Religious, Not Spiritual

Feb. 12 column. Mark Shea's response to that much-talked-about video.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Recently, there was a curious kerfuffle on the Internet when somebody released a “new” video announcing that he loves Jesus but hates “religion.” It is a sentiment older than my great-grandfather’s beard, and yet it was received as a sudden and brilliant meteor of insight blazing across the skies of American religious consciousness and dazzling a moribund Christianity to whom such a thought had never ever been proposed before.

Permit me a few words as a convert to the Catholic tradition from precisely this “I’m spiritual, not religious” flavor of Christian sectarianism. Having been raised nothing, but having imbibed this white-whiskered and hoary rejection of “religion” as a thing stiff, fossilized and hobbled under the weight of doctrines, dogmas, cold Christs and tangled Trinities, I encountered a species of nondenominational evangelicalism for whom such “spirituality” was second nature. I was taught to dispense with all things “religious.” So: no baptism (except for “baptism in the Spirit”). No Eucharist (“True communion is when the spirit of Christ in me communes with the Spirit of Christ in you”). No bishops or priests (just a pastor whose every opinion carried the weight of papal dogma because it was Spirit-led and Spirit-inspired). No liturgy (except that each service was — with absolute regularity — three fast “praise and worship” songs, three medium songs, three slow songs, a time of prayer and praise and speaking in tongues, followed by an hour-long sermon riffing on a favorite Bible passage, followed by prayer for people who wanted prayer, as well as some prophesying. Then we broke for our only sacrament: coffee and donuts).

Because we opposed “religion” and only wanted the spiritual (read: “disembodied”) Jesus, we tended to speak of the whole side of life that involved physical things, symbols, rituals, sacraments, and even physical bodies of human beings as though they either didn’t matter or were positive hindrances to the truly spiritual life. The Resurrection occurred, we admitted, but only for the sake of helping us know that Jesus was, in fact, alive. When he returned to heaven (I was taught), he shed his physical body because “he didn’t need it anymore.” Accordingly, the only Second Coming there would ever be had already happened — at Pentecost — when Jesus returned in the form of the Holy Spirit. Our goal in life as Christians, therefore, was to “die and get out of the way so that God could replace your humanity with his Spirit.”

The problem with all this is that it is, not to put too fine a point on it, inhuman, destructive and unlivable. It does violence to what the real Jesus came to say. For the real Jesus did not despise human nature, but instead assumed a human nature himself. He came not to cancel us, but glorify us. As a Jew, he himself daily participated in the rituals and prayers of Israel. He knew the Psalms like the back of his hand, and his mind was marinated in the Scriptures and liturgies of Judaism. His Sermon on the Mount commends to us the religious duties of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. He habitually communicates via reference to the Old Testament. He worships at the Temple and considers it so important that he identifies his own body with it (John 2:19). He commands the rituals of baptism and Communion.

He realizes that the problem is distortion of religion. And the worst distortion of religion anybody can commit, according to Jesus, is to keep it spiritual and disembodied and not make it flesh and blood. That’s because Jesus requires of us not “no religion,” but a religion in which the Word becomes flesh.

Mark Shea blogs at