Discussion Forum

Spiritual but Not Religious

by Rev. Tom Thresher

“What does it mean to be on a spiritual path?” 

Many regularly ask this question along with a few others: “What is the purpose of life?” “Why am I here?” “Where are we going?” “Will I make it?”

If you don’t think these are important questions, check out the size and popularity of the New Age and Religion sections of most book stores.  “What is a spiritual path?” “Am I on one?” “Does it matter?”  All of these questions matter to us.

A common response is that “I am spiritual, but not religious.” 

A recent conference on Spiritual Activism intentionally sought to attract folks who describe themselves in this manner.  Given that the purpose of religion is spiritual development, doesn’t it seem odd that we would differentiate “spiritual” from “religious”?

When recently asked by a young man for help finding a community where he could develop spiritually, a pastor inquired why he didn’t go to his church.  Puzzled, the young man asked, “What does Christianity have to do with spirituality?” 

Many “spiritual, but not religious” folks distance themselves from the popular conception of Christianity: a religion of “us and them” which condemns those who are different, especially those who are gay or don’t believe “as they should.” 

Most thinking people I know assume that they must check their brains at the door before entering many, perhaps most, Christian churches.  Since their beliefs or lifestyles are not acceptable to much of mainline Christianity they, in turn, reject the churches and seek support on their spiritual journeys from various New Age movements or Eastern traditions that have been imported to this country.

Even though I am a pastor, I don’t I blame them. I spent most of my life avoiding churches, and still do.  My spiritual journey was informed primarily by the Eastern traditions, particularly Zen and Taoism and I was greatly surprised to find my life redirected to Christianity. 

I have no wonderful conversion story to tell you about how I gave my life to Jesus and everything got better.  Actually, I find myself in a constant tug-of-war between my role as spiritual teacher and the perpetuation of an institution.  I am reticent to mention to anyone that I am a pastor because of all that is projected upon me in an instant. 

It is from this vantage point, the vantage point of a skeptic, that I make the following radical claim: Christianity is a viable spiritual path.

Understanding the spiritual core of Christianity does not deny the traditional Christian perspective; all that is needed is a willingness to not be confined by it. 

Somewhat surprisingly, when you have journeyed through this expanded perspective, many of the claims of traditional Christianity “light up” and make sense in profoundly compelling and often startling ways. This orientation includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Don’t worship Jesus.  Don’t emulate Jesus. Don’t even consider what Jesus would do. Seek what Jesus sought (and found).  If you find what Jesus found you probably won’t be anything like him, you will be yourself, and that is precisely what the world needs.
  • The gospels are good news, not about Jesus, but about you.  The gospels are not particularly important as stories about a guy that lived 2000 years ago.  The gospel writers weren’t writing history, they were writing the story of their own waking up, their own enlightenment (salvation in Christian terms) and they set it within the Jesus story to be culturally meaningful
  • Jesus is not “God’s only beloved son.”  Each and every one of us is a child of Mystery; and perfect.
  • “Sin”, the great wickedness in Christianity, has nothing to do with being bad.  Sin means “ignorance”; not that we don’t know something, but that we believe things which are untrue.
  • The Bible is a spiritual book, not a literal book.  It is not the authoritative word of God, but a book written by people seeking to comprehend a Mystery they couldn’t possibly wrap their minds around.  It’s more like a Rorschach Blot than an authoritative guide.  It is a mirror to hold up, with other contemporary mirrors, to see ourselves more clearly.

Many, of course, will argue that I have trashed Christianity.  Actually, I haven’t, I am simply providing a perspective on what Christianity looks like beyond its blinding dogmas.

If our spiritual journeys are a trek across an open desert, what appears to be needed at this point are outposts.  Briefly, these outposts might be labeled:

  • “Science Camp” where Christianity embraces scientific doubt, historicity and a new cosmology;
  • “Pluralist Camp” where other faiths and cultural perspectives are welcomed and celebrated; and
  • “Integral Camp” where all dimensions, perspectives and faiths are welcomed at once. 

There really is room for all of this in the great legacy of Christianity. 

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