I admit it.
I bemoan this phrase reiterated by my peers. It drives me nuts even though I love and respect each one of my friends and family members that doesn’t find meaning or relevance in the faith of my own heart.
Still, I feel the need to talk about this commonly used expression in our churches. Not for the reason that Larry Peers emphasizes. I see his point and agree that we need to create space for any seeker to ask questions about their faith — but that’s not why I talk about these phrases. Instead, I think that we need to talk about these phrases because we assume that by sitting in the pew that these terms don’t articulate who we are. As Peers points out, that’s not true. Lots of people that sit in a pew on a Sunday morning are really quite comfortable with this phrase. They know that they are searching for something. They know they have questions. They know that they haven’t quite figured out the answers by themselves. They are spiritual. They are religious. They… are… really not sure what these words mean.
More often than not, these words are used interchangeably so that it seems that they have the same meaning — but that’s not really true. When I talk about these terms with our teenagers in the Confirmation, as I will on Saturday night, I use Robert C. Fuller’s definitions from Beliefnet:
spiritual: associated with a private realm of thought and experiencereligious: came to be connected with the private realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denomination doctrines
On Saturday night, we will use these definitions to talk about the even more curious event of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel of Matthew. These teenagers in Confirmation will be asked to look at this story and decide who is spiritual and who is religious as if there is one answer. (There isn’t.) They will try to figure out how these terms identify their own experience of faith as they read this Gospel story. Whether or not they find the answer in one conversation, I hope that the question lingers.
Admittedly, as much as I bemoan this popular phrase, it’s a question I have to wrestle with myself. I have to ask if I can be identified by just one of these terms or if there is some grey area in between. I don’t know which is more true for me. I’m not sure that either one of these words better articulates who I am, but, I do know this. I like the term religion from the Latin root religo which translates to bind back. I like that that word reminds me that my spiritual wanderings are always connected to a larger community. I experience these strange revelations (as Peter did on top of that mountain in the Gospel of Matthew) that I want to share with others. I want to discern those things with others. I want to try to make sense of them with a group of people to whom I am literally bound. I can’t quite give up on that term religion. I know there are problems with it and the assumption that it has to do with doctrine more than people worries me. Still, it has some meaning to me.