Brian McLaren, in his new book Naked Spirituality, raises this intriguing question: Why do so many people say “I’m not religious but I am spiritual . . .” And what do they mean when they say this to us or to others?
McLaren reasons that he began as a religious young man but he was plunged into spirituality one night under the stars where he countered the living God in an experience that he describes with great care and caution. He then says a lot of folks he meets feel a real tension between religion and spirituality. I have discovered the same thing in my conversations and experiences with people. Brian says he follows this comment with a question and I’ve done the same. “I’m curious. What do you mean by ‘spiritual’?”
Brian says that four answers come up again and again. As I read these I ticked off each one and said, “That is precisely what I’ve also discovered.”
First, people say “I’m spiritual” with reference to secular science, politics and other areas of thought that do not have answers that satisfy their inner longings. They believe life must have a sacred dimension that can’t be reduced to formulas, rules and numbers. They have deep hungers and desires that cannot be fed by facts. (He adds more about what he calls the quasi-religious “invisible market.” I’ve asked Brian to elaborate on this kind of terminology and remain convinced he is reacting to a stereotype of the market that I believe fosters the expression of human freedom. When I once asked him what kind of economic system would be most likely to life the truly poor out of poverty in Africa his answer, in effect, was some version of the free market. My own guess is that Brian has not studied market theory or seen the importance of freedom in the same way that I have.)
Second, people who answer in this way mean that organized religion doesn’t have all the answers either. They are convinced that religious institutions are too complicit in many of the world’s problems and this leads religious adherents to often miss the point. I agree with this reason completely.
Third, the word “spiritual” signals for people an inner sensitivity to aliveness, meaning and sacredness in the universe. They cannot assign God, heaven, meaning, values, souls, worship and the afterlife to the sacred while things like human bodies, animals, plants, the earth and daily life are secular. People want to wed body and spirit, creation and spiritual life, eternity and now. McLaren right notes that the correct word for what people want is communion, not union. Union focuses on the fusion of the two and the separation and division of the other. But the two remain two, but in love are intimately joined in communion. This is clearly a Christian way to express this reality people long for spiritually.
Fourth, spiritual people seek practical ways to nourish that sense of integration and communion spoken of in number three. Spiritual people have, or wish they had, a set of moves, practices, rhythms, habits or practices that allowed them to live with a greater sensitivity to sacred aliveness.
The truth is, McLaren right notes, these four characteristics are at the very heart of all true religion, especially the Christian religion. He notes that different denominations and families have differing ways of describing and relating how to know God and relate to him but they all seek for the same goal. This bonding and uniting again with God and his created world is deeply Christian spirituality, not some bizarre mysticism from somewhere else. McLaren demonstrates this very plainly and helpfully.
All of this search for spirituality is summed up in love. When we love we know God and others in the way he desires us to know them.