Spiritual versus religious

Words aside, humans first

This week I sat on a panel on LGBTQ+ spirituality organized by the multicultural office and the social work department at the University of Arkansas. The first question out of the gate: Do you consider yourself more spiritual or religious? As I sat and listened to responses, I realized this discussion, about spiritual versus religious, is really part of the popular conversation. Panelists had very thoughtful things to say. Meanwhile, I kept thinking to myself: I don't consider myself spiritual or religious. I don't really use those categories when I speak or write.

So then what am I if I'm neither spiritual nor religious? Clearly I'm not one of the "nones" or "dones." I'm a Lutheran pastor. How can I be neither spiritual nor religious?

By the time it was my turn to speak, I decided to answer simply: I don't think of myself as spiritual or religious. I think of myself as someone trying to practice Christianity in the social gospel tradition.

Let me try to unpack that. So first, I do believe that faith is centered in life lived together. This is perhaps my one struggle with those who say they are "spiritual but not religious." I totally believe them that they are. But I do think when people say that they are thinking of spirituality as a largely individual activity. It's something you are, not something done together.

So the social gospel emphasizes the social implications of the good news of Jesus. In the most "religious" way of talking about this, people would say we try to live like Jesus, practice social justice in the way of Jesus. This is why frequently social gospel Christianity gets involved in politics, or community organizing, or shareholder meetings. Because it is a faith that has direct social implications. Always.

And it is the gospel because gospel is whatever it was that Jesus (and the movement he started) was teaching and enacting in the coming kingdom of God. Good news for the poor and oppressed. Liberation for those in bondage.

So you could say social gospel is both religious (in that it applies to institutions and structures) and spiritual (maintaining a spirited connection to the teachings of Jesus). But I wonder if perhaps it can be clarifying and freeing to consider dropping the terms "religious" and "spiritual" altogether in order to get beyond a false dichotomy between individualized spirituality and institutionalized religion.

Another way to talk about this kind of Christianity may be to call it Christian humanism. One of my favorite Lutheran theologians, N.F.S. Grundtvig, frequently emphasized in his writings that we are "human first, then Christian."

I think this is perhaps one of the reasons many who are finding a more mature form of faith in their own lives feel a need to reject "religion." It's because the religious community they experienced turned on them, betrayed them, lost its way somehow, and did so in the name of faith.

And typically that harm came because the community allowed its religious commitments, its doctrine or norms, to take precedence over the shared humanity of those in the community. Once you harm or alienate someone in the name of faith, you are putting Christianity ahead of humanity.

NAN Religion on 11/23/2019

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