When I first met my wife we embarked on a long process of creating a shared vocabulary. We not only grew up in different families, but were raised in different parts of the country. This created the opportunity for a number of fun misunderstandings. For instance, there was the time I mentioned that I had “converted” when I joined the Episcopal Church. Her response, “You mean you weren’t Christian? I thought you were raised Baptist…” Context is king. To her, a person did not convert from one Christian tradition to another, but only from one religion to another. Perhaps this was because she was living in Los Angeles at the time, where there is such a diversity of belief and practice. In contrast, the South–though things are changing in larger cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte etc.–is still predominantly Christian. Because of this, an elderly Baptist pastor with whom my family has enjoyed a long association could take me aside at a funeral and commend me on going to seminary, discuss and commend the fact that we “all work for the same Lord” and then say “But I do wish you would reconsider the Baptist faith.” That phrase would’ve been much less likely in the circles Anna was raised in, at least within the last decade or two.
Another term we had to have a discussion about was my use of the term piety. I used the term piety and pious as positive. For me, to say that someone was pious was to say they were prayerful, while for Anna it held connotations of rigidity and hyper-spirituality. Likewise piety was seen as a bad thing. For my part, I simply used it to discuss the personal religious practices that people engage in, such as crossing themselves, kneeling or genuflecting–no hint of negativity.
This just goes to show how many different was things can be taken. Likewise the word spiritual. When I was in seminary we took a class entitled “Spirituality for Ministry.” I was still a bit of a reactionary with my vision tinted by my Asheville origins (the home of the spiritual grab bag) and so, I wrote the following in one of my papers for that class:
Though there is an understandable reluctance to define spirituality there is a danger inherent in using spirituality in an undefined way. As illustrated by Marjorie J. Thompson in her book Soul Feast as she discusses the terms piety and devotion. Thompson argues that piety “now suggests to many a saccharin sentimentality or the delicate, easily shocked conscience of moral rigidity” and that “devotion has suffered a similar though less damaging fate.”1 Thompson wrote Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life in 1995 and it is to be expected that terms have altered in their popular usage since then. Because of this it is hardly surprising that spirituality, once turned to as “the contemporary word of choice for expressing how we live with God in this world”2 has begun to suffer a similar fate as the terms piety and devotion in the popular mind, especially among growing numbers of young people. Words like piety and devotion are rarely used at all in popular discussion of religious or spiritual issues but in an ironic twist, spirituality–because of overuse and abuse–has reclaimed much of the baggage that it carried during the seventeenth century when it was “used in a negative fashion to describe elite forms of subjective religious practice.” 3 A growing number of people view the sloppy use of the term spirituality—when its use is detached from any particular tradition—as a warning sign that a heavy dose of pop-psychology, “feel goodism” and “self-helpism” is on the way. In short they look for the Amway card. For many people who are either still in or just out of college much of popular spirituality is viewed as another form of mid-life crises as experienced by the 60’s generation and, to use a good postmodern word, is viewed as inauthentic.
Needless to say, the professor teaching the class was not impressed with my take and stated that I was flat out wrong in my understanding. Of course, he was challenging an aspect of my paper that was subjective and not objective. I was probably a bit obnoxious in the way I put it, and the paper was not my best by a long shot, but I still believe that the term spiritual has, among many folk, myself included, and perhaps especially in my age cohort and below, come to occupy a space similar to where Thompson placed piety, as “saccharin sentimentality.”
Which brings me to the question of the day: What do you think when you hear someone say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” A recent article has been making waves with the title “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In reading the article, I believe I sense a kindred spirit. Someone else who is irritated with the cultural tendency we’ve developed to adhere to a create-your-own-spirituality program.
I encourage you to read the entirety of the article, found here, but the money quote for me is below:
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
So. Has the hot-air-balloon of spiritual but not religious lost its loft? Is it barreling toward earth at increasing speed or not?