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.

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