James 1:27. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
1 Corinthians 10:3-5. They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
by Dr. Tom Kennedy
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” I hear and read this many times. What does this phrase mean? For people who do research in the area of religion and spirituality, however, separating the two is very difficult, if not impossible. For millennia the word religious had about the same meaning as the word spiritual.
Today religion is popularly labeled as the doctrine and beliefs of a group. Spirituality, on the other hand, is individualized and only concerns itself with the relationship of that person to the sacred or transcendent (Koenig, 2005, pp. 44-45). Yet current research finds that at least 74% of people do not make a distinction between religion and spirituality. How then can we best define the relationship between the two?
In my young adult novel, My First Week in Heaven, I gave an analogy of that relationship. Let’s assume we have an imaginary child who represents the relationship between religion and spirituality. The skin, muscles, heart, and other tissues represent the child’s spirituality. The bones represent his/her religion.
First, correct religion, like bones, provides the proper structure for spirituality. Spirituality grows in distorted ways without religion. Imagine reaching over and grabbing the child’s head. Then imagine lifting up the skeleton out of the imaginary child. What would happen? Spirituality would collapse to the floor,
Secondly, religion, like bones, also provides much of the immune system for spirituality. It helps to fight toxic influences that may corrupt one’s spirituality. Two of the most toxic influences are the individual’s own selfishness and the willingness to let other people control one’s spirituality. Of course, if religion itself becomes corrupt, one’s spirituality also becomes corrupt.
Many people think of spirituality as perfect and incorruptible. Unfortunately, that is not true. Non-religious spirituality emphasizes special experiences, something you feel. If there are no feelings to this kind of spirituality, people would not pursue it. I have heard of many strange experiences that were labeled ‘spiritual’ just because there was a burst of pleasant feeling involved.
Perhaps we need to look at who has the right to define religion, spirituality and their relationship. In I Corinthians 10:4 spirituality is defined as a relationship with Jesus. Religion in the Bible is a catalyst for that relationship. The Bible is equally clear that religion and spirituality are not defined by us. They are only defined by God. He didn’t ask advice about spirituality and religion at the beginning of humanity and he doesn’t ask us now. He has already figured it out.
Jesus died on the cross to make God’s religion and spirituality alive, dynamic and interactive with each other. There is no option to delete one or the other. So, can you be spiritual and not religious? I would say, yes. But this kind of spirituality is weak and directionless, or worse, narcissistic. Jesus wanted us to have a vibrant faith that focuses on him and he wants us to use the teachings of the Bible to shape both our religion and our spiritual interactions with him and God.
That is just good psychology.
Koenig, H. G. (2005). Faith and mental health: Religious resources for healing. Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Press