What does it really mean to say that a person is ‘spiritual, not religious’?
What does it take to succeed in life? The answer is complicated because it takes many things, from hard work to a fair shake to good luck. But if you don’t like this answer, you may refer to books that tell you that all you need is positive thinking, or faith in yourself. If even that seems like too much effort, other books will reassure you that without any work on your part, the universe will funnel you into a good life and a blissful afterlife. And if you are able to swallow this, you will be ‘spiritual but not religious’.
Let us for a moment consider the central strangeness of being spiritual without being religious. Religion is a way of tying oneself to the divine.1 To put it crudely, religion is a bargain struck between God and man. The spiritual but not religious expect to gain similar advantages but without any bargain. Suppose your friend told you that he had found the website of a luxurious resort that provides five-star vacations for free. Why do they provide it? He hasn’t asked. How do they stay in business? Not his problem. He has booked his ticket and he’s off to get his piece of the action. To borrow an insight from Hume, you have as much evidence that your friend is headed for trouble as that a heavy object will fall if you drop it. But complicate the story, make the destination that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, and the spiritual but not religious will take that bet.
The gain in the bargain that Christians strike with God is the subject of the ‘’good news’ that gives the Gospel its name. The good news is that God takes a deep interest in each individual, and that He is willing to strike a bargain which is absurdly slanted in our favour. The sacrifice is God’s and the benefits are ours. The only way to defend the belief that God would strike such a bargain is the evidence that He did – which is to say that the good news is based on an assertion of historical fact. That’s why St. Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:17). The good news ought to surprise and delight us because it goes beyond what we would expect or feel entitled to by looking at the world. After all, we don’t care about insects, but they are much closer to us than we are to God. The pagan gods did not care about pagans, perhaps making some allowance for ritual observance and human excellence. We have to work hard to care much about other people. The only part of the good news that is not surprising is that some conditions apply.
We might characterize the spiritual but not religious as peddling not good news but better news. The better news is that I’m OK, you’re OK, and no additional conditions apply. The better news doesn’t come with a St. Paul who writes urgent letters telling you to cancel all your orgies and spend more time in prayer. Unlike the original good news, which is attested by the very public resurrection of Jesus Christ and a tradition rich with miracles and visions, the better news does not come with any evidence at all.
It took a thousand years to spread the good news. How is it possible that the flower children of the 1960s spread the better news in just a few decades?
The answer, I suggest, is connected to the stage in the cultural arc at which we find ourselves. In their stimulating new book, At Our Wits’ End, Dr. Edward Dutton and Dr. Michael Woodley of Menie defend an intelligence-based version of Oswald Spengler’s contention that the West is in decline. One of Dutton and Woodley of Menie’s observations is that religiosity is religion is inversely correlated with civilizational success, waning as the civilization it has nurtured waxes. Here’s how that works: religion promotes group cohesion, which in turn promotes intelligence and affluence. These things buoy up a civilization. But once intelligence and affluence peak, the problems that people used to pray about are pretty much solved: bad harvests and barbarian invasions are no longer concerns. And then the process runs in reverse. Religiosity drops off. Groups come apart. Dysgenic practices see to it that intelligence declines. By the time the barbarians finally arrive at the gates there is not much resistance, and the cycle begins again. By Dutton and Woodley of Menie’s measurement, the great age of inventions lies several centuries in the past. Things are still going well, but we are on the far side of the bell, riding the curve downward into decline. Religiosity ticks downward by the year, ironically ensuring that the conditions that will bring it back are beginning to be noticeable.
Though I doubt that they would like my interpretation, it seems to me that Dutton and Woodley of Menie are only retelling in psychological terms the story that runs through the Old Testament and, alas, through every Christian’s walk with God. God rescues his humbled people, and then soon after they slip into a sulky, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude. God sends a scourge, whereupon the people are humbled and turn back to Him. The story repeats. So here we are. The West, by the grace of the God, conquered most of the world. But having conquered, we forgot Constantine’s lesson to recall the sign in which we did so. Now we are unable even to recall why we fought in the first place, and God, drawing on the same scourge-rich lands that supplied the descendants of Abraham, has sent us militant Islam.
We should recall that a scourge corrects but it also shames, because as it wounds it lays bare one’s shortcomings. So in the case of Islam. Christians are perhaps more likely to be martyred than to martyr others, but the seriousness with which militant Muslims pursue their faith is both what we lack and the reason they are here.
