessary, but they are not enough.  Religious – experiences of faith that are public and organized and sustaining and outward-looking, these are deepening and meaningful and the basis of justice work – but they are not enough.  We need the two together.  Spiritual and Religious.  Spirituality is like that breath we take in to fill us each up, religion is the breath we release into the world mingling and expanding.  The fuel and the fire.  The alpha and the omega.  The one and the all.  The I and the Thou.  Spirituality and religion, that is wholeness, and that is holiness.  It’s what I want, but I want it for you also; I want it for all of us.  I want it on our lips and in our hearts because nothing less is enough. But this, this could be enough.  It’s what we need to keep each of us strong so that we can do what we must together to change this world, to rock this world, to take this world of mine and yours and walls and distance and fill it up, fill it up with hope and generosity and kindness and respect and love.  Anything else is settling, and if there’s one thing that’s always been true about us Unitarian Universalists, it’s that we don’t settle.  For God’s sake, let’s not start now.  Nothing less than everything.  Spiritual and Religious.  Amen.