Why You Should Be Religious, Not Spiritual

Individualism is a toxic substitute for religious tradition and discipline

(photo: Anke Sundermeier/Pixabay/CC0)

Anybody studying contemporary American religious behavior notes the rise of a cohort that defines itself as “spiritual-but-not-religious.” This phenomenon seems especially pronounced among the young.

“Spirituality” is all the rage. I’ve always been struck by bookstores (remember those?) that group “Religion—Philosophy—Spirituality” together. The first two can actually be intellectually challenging, but what’s typically found on those shelves is pap.

I’ve recently been thinking about this “spirituality” rage, and offer some reflections.

Such “spirituality” à l’americaine today seems to be fairly compatible with our national Protestant heritage. It is, in many ways, in fact surviving off its gases, even as what Richard John Neuhaus called the “Protestant Mainstream” ever further declines. Despite whatever caveats that were occasionally inserted to protest allegiance to a “church,” the truth is that for Protestants from Martin Luther onwards, the “ecclesiastical extension” has always been practically subordinate to the “personal faith” of the “individual believer” guided by his “light.” That individualistic “faith” has always been the uranium-238 of Protestantism, constantly dividing it denominationally. The “16th Baptist Church of Pottsville” generally means Jimmy Jones had a fight with 15 other Baptists and hopefully found at least one or two that might agree with him long enough to fulfill Matthew 18:20. Whether this is a “church” in the way early Christianity understood ἐκκλησία is another question.

But if these individualized sects could pass for Christian churches (which, in the light of John 10:16, is an oxymoron) and even believe they are the Christian church, then I would argue that a toxic element has been introduced into ecclesiology: the element of individualism. “Church,” by its very nature, is corporate and communal: it encompasses but also surpasses the individual. Calling a “church” an entity originated from an individual’s take on religious questions—even if he gets other adherents—is not what, theologically, Christians should understand to be the supernatural origin of the Church.

But if we admit this “individualism” principle into the genesis of churches, why not admit it into “spiritualities?” After all, if we can accept the logical inconsistency of a “church” founded by a mere human individual, then we can also countenance individualized “spiritualities.” But I would point out that “individualism” in matters religious is a corrosive cancer: its introduction generally eats away at the communal. If Henry VIII could establish his own church to meet his needs, why in the end do we need a church? If the key point is the individual “realizing” his “personal spiritual journey,” fellow travelers are optional passengers, not necessary companions on the road. Admitting this principle of “individualism” (under the guise of “personal interpretation of Scripture”) inevitably leads to withering away of the communal, the Church. We bowl alone, and we find our path to God alone. It’s not what the Bible says, but it’s so Emersonian or Thoreauvian – and, in our own way, we Americans are just as religiously nationalistic as the best English Erastian or Orthodox autocephalic.

But does such an individualized “spirituality” make sense?

The great spiritual schools—Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit—are two things. They are Tevye’s “T” word – “tradition.” And they are disciplines. Today’s individualized “spiritualities” are neither.

As Teyve puts it, “[b]ecause of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. … we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tradition is not ritual (although it can be embodied in rituals): tradition is a vision of reality that may find expression in rituals. (I note that David Brooks recently observed in the New York Times that perhaps one reason American society is so polarized is its lack of ritual. He thought we “should” repair this with new “rituals.” I find the idea inadequate, both because rituals generally require time to become rituals and because I think America’s problem lies more deeply, with the undermining of the understandings provided by tradition that get expressed in rituals).

But traditions and rituals are communal phenomena. How does an individualized “spirituality” acquire, sustain, and transmit traditions and rituals? A “ritual” that does not necessarily survive beyond its one practitioner isn’t much of a ritual.

Discipline is the other element of spirituality. A school of spirituality is one bound together by “discipline” because its adherents are “disciples.” Jesus had Twelve special ones and a lot of others. But how does one have a discipline of one?

A spiritual tradition usually has a charismatic founder and followers. The ratio of spiritual founders to followers is not 1:1. There’s been hundreds of thousands of Franciscans, but only one Francis. If Francis saw his way of life as only his “personal path,” it would have died with him in 1226. Likewise, when individual Franciscans have been “inspired” to “innovate,” their “personal paths” were communally assessed against the tradition and discipline. If compatible, they could be adopted, but if not, Brother Individual was no longer living as a Franciscan.

So what kind of “spirituality” is it where its disciple is also its founder, perennial author, innovator, sole reformer and father confessor? Some might call this a “spirituality.” I suggest other terms, from “rationalization” to “cop out” to “escapism from real spirituality.”

There are reasons why we hear so much talk about “personal paths to God,” “my own spirituality,” etc. etc., particularly among millennials “alienated” from the Church but not wanting—for whatever reason—to be brave enough to engage it. They are primarily part of our religious history. But whether they have anything in common with “spirituality” as the most ancient forms of Christianity (especially as preserved and lived in the Church) understand it, is highly dubious. In lieu of some nonjudgmental acquiescence, perhaps we need to challenge others with exactly what such “spirituality” entails and how it fits into any spirituality bigger than one’s interlocutor.


All views herein are exclusively those of the author.