It is instructive that Islam treats the better news with the contempt that it deserves. Meanwhile the Church is constantly surprised that the good news does nothing to motivate those in the grips of the better news. There is hardly anybody who does not know that Jesus loves him, or that he is invited to come to church as he is. But still, those few of us in the pews are routinely lectured about these uncontroversial claims, as though green-haired crackheads were rushing the doors and being repelled by dour parishioners. In real life what keeps the crackheads from the door is lack of interest, because in our society, even those at the bottom are fed and entitled to the law’s protection. They are also, many of them, sufficiently persuaded of the better news that they think they’re in the clear with God. Of course they do not feel right with God, none of us do, because we all know in our bones that sin and evil are real. That is why beginning a discussion of religion with the reality of sin and evil does have motivating power. Yet another lesson from Islam.
Instead of learning this lesson, most of the Church has doubled down on finding someone who needs the good news, and this is generally accomplished by trying to water it down. Thus yesterday’s punchline becomes today’s headline. Divorce is OK now, same sex ‘marriage’ is celebrated, special blessings are dispensed with equal fervor to pets as to those who have had sex changes. Finally given an opening, the modern Church springs into action. Of course, neediness is no more attractive in an institution than in a mate. And so the Church finds itself trapped in exactly the same cycle that afflicts men who need women to need them. Either the objects of this disordered affection are successfully rehabilitated, in which case they outgrow the Church, or they come to find even the mild prohibitions that the Church is still willing to enforce too onerous. In much the same way that men who need to be needed often end up alone, churches that chase parishioners end up with empty pews.
Militant Islam holds up the ironist’s mirror to a Church that has lost its way. In trying to make himself caliph of all believers, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi claimed the lineage of the caliphs of Islam. This along with much that ISIS did was unapologetically backward-looking. Meanwhile, here is Pope Francis: ‘To be credible to young people, there are times when [the Church] needs to regain her humility and simply listen, recognizing that what others have to say can provide some light to help her better understand the Gospel. A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum.’.2 It’s not entirely Francis’ fault; few of the so-called ‘baby boomers’ seem able to appreciate that youth today do not like or admire the unending ‘boomer’ rebellion against parental authority. Say what you like about ISIS, but they did not have a problem with youth appeal.
Neither should the Church. Christianity offers the only path to everlasting life. With that out front, we don’t need a side-hustle blessing pets. A model for the Church, I think, would be the prophet Jonah. Sent to a people he despised (the tender-hearted may not be aware that the Assyrians were thought to be unusually cruel even by the harsh standards of antiquity), Jonah radiated dogmatic self-confidence. He understood that he was right and that with zero converts he would still be right. His God didn’t need the Ninevites and Jonah didn’t want them. Is anyone surprised that Nineveh took note? A Church that took this attitude would close the doors and put itself in order. It would aim for seriousness over sentiment. Men of God would once again be men of learning. Preachers, the altar guild, music and everything else would be held to an aesthetic, spiritual and scholarly standard. We would remember that movement, placement, colour and symbol are all languages, and we would learn to worship God in those languages along with the words of hymn and prayer. The Church would be philosophically curious, and would confront rather than cringe away from the supposed tension between Christianity and natural science. All would be welcome in the sense that, for most of Christian history, all have been welcome to become the sorts of people who belong in Church.
If only, you might sigh. But the inward turn will happen, whether the Church participates in it or not. However you characterize our cultural decline, our institutions, and not only the Church, are coming apart. The collapse of public things drives the focus on the hidden and esoteric that characterizes civilizations at our stage of decline. Christianity was once, indeed, among the initiatic religions to which Romans turned in their own twilight centuries. Dutton and Woodley of Menie seem to regard mystery religions as rivals to organized religion. But they don’t need to be. When churchgoers are no longer praying about the next harvest, there is room for exploration within the Church. Philosophy and theology await, as do the paths of the monk, the deacon, the priest, the warrior, and many, many options for the lay brother. Contra Francis, who writes as though we must either reject history or turn it into a museum, there is a third option which has been practised by thoughtful people for most of our species’ history. This is to build the present, both literally and figuratively, on the foundations of the past.
When the Visigoths burst through the gates of Rome, they are said to have found Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, playing with his chickens. Presumably they will find Francis interviewing the young. The rest of us might take comfort in the thought that our coreligionists will be back; as our civilization slides downward, the pews will fill again. What they find in the Church when they return will be the measure of our time.
1The notion of a binding agreement may even be contained in our word ‘religion’, since it has been argued that the source of the Latin noun religio is the verb religare, to bind.