Religious but not Spiritual, Revisited


Jesus > Religion on YouTube

I didn’t want to watch this video.  I certainly didn’t want to write about it.  But after it appeared for the eighth time or so on my Facebook feed (I didn’t keep an exact count), I figured I should probably weigh in.  So here I am.

Because I’m largely insufferable (just ask Michial Farmer), I got in the habit some time ago (I’m not enough of a hipster to say I did it before it became mainstream) of reversing the conventional order of the cliche and telling people that I’m “religious but not spiritual.”  I’m pretty sure I did it just to be disagreeable at first, but eventually I came to realize that, theologically speaking, it’s exactly right if someone wants to describe my existence as a creature of God and sent by Christ.  The fact of the matter is that I’m neither Moses nor Elijah, and unless the world runs really short of saints in the next couple of decades, nobody’s going to be telling the story of my amazing encounters with the divine.  Instead, I’m a regular human being, someone who would not be leading the Ark of the Covenant across the Red Sea but among the hosts following the Ark across and hoping that the Egyptian chariots wouldn’t catch up with too much of the back of the pack.  I would have seen Moses veiled, and more than likely I would have been either one of those who turned on the prophets of Ba’al to tear them apart (once Elijah’s version of the storm god won that contest) at Mount Carmel or else one of the people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem but got the heck out of dodge when the temple guards showed up.  In short, as I tell my students all the time, if you want an exemplar, I’ll tell you about ‘em, but I promise there are better exemplars than me out there.

That’s why people like me aren’t so contemptuous of religion.  As it turns out, without religion, we don’t become saints; we forget we’re sinners.  Our lives would simply dissipate.  Since I’ve got a smattering of Latin, I know that religion’s etymology has something to do with religare, to bind together.  That’s what I need.  Left to my own undisciplined affections, I don’t doubt that, within two or three serious tests of faith, I would easily enough slip into a vague sense that there’s “something out there” but abandon the particular and the troubling Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  Regular Eucharist and teaching and song with a local congregation bind together those faces of my life–the psychological and the social and the ethical and the domestic–that tend to drift apart when I’m on my own trying to exist.  When I keep religion, I’ve got structures there to remind me, every seven days (and more often than that, since I teach the teens on Wednesday nights and teach English at a Christian college), how one cosmic kyrios, Jesus, demands that all that I am bear witness to God’s Kingdom.  That’s not legalism, folks–I harbor no illusion that I’m a car because I walk across the parking lot.  (Is that what he said in the video?)  That’s what Calvinists call the ordinary means of grace, those orderly, recurring features of life that contend with the forces of consumerism to structure and to govern how I exist from day to day and from week to week.

Perhaps for the spiritual folks out there, “done” is enough, but for a wretch like me, the grace that amazes also comes in the form of “do”: gather around the table.  Hear the gospel proclaimed.  (Even when the proclamation comes from one’s own mouth, one hears.)  Sing praise to the LORD.  Go and make disciples.  Without the imperatives of religion, I repeat, I don’t suddenly leap from the leash and become a fierce evangelist and an open-hearted lover of all humanity.  I just read more articles on the Internet, play more video games, and otherwise become even duller a boy than the “spiritual but not religious” crowd would make me out to be.

All of this is to say that I ask a bit of mercy from those who enjoy Jefferson Bethke’s latest video, love it, and repost it: for the sake of those of us who aren’t all that spiritual (Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” is in my head now), please don’t begrudge us the religion that keeps us rooted in the rhythms of the life of the Church.  For folks like me, that’s where the grace is.

9 comments
Nathan Gilmour
Nathan Gilmour

I think you're onto something there, Paul, namely the question of the human lifespan. As we've said before on the podcast, there's something to be said about a congregation that has 80-day-olds and 80-year-olds.

