Lately, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This phrase makes me very uncomfortable. For a long time I could not figure out exactly what they meant. Did being “spiritual” make them “spiritualists”? That’s an old-fashioned phrase for people who engaged in the occult. But no, that wasn’t it, at least not in most cases. Some traditions use the word “spiritual” in conjunction with their belief systems in the same sort of way Christians might speak of our faith or our religion; as an inextricable and integral part of their world view and something taken very seriously. Most often, however, when someone tells me they are “spiritual but not religious” they aren’t referring to this kind of belief either. In popular usage this seems to be one of those phrases that means something nebulous like:
I believe in some sort of higher power, or perhaps not so much ‘higher’ as ‘other’, with varying degrees of connection to this world or to me. These connections are pretty much either how I define or allow them to be or how I individually ‘discover’ them to be. There is no greater story to which I, or anyone else for that matter, am connected. There is really only me and whatever I choose to believe or, perhaps more accurately described, whatever I decide to buy into.
This system of thought (and regardless of how loose this may sound it is indeed a system) allows a person a great deal of independent and personal choice in the world. That is, after all, what it’s all about, right? That’s freedom, isn’t it? The freedom to be a complete, individual, self-defined, autonomous being with no need for anyone or anything else and no one to answer to or answer for.
I’m not so sure there ever was such a creature or even should be.
In defense of those who define themselves as spiritual but not religious, agnostic or even atheist on the grounds that the church is a hypocritical, political and often abusive collective of power I am compelled to say, “Indeed. Guilty as charged.” It would be unfair and untruthful not to acknowledge the fact that in the 2,000 or so years of the Christian church we have made many, many an error. That is even, perhaps, a gross understatement. We, the church, confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot seem to free ourselves. We have sinned in thought, in word and in deed; both by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved, we have not cared, and we have not repented. We have abused, we have neglected and we have hurt. Hurt a lot. You know, we even killed our God. And we have committed what is perhaps one of the least understood or identified sins of all: we have misrepresented our faith.
I once read a blog post entitled “Raising A Churchless Child” and in it a very thoughtful woman wrote about proudly raising a child without participating in any type of organized religion. She did not attack Christianity or any other faith or those who adhered to any religious belief system. Actually, she did not even sound condescending to persons of faith which has sometimes been my experience with people who think as she does. However, her essay made me sad. Not so much because she wasn’t a Christian or even because some of those who commented on her post were less than charitable toward organized faiths, but because it showed where we as the church have failed to represent what Christianity is. And the FAIL is, in my estimation, EPIC.
The majority of her writing seemed to be focused upon how she did not require a faith foundation in order to teach her child morals or for her child to behave morally and that she does not need religion to feel good and at peace with her life. Please note, I am not refuting what she says. In point of fact, she is quite correct. Many philosophies have moral standards and teachings, martial arts systems have moral codes, etc. A few months ago I visited some friends of mine whose son is studying Chinese Kung-Fu. Each week he has an assignment that deals with a particular character quality such as respect, honor, or compassion. While I do think that a person’s moral standards or code of behavior is most often associated with a system of some type, that system certainly does not need to be faith based at all in order to be valid, valuable and functional. Many non-faith based codes are very harmonious with the Christian life. Additionally there are many ways, far too numerous to name now, to ‘feel’ at peace with one’s life. So, I’m not rejecting what she has said on these points. I’m actually not rejecting her at all. What I do reject, however, is what the church, either in person or by reputation, has taught her and innumerable others: that the purpose of religion is to make moral people who live good lives and are at peace with one another.
Aside from the fact that there sure are a lot of people in the world who identify themselves as Christian who have none of those qualities in their lives, that really isn’t what Christianity is all about in the first place. This idea seems like a marketing plan gone awry. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appears to be what we are selling as the modern day church. A moral code book with the yes/no answers to life’s toughest questions, a bit of soft surface counseling and just a dash of the divine to hold it altogether!
First of all, where on earth did we get the notion that we are supposed to compete for customers in the marketplace of ideas? Pick us, we say, because Christianity is best! Because we can help you the most! Give us your children and we’ll give back moral, upstanding, right thinking adults! Follow this path to gain [fill-in-the-blank] fulfillment for whatever ails you!
Who could blame anyone for not ‘buying into’ the church when that’s what we say we are? Because whatever we are, we are not that.
When I first considered seminary, I remember a wise person saying to me that if my goal was to help people, I could do so far more effectively and easily in all manner of other professions from social worker to counselor or yoga instructor to physical therapist. However, if I was grasped by something greater than myself and called to speak and enact the Word of God among God’s people… now that was something else altogether. That was ministry. He was right and the same is true for the church.
We make a grave mistake when we attempt to sell the faith; to make it something we ask people to buy into. God is not for sale. God, as the scriptures repeatedly show us, does not compete with others for the hearts of his people. God claims our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our souls. Morals are not a product of the church to be bought, a commodity to be consumed like the perks of country club membership or added benefits of joining a gym. Rather, they are a side-effect of being consumed by faith. As Will Willimon, a leader in the UMC, says: “Morality comes as a gracious by-product of being attached to something greater than ourselves, of being owned, claimed, commandeered for larger purposes.”
