I was saddened to open up the USA Weekend section of my local paper on Easter weekend and see the cover story: “How spiritual are you? You may be closer to God than you realize.”

The article cited the increasing number of Americans identifying as spiritual but not religious, then continued on to quote three religious leaders (Barbara Brown Taylor- episcopal, Father James Martin- catholic, and Rabbi Jamie Korngold) on ways to find fulfillment in the everyday experience of the world around us.

While the leaders themselves weren’t necessarily heretical per se in their interviews, the tone of the article made it clear where the author stood on the issue.

And if that wasn’t clear, the aside near the end that “Some Christians, however, say this sensory spiritual life can only carry you so far” seemed intended to roll a new stone in front of the tomb of “religion” as anything more than some people’s means to spiritual experience.

The issue here is unfortunately not unique, particularly in the politically correct to a fault Pacific Northwest; the timing and the central billing in a widely distributed media was what really caught my attention. The common thing has been to claim yourself as “spiritual but not religious.” The Barna Group’s recent book UnChristian documents this well in their survey research throughout the last 10 years.

The real problem is that neither of the two states being compared is the core issue. Religion really refers to the organization of (the) church(es) and all that relates to those institutions that collectively claim to be the caretakers of this thing called faith or spirituality. Late modern Americans rebel against religion because it smacks of outdated and archaic institutions that are no longer in touch with the needs of today’s people.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is very attractive to many people because you can express it how you like, it doesn’t need to be justified or quantified, as long as it brings you closer to fulfillment or self-realization. It also requires no objective truth judgments. As it goes, it seems only to be that nasty religion that ties spirituality down and gets in the way of our true fulfilment.

Faith, on the other hand, while it needs both religion and spirituality to sustain it, is a very different idea from either. First and foremost, faith is not primarily our human domain or action, but rather that of God. Jesus’ faithfulness to his (i.e. God’s) purposes is a primary theme in Luke’s writings. Kittel calls this the “divine dei” and writes about it:

As used by Luke, the term expresses the necessity of the eschatological event. It is well adapted to do this, since the event is known only by revelation and sets us before the inconceivable ineluctability of a historical act that is grounded in God’s will. Faith in God’s eternal if mysterious plan formulates it. The necessity derives from the very nature of the God who has committed himself to this plan…
As the divine deí shapes Christ’s history, it also controls God’s work in us, e.g., in the new birth of Jn. 3:7, the need to call on Christ’s name in Acts 4:12, the necessity of faith in Christ to salvation in Acts 16:30–31 (cf. Heb. 11:6).”*

My Utmost for His Highest puts aside the “spiritual” argument in terms of faith well and succinctly:  “God became incarnate for the purpose of putting away sin; not for the purpose of Self-realization” (April 6). If we let the question be cast as spiritual vs. religious, there is no reason for people to become Christian.  They can find fulfillment in their spirituality (even Paul acknowledges in Romans that non-Christians can have the law of God written on their hearts) but without any of the ugly trappings and bad raps of organized religion.

Incarnational Christianity, Good Friday Christianity, Easter Christianity… all center around the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ and the faithful response of his people. They provide a grounding in truth outside of the individualistic existential experience of meaning.  This gives us not only a sense of shared and objective reality, but the endurance to run the race with perseverance (Heb. 12) when neither self-fulfillment or religious habits can stack up to the obstacles of daily life.

So go forth strengthened not only in gratitude or determination, or even helpful ritual or meaningful spiritual connections; go forth in faithfulness built on the divine necessity that God has conquered every enemy to save and lead his people and calls us to share the message of the cross and the grave in truth and in love.

*Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 141.