Paul Schleifer
Paul Schleifer

I attend a church that's pretty high up on the liturgical charts. My students at a somewhat less liturgical school ask me if that isn't boring, or vainly repeating words, or just the same thing week after week. Sometimes it does feel like the same thing week after week, but not always. After each of my children were born, I attended church, and we had the confession, the hymns, the readings, the sermon, the Eucharist, and I celebrated with great joy. After my father died, and after my brother-in-law died, I went to church and we had the confession, the hymns, the readings, the sermon, the Eucharist, and I celebrated, not with a sense of fun and happiness, but with great joy. God is the same whether I'm happy or sad, whether my life seems to me to be going well or poorly. God is there, lifting me up, holding me tight. The liturgy, or to broaden the discussion out to religion, reflects to me that God is there whether I'm full of the enthusiasm of the spirit today or not. I'm with you on this one, Nathan. Religion is God's gift to us, and just because some people distort religion for personal ends, for power or money, or for the ability to hide from God himself, we shouldn't label God's gift to us bad.

Nathan Gilmour
Nathan Gilmour

Gary, I'm not saying that the present-day church is perfect; what I am saying is that, for some of us, the "spiritual but not religious" path just doesn't promise as much as a life informed by regular and disciplined practices that bind together (religare) the parts of our lives. It's not "man seeking God," as Mr. Bethke suggests, but one means by which God preserves those of us who aren't by nature "spiritual" people. I don't doubt that Alan Hirsch is of one mind with the "ditch the old church stuff" camp, but if you do some searching around this site, you'll see that I've taken issue with Hirsch's approach to ecclesiology before as well.

Charles
Charles

Reminds me of the online-video-posting teenaged preacher from The Good Wife.

Coyle
Coyle

Yeah, I join in the general chorus of... well, discontent with this sort of thing. There's both a clear sharing of the Gospel (woo-hoo!), and a subtle arrogance that "you're doing it wrong." Which I both sympathize with, given that I struggle with the same sin, and cringe at a bit, since, well, it's a sin.

Carter Stepper
Carter Stepper

Nathan, I agree wholeheartedly. While I certainly wouldn't question the intentions of those who make this distinction, a distinction is only helpful insofar as it is accurate, and this one has no basis in reality. Tomorrow I am going to go to church (not online), spend time with sinners, sing off-key, listen to the preaching and the teaching, and hopefully take the Eucharist; does that disqualify me from being a "follower of Jesus"? The use of religion as a pejorative needs to die a quick, quiet death, never to be heard from again. Isn't it more helpful, not to mention honest, to say that Christianity is the *true* religion, rather than to accommodate it to cultural sensibilities? Or is explaining that simply too much work? Simple, as often is the case, is better.

GARY DESTERKE
GARY DESTERKE

DeYoung makes a good point: “The strengths in this poem are the strengths I see in many young Christians – a passionate faith, a focus on Jesus, a love for grace, and a hatred for anything phony or self-righteous …. The weaknesses here can be the weaknesses of my generation (and younger) – not enough talk of repentance and sanctification, a tendency to underestimate the importance of obedience in the Christian life, a one-dimensional view of grace, little awareness that our heavenly Father might ever discipline his children or be grieved by their continued transgression…” However, I would recommend “The End of Religion” by Bruxy Cavey for more clarity on the reality of Jesus fulfilling religion, as it is understood by the contemporary secular person. I would also recommend “Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship” by Alan Hirsch & Debra Hirsch. The truly reformed church is always reforming, and many believe that we are on the verge of re-reformation with a less domesticated Christianity and a more Jesus-like lifestyle. The present day church is not well, broadly speaking, and some radical re-thinking and re-imagining what it means to be a Christ follower is happening. Let’s embrace it!

Nathan Gilmour
Nathan Gilmour

Well, I knew this was a Proverbs 26:4-5 moment. And as usual, I followed the Bible's counsel. :) Where I teach, an evangelical liberal arts school affiliated with the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, "religion" is a sort of cuss word among the student body and to a great extent among the campus ministers. So I do try to be a quiet advocate for religion as a concept there, and it seemed to translate nicely into this viral video phenomenon.

Robert
Robert

You're a gentleman, sir. My own response was rather derisive. But I do feel bad for the kid. Amateurs shouldn't have to bear the weight of the scrutiny he's receiving. And to be receiving the attention and accolades he is for this arrogant and adolescent theological rant cannot possibly do him any good.

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