So what is the church? If it isn’t for giving good morals and making the pain of life go away—if even for a moment—or just being able to acknowledge the presence of a higher or ‘other’ power, then what is faith? Let us think about it in the way that Jesus would teach us—through a story.
Once, there was a woman who had many struggles in her life. Some of her struggles were from a mental health issue she was born with. Some of her struggles were from bad choices she’d made and bad choices others had made leaving her violated and broken. With all her heart, she wanted to work, to have a job where she could have self respect and at least some self sufficiency, but finding someone who would hire her in spite of her emotional and mental health concerns that made her often socially awkward was nearly impossible. She was reliant upon others for all kinds of life necessities. Sometimes people took advantage of that, too.
Last summer, her asthma had become nearly unbearable and had caused multiple trips to the ER, something she could scarcely afford, and the ever increasing heat and humidity in her tiny subsidized housing multiplied her discomfort daily. She asked her church for help. She asked for a small window air conditioner and her church gave her just that. Members even went to install it for her. And, to this day, every single time she speaks to someone at her church, she thanks them for the air conditioner.
That’s what faith looks like. That’s what the church is.
Now, right about now you’re probably thinking: yup, that’s right! We take care of people in the church! We give when people need it! Provide where there is lack and give a cup of cold water, symbolically speaking, to those who are thirsty! The church is all about caring for people!
Well, that is true. But I would like for us to look at that story a little differently. Just like Jesus’ parables, there are often several ways to read it. We could see it as the church in the story being us in this church and the woman as being people we help. However, in this story, we the faithful, aren’t in the role of the “church”. We are the woman who received the air conditioner. First and foremost, above everything else, we aren’t the givers, we are the receivers. We are the ones who cannot free ourselves from the situations we are in because of sin; our own, that of others, and even just the broken world around us. We are the ones that, no matter how hard we try, cannot mend our lives alone and must rely upon others for basic necessities of life. And we are the ones who can, over and over, say thank you thank you thank you to God who cares for us, who loves us and who gives us what we need, not because we earned it or deserved it but simply because God is God. It is God who is the church in this little parable.
It is because we are like the woman in the story that THEN we get to be the church.
The woman in our story from the gospel is who we are to be first and foremost. We are the recipient of grace. We would fancy ourselves to be the one who says: it’s ok for sinners like this woman to be with us, it’s ok for people who are less than perfect to be in our presence, to touch us and receive our blessings. We are welcoming to everyone no matter how outcast they may be! We might even sometimes be the Pharisee who feels he can pass judgment upon who is worthy to receive mercy, blessings and allowed to be present in the community. But who we ARE is the woman who stands behind Jesus and cries all over his feet. It is awkward. It feels uncomfortable to think of ourselves like that; to think of the fact that to be the church we must first see that WE ARE THAT WOMAN. But that is who we Christians truly are. We aren’t the ones with the answers and all the moral upright authority packaged and ready to sell. We are the ones who are broken and forgiven.
You see, the truth about the church is this: It isn’t: give us your children and we’ll give you back moral adults. It is: Give us your children and we will not give them back, for in baptism, which is what we plan for your children and, in truth, for you if you will but let us, there is no going back. You are different. Forever. That’s the point. What faith really asks is: come and stand with me, broken, at the feet of Jesus. You do not get to be the one who passes judgment upon others. You get to stand at the feet of the Creator of the Universe and receive love, grace, mercy, forgiveness and hope. The truth about faith is that you may not be happy or peaceful, at least in the vapid ways we often define those words as if these transient, temporary feelings were truly worth striving for in the first place because real peace, real wholeness are something far beyond what the world says they are. In fact, you might be quite uncomfortable with your life and with the world. It is uncomfortable, after all, to think of ourselves as the weeping woman or the one who needs help. This isn’t the same thing as self-loathing or shame, commodities our society dishes out by the bucketful, slathered in the gloss of ‘success’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘entertainment’ and claiming that they are the stuff of happiness. Rather, this realization of ourselves as the ones who need help is a grasp of the reality that we are not complete, individual, self-defined, autonomous little demi-gods of our own making.
It is time that we of the church recognize that we have failed in the marketplace. We have failed to sell ourselves as purveyors of morality and peace; a market we sometimes claim to have cornered. We have failed to sell God to the masses. That isn’t so bad really. As I recall, when God walked the earth in human flesh, he was not particularly happy with salesmen in his house. When Jesus was asked about what it was like to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, he didn’t give a realtor’s advertisement or a commercial about how you’ll surely want to jump on this great bargain or how great the market is these days! He told a story about what it looked like. It is time we relearned how to speak the truth about our faith, worry less about doing God’s job of adding to our number and more about living those stories that Jesus told and being the people of God. It is time we repent from this sin of misrepresenting the faith. God is not for sale, nor is the church, so let’s quit trying to sell what we do not own and open our lives to the one who owns us.