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Overcoming Spiritual Laziness

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Theresa Branch - published on 07/23/15

Why "I'm spiritual, not religious" doesn't really work

“Spiritual but not religious” is a cliché among many young people, including Christians. “Why,” goes the question, “do I need church when I can pray anywhere?” 

A 2012 Pew Research Poll reports the appalling numbers. Twenty percent of all Americans, and a third of those under thirty, no longer attend worship. If anything, the percentages have grown since 2012.

Some focus more on “what I get” out of worship, rather than “what I give” to God in worship. So other outlets are sought, seeking something greater than the self―which often turns out to be nothing greater than the autonomous self. 

Our culture oozes egoism; it bleeds into individuals’ thinking, leading to a self-centered concept that one’s notions and needs are unique, to be blindly pursued without assistance. Centuries of guidance are ignored: The saints, church fathers, the Psalms—which include deep and powerful insights on finding God—and most importantly, the Church herself.

Yet so many wander aimlessly, fostering a false dichotomy between religion and spirituality as they go. “Religion,” as Merriam-Webster defines it, is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” It includes “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Often, “spiritual but not religious” is really just a phrase to mask a demand that God give us spiritual highs without any corresponding action on our own part.

An example of this sad, aimless wandering is the recently publishedLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, a former parish priest in the Episcopal Church, now a professor of religion and philosophy at Piedmont College in Georgia. 

Taylor had grown dissatisfied with what she called “solar spirituality,” a spirituality that blithely ignores any dark, distressing thing. In this, her third memoir about leaving church, she tries to discover more about spiritual darkness. She leaves her church and begins her own journey, led by herself. 

The irony, of course, is that spirituality separated from religion is darkness. “How can I understand [what I am reading] unless someone guides me?” the eunuch asks St. Phillip. (Acts 8:30-31) 

The journey sometimes seems dark. However, at some point the wandering must lead to something. Either we find the truth or we decide the journey is an unworthy use of our time. To proceed along the way without a guide leaves us prone to confusion and malaise.

Falling into a “spiritual but not religious” approach, Taylor claims not to be “describing a loss of faith in God.” Instead, she describes a “lost faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God….” Yet her writing lacks clarity about what she actually found, if anything. Some of her points resonate, such as not resisting times of trial, but on the whole it is unclear whether she grasps their purpose. Any good points that she makes are muddled with confusing and perhaps outright heterodox positions. It is a terribly perplexing web that is woven. The need for guidance and the wisdom of the Church is evident.

It is a puzzle: What can be done or said to help someone like Taylor—and so many others—who grapple with these issues as the culture relentlessly assaults all traditional concepts of Christianity.

Catholics teach that we are bolstered in faith by the sacraments and by the teaching authority of the Church, which stretches to the foundation of Christianity: “You are Peter,” said Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” And indeed, the faith endures—outlasting empires—while staying true to Christ throughout the ages.

“Spiritual but not religious” ultimately has little to do with whatever the church is serving up for its Twitter followers. It instead is an excuse for the lazy, and for those who have never truly encountered God in sacrament and Gospel.

Our answer to the “spiritual but not religious” mindset must be a renewed personal commitment to time in prayer, to frequenting the sacraments, and to acts of charity and kindness.  It cannot be to acquiesce to the culture. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton understood this well as he wrote of the Church’s steadfastness:

“It was the refusal of the Christians that was the turning-point of history. If the Christians had accepted [assimilation with the culture], they and the whole world would have certainly, in a grotesque but exact metaphor, gone to pot. They would all have been boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption in which all the other myths and mysteries were already melting. It was an awful and an appalling escape. Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realize that the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Hope remains for the Catholic, even in the darkest night. We have faith in Christ, and that he has given us his Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). We do not have to rely exclusively upon our selves, our moods, our emotions, nor our whims, because Christ has given us his Church, with Peter as its first head, to guide us and shine the light of Truth in the darkness. We have great reason to hope for heaven where we will be happy with God forever. This is encouraging, and we should pray for all those wounded souls who hide behind the “spiritual but not religious” cliché.

Theresa Branch graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Marketing Management from Hillsdale College. She is a happy wife who—when not busy changing the world one diaper at a time—freelance writes. You may drop a note to her at theresa.notes@gmail.com.

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