Fifteen years ago, I was dining alone in New York City when I overheard a Christian woman ask a friend for dating advice. She had met two men on eHarmony. One said he goes to church and the other said he was “spiritual but not religious.” I thought his line was clever.
Clever turns of phrase thrill me. I collect them the way my sister-in-law collects stamps: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog (Mark Twain), and, The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder (G. K. Chesterton). I pasted Spiritual but Not Religious into my scrapbook.
I had thought that eHarmony guy was ingenious, but I found he was just quoting a book title published in 2000, Spiritual but Not Religious. Since then, I’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times. It even has its own hashtag, #SBNR, or its sibling, “spiritual but not affiliated,” #SBNA.
Both acronyms express our modern-day frustration with “organized religion.” Too many believers have suffered from churches more interested filing pews than caring for the people in those pews, or from plans that focus on programs over pastoring.
I’m sympathetic with my “spiritual but not religious” friends, but I wonder (Chesterton would be proud) if we’re being duped by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A New Way of Thinking
I have friends who worked in large automotive companies whose cumbersome administration stifled their creativity. I worked for a smaller company, but it’s bureaucracy still bugged me. I feel bad for the victims of impersonal processing of any organization, religious or corporate.
But my biggest life problems have nothing to do with the bureaucratic nonsense I’ve suffered. Our biggest problems come from deceitful beliefs. I collect clever phrases because they structure new ways of thinking:
- I read Augustine’s, Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. I have hope amidst my restlessness because a true rest is possible.
- In a sermon on the Wedding at Cana, Tim Keller concludes, Jesus went through life sipping the cup of sorrow so that we can go through life sipping the cup of future joys. I see that picture and I feel worship and delight.
- My friend Gary Barkalow once wrote, We have been set apart, not set aside. All past rejections from organizations (corporate or religious) evaporate like morning mist. God is in charge; he laughs at puny human attempts to marginalize his children.
But notice what these clever turns of phrase do to me: they “organize” my thoughts. When we reject the officious structures of religious institutions, we discard the most toothless of tigers.
The Only Organization that Really Can Harm
Look at the sneaky belief beneath “spiritual but not religious.” Those words are organized religion in themselves, a thought-structure of the vilest duplicity. Their pithiness shapes our thoughts, organizing our hearts to believe we can do Christianity alone.
They say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”
Religious structures will be with us until Christ returns. For some reason, God chooses to work through imperfect people. But it’s not the committee meetings that will harm us. It’s the cultural creep of secular thinking whose wit appears as an angel of light.
Our submission to “spiritual but not religious” is the ultimate submission to organized religion: religious thoughts shaped by the secular world bent on dismembering the body of Christ. The only way we can love our neighbor in the pew is through a spiritual change which moves us to sit down next to them.
When minds are molded by a nonspiritual world, perhaps the hashtag should read, #RBNS:
Religious but Not Spiritual.
P. S. True spirituality reveals itself in relationships. It begins with a relationship with God. And he moves is inwardly–in our spirits–to love those we wouldn’t naturally love. It begins with knowing a Being who wants intimacy and communication with you.
To grow in that divine dialogue, please watch the video bel0w (Is that all there is?), and read, Hearing God in Conversation.