'I'm not spiritual but I am religious'
posted on 06 October 2006
By Abbot Christopher Jamison OSB
Occupying the number one spot in the Amazon Religion and Spirituality list for the last few weeks has been a book about the power of positive thinking. Having worked as a school teacher for many years, I know that believing you can achieve something is half the battle of achieving it. So I have no problem with that kind of positive thinking; but this is not a book about achieving anything, it’s about ‘ordering’ whatever you fancy from your personal wish list: a job, money, a house and so on. Think positively about having these things, says the book, and the universe, yes the universe, will deliver them. The author tells of how she placed a trial order for the perfect man to be delivered in three months time on a specific date. Would you believe it (and here I quote) “Wowww!” he turned up on schedule.
Now what is astonishing is not only that this book sells but that a major bookseller considers it to be one that belongs in the Religion and Spirituality section. This book classification reflects the way people today understand the spiritual dimension of life; ‘spirituality’ is everywhere. Adverts claim that a certain therapy is spiritual and new age practises claim spiritual credentials. Crowning it all is the statement: ‘I’m not religious but I am spiritual’. This now seems to be a normative self-description for most people in
We badly need a better understanding of the rise of spirituality detached from religion and as a contribution to that understanding I offer some observations. My first observation is the commercialisation of this part of life. Where religion used to hold sway as a public service, now there is a retail industry filling the religion gap in people’s lives. Where once Billy Graham filled Wembley stadium and invited you to give your life to Jesus, since 1977 the Mind Body Spirit Fair has been filling
This commercially driven spiritual market place has been responding to a spontaneous turn to spirituality during the twentieth century. As more and more people in developed countries have their basic material needs satisfied, they want increasingly to develop the non-material side of their lives. This is often expressed as the desire for peace of mind which in turn leads to the quest for meaning. Moments of peace and insight are sought-after features of life and it is these that the new spirituality movements seek to offer.
So what has happened to religion during this process? Interestingly, Asian religion outside
Alongside this, all religions are assumed to share a common core: we all have spiritual experiences and we know that we should do to others as we would be done by. So, the assumption goes, all religions are just a variant on this basic human experience of spirituality and morality, the differences being colourful rather than significant. Furthermore, we sophisticated westerners are able to do our spirituality and our morality without the need for all the religious rigmarole.
Yet predictions by secularists and militant atheists that religion will die out have proved unfounded. The world’s classic religions have indeed become humbler and more aware of their manipulation by both false prophets and abusive leaders, but this purifying experience is enabling religious communities to find a new role in the 21st century. The challenge for those of us who are religious is to offer the whole of our religion to those spiritual seekers who are currently living on a reduced spiritual diet. Those who suffer eating disorders often deny that they have a problem; so too those who don’t eat enough spiritual food. I’m fine, they say, I’m spiritual and I don’t need anything more. Religious communities carry a heavy responsibility for their failure to offer their traditions in ways that hungry people can swallow.
The insubstantial diet of spirituality is often self-regarding and avoids the hard truths that religion offers. For example, a recent article on self-esteem in a Mind Body Spirit magazine offered advice on how to think good thoughts about oneself; but it did not deal with the tougher issues of pride and humility. Similarly therapies are offered to reduce stress when actually people need to change their way of life. The major religions of the world provide a deep and practical wisdom that challenges the consumer narcissism of much modern spirituality. Furthermore, the classic religions reveal to us the divine that is beyond our immediate desires; they challenge us to base our lives on a framework larger than our local anxieties.
So religious communities now need to take risks and enter the spiritual market place, going to where people are, and not lamenting that they are not in our place of worship. As we do this and head out into unfamiliar territory, we will leave ourselves open to attack from all sides. Our co-religionists may condemn us for supping with the devil and our opponents may accuse us of arrogance. Yet we have a duty to ensure that the voice of classic religion is not swamped by unworthy subs