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Being religious to become spiritual

Published 10:28am Monday, April 29, 2013

Some friends think of and present themselves as religious, while others consider themselves to be anything but religious — and they would like everyone to know this. Still others consider being religious as formal or artificial, and their intent is to be something beyond religious, i.e., spiritual. They go to church regularly and seriously but disdain form and liturgy for informality and spirit. Increasingly we are hearing: I am not religious to be sure, but I certainly am spiritual. These never go to church, synagogue or mosque, but they might visit some eastern temple. Or, they might consider any form or religion useless and either turn within themselves to find divinity or outward to find it in the elements of nature. Then, of course, there are those who profess to be atheists, or at least agnostic, but are so religiously.

All this, without much thought to meanings and definitions. These are not ideas, but notions. They do not think, but suppose. There is no experience, just feeling. I feel we must be as religious as necessary to be as spiritual as possible, but no more religious than necessary lest we are but religious and not yet spiritual.

At the close of a church service, one woman boasted she is spiritual without being religious. I pointed out her very presence in church for a formal service was a religious act, as was her bowing during prayer and singing the hymns. Such claims fail to recognize how many religious devices are actually used to experience and express spirituality.

If we are careful with terms, it seems to me we must conceive religion as means and spiritual as ends. Religion is the container and spiritual the contents. The distinction between and relation of religion and spirituality is that of vehicle and destination, form and substance.

For years I have spoken and written about the greater value of being spiritual, but I am warned this today is easily misunderstood. In the popular modern mind, “spiritual” means nothing more than non-material or even mind over matter. There is no spirit in spiritual. When this pertains, the individual actually is not at all religious. But, then, neither is he or she spiritual in any meaningful sense.

This is not only inconsistent with the Bible, but actually contradicts its teaching. The New Testament teaching is that God the Father also exists as God the Holy Spirit. The concept is that humans consist not only of body (as so of animals) but a non-physical or extra-physical nature termed “soul,” or sometimes also “spirit.” It is the human spirit that is killed by sin (simply, being and acting inhumanly) and redeemed by salvation. Spiritual living, then, is the redeemed human spirit in active and responsive fellowship with the spirit of God. Anything less or other than this is not spiritual, just non-material.

Jewish teaching does not recognize the Holy Spirit as one with God, but is clear about the non-material relationship of God, who is spirit, to human spirits. Christian theology agrees with Hebrew religion that this was the situation at the time recorded and described in the Hebrew Bible.

People who either do not recognize God or do not factor him into their thinking and behavior are still right, in my opinion, that there is more to humans than body. They will doubtless continue to perceive themselves as spiritual, and I understand what they attempt to assert even while failing to recognize what they think that spirit is.

When religions have clashed and when religions have done violence, which they certainly have throughout history, it is because they either never had spirit or they lost the spirit they once enjoyed and which once nourished them spiritually and drove them morally. So, too, has religion lost spirit when it oppresses and enslaves.

Religion without spirit is monstrous.

Those who think they believe what the Bible teaches and wish to live by it will comply when they are reasonably religious but assuredly spiritual.


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  • Paul Du Plessis

    “Religion without spirit is monstrous.” I agree. Organised religion unfortunately has alway had the propencity to become spiritless at times and for many reasons.

    I do believe that many believers in God have come to realise that they do not need an organised religious organisation of any kind to intercede for them in their relationship with God, for they can approach God in grace themselves.

    I believe too that it is people such as this that refrain from calling themselves religious as they simply wish to demonstrate that they are not part of organised religion without spirit.

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