by Chris Schutte
It’s quite common to hear friends, neighbors, and co-workers (though not so much my co-workers) describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What does one mean by that? Generally, one means that there is, indeed, more to life than the physical world, and that there is some kind of transcendent meaning to be found. For a “spiritual but not religious” person, however, that “more” and that “meaning” are not the exclusive domain of traditional religious communities. In fact, being “religious,” in “spiritual but not religious,” is often seen as a liability in seeking transcendent meaning, inasmuch as “religion” means keeping a proscribed, and, in many cases, seemingly arbitrary, set of rules, fixating on who is “in” and who is “out” based on those rules.
Interestingly, many people who identify as spiritual but not religious are deeply attracted to Jesus. On the surface, this may seem counterintuitive, as Jesus is intimately associated with the largest “religion” in the world – Christianity. However, as one reads through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, it becomes clear that Jesus had little patience with “religion” per se, reserving his harshest critiques for those religious leaders who, in his words, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). In this, Jesus is squarely in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Micah, Amos, and Isaiah, who spoke against Israel’s rulers – both kings and priests – in the eighth century BC when they had moved away from God’s intention for them to be blessing to the nations (cf. Genesis 12:3).
The difference, however, between Jesus and the Old Testament prophets is that, rather than simply announcing the coming of God’s judgment on human sin – sin deeply embedded in the religious life of the people – Jesus took the consequences of that sin, the very judgment of God, on himself, thus opening the way of freedom to all under judgment, meaning each one of us. In other words, Jesus came to set us free from the burdens, and the pitfalls, of religion as commonly understood.
However, Jesus also came to help us to be “spiritual,” although in a very specific way. When Paul speaks to the Corinthians about a “spiritual person” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:15), he means someone who has been filled with the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. To Paul, when one is filled with the Holy Spirit, he or she inevitably begins to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul describes as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). My guess is that among our friends and neighbors who identify as spiritual but not religious, a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit, a life that looks like Jesus, would be deeply compelling. The question is just how to offer this kind of spiritual life in a way that it might be received.
One of the most urgent missional challenges we face today is distinguishing between an authentic Christian life – rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit – from the traps of “religion,” which are predictably judgment, self-righteousness, and control. This requires paying serious attention to the failures of ancient Israel and the prophetic critiques of their leaders, meditating on the words and actions of Jesus, especially his rebuke of the religious authorities, and, finally, an unapologetic embrace of the Holy Spirit, who makes us “spiritual” people capable of living lives marked by the Spirit’s fruit. I hope and pray that we at Christ Church might become a community marked first and foremost by Jesus and his Spirit, sharing the fruit of that Spirit with a world longing for its beauty.
Father Chris Schutte is the pastor of Christ Church Anglican in Phoenix and a friend of A2J