Something that is heard frequently today is, "I am spiritual but not religious." When I hear that what immediately pops into my mind is what does the person mean by those words, "spiritual," and "religious?"
By spiritual or spirituality do we simply mean some kind of warm fuzzy feeling, a sense of the paranormal and spirits, or maybe a sense of awe when we look around at the mystery of life and the universe. What, exactly, is it to be "spiritual?"
Secondly. what does one mean to say that one is not "religious?" Does it mean you just are spirit and that there are no consequences in your life of being "spiritual?" Or does it mean simply that you are not part of a community of faith or a church or a given denomination?
What is the real purpose or value in being "spiritual" if it does not inform and give shape to how you live. In fact, is that even possible. Even if by spiritual one means that you practice a pattern of meditation isn't meditation a religious practice. Therefore practicing any form of expression flowing from one's sense of spirituality is specifically to be religious. If one's reflection in meditation leads one to an awareness of the unity of creation and a broad respect for life, including mosquitoes, ticks, and spiders and you therefore attempt to shape your behaviors so as not to kill any living thing is not that religious practice. Is not reading Matthew 25 and seeking to care for the hungry, the naked, the sojourner, the imprisoned and the ill religious practice even if you do not attend a church or belong to a denomination or one of the major world religions. In other words to be spiritual has consequences and those are expressed in action, religious action.
The book of James notes that faith (spirituality) without works is dead. The evidence of spirituality is naturally manifested in some form of incarnate, in the flesh, expression. A friend noted to me today that 12 step programs emphasize that without practice and ACTION, there is no real spirituality. That sounds about right to me.
Religion is simply the expression of your spirit or what you believe, for better or worse. A bad spirituality leads to bad expressions and dark actions. A grace filled spirituality leads to acts of love and grace.
What I believe that many people mean by not being religious is, however, something different, something that needs to be expressed more clearly. What I believe people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious is that they do not participate in the institutional practice of a specific faith. They mean they are not a part of a particular congregation, denomination, or any other communal expression of a spirituality. This I can understand because sometimes these communities, these groups of believers in a particular confession often demand authority over how the spiritual journey is expressed and how its orthodoxy is maintained protecting its purity and stifling the individual's path of self-discovery, healing, and expression. Sometimes communal bodies have dark spirits bound up in dominance and control.
So, yes, if you are spiritual you are religious and if you are religious is an expression of your spirituality and spiritual health. Sometimes that spirituality is dark, troubled and burdened and it leads to horrific expressions but a healthy spirit leads to incredible acts of kindness and grace. To paraphrase Forest Gump, "the spirit is as the spirit does." Not every spirituality should be institutionalized. We have seen that again and again. Consider the Spanish Iquisition, the Crusades, and the community of Jim Jones. There are days when I don't want to be part of the institutional church, too, but my spirituality and religious practice are inseparable.