Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

A Fondness for Religion: Religion and/or Spirituality?

You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

For a while, I have been mulling over the words “spiritual” and “religious.” I've especially been considering the fond protectiveness I have towards the word “religious.” Earlier this week, The Revd Canon Robert Hendrickson wrote on his blog about those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” and brought up some interesting points about the value of religion. In my own reflections, I have been more focused on the discomfort with the word “religion” or “religious” I've perceived among other Christians.

The statement, “It's not a religion; it's a relationship,” is frequently said in some Christian circles. I often bristle at this. Not only does it seem to be ignoring widely-accepted definitions of what a religion is (and, I think, can come across in a way that could be damaging to interfaith conversation), but it's turning “religion” into a negative word when it doesn't have to be. Religion and relationship are not exclusive. The things that I consider “religious” help me to be in relationship with God and with the body of Christ.

Keeping in mind that Christianity is indeed a religion, not just a relationship, is a reminder that my relationship with God will often not resemble my earthly ones. Hearing from God is typically not as simple as hearing from one's best friend, roommate, or teacher. Things can be complicated when dealing with the God of the universe, who doesn't always operate or communicate in ways that are obvious to us. When we only view our faith as a relationship, times when God feels mysterious or distant may make it feel as if our faith is lost. Conceiving of our faith in terms of religion, not just relationship, shows that these relationship feelings are not the sole factor; our faith also concerns what we believe and do. Even when it feels like we are praying to air and the “relationship” aspect seems strained, or nonexistent, we can still properly call ourselves Christians.

Of course, I can understand why the word “religion” has a negative reputation. Those who use the phrase “relationship, not religion” might associate the word “religion” with rules. A legalistic Christianity is something I want to avoid—but, nonetheless, is not something I think “relationship, not religion” advocates are really better at avoiding than other Christians. I have found mainline denominations, for instance, to be places where I felt personally liberated from certain rules that other communities seemed to use to define someone's faith, despite a higher comfort in said denominations with the word “religion.” Another negative against the word “religion” is its identification with many historical atrocities committed or supported by the church (as well as negative actions that continue to this day). I believe we need to acknowledge and repent of the sins committed by the church, but I will not allow these horrors to rob me of this word “religious” or the value that it holds .

For me, the word “religious” evokes a sense of things that are ordered, providing structure to the life of faith, and things that are communal, gathering those who share the same faith . Most often, I interpret references to “spiritual” as referencing what is happening to someone on the inside. Of course, individuals—and even dictionaries—vary widely on their definitions of both terms, thus making this conversation more difficult.

While others may not abide by the definitions I choose, I do want to point out what definitions align with my understandings of these words. One of the definitions of “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a particular system of faith and worship.” (This definition is potentially lacking when considering belief systems that may not have a deity or encourage worship, such as Buddhism. In religion courses, I have heard debate over whether such traditions should be defined as religions. This is obviously a topic much bigger than the discussion at hand here.) The most simplistic definition of “religious,” as provided by the OED, is “of, relating to, or concerning religion.” The OED defines “spiritual” as “Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect. (Freq. in express or implied distinction to bodilycorporal, or temporal.)” Many definitions for the word “spiritual” reference religion, but because of how often spirituality and religion are seen as two distinct things in popular culture (refer to the “spiritual, but not religious” designation), I believe the first part of this definition is more useful. The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary provides the definition “of or relating to the inner character of a person.” Looking closely at both of these words shows me that my walk with Christ needs both religious and spiritual elements.

My own experience, meanwhile, both is and has been very religious.  It is a religious experience when I engage with a proscribed liturgy, when I pray in old words, when I profess belief through recitation of a creed—when I am connected, through these words, with a congregation, with others across the world who are saying them, and with many Christians before me.

It is a religious experience when I show up to church on a Sunday to worship God, despite what I may be feeling about God at that point in time, and despite the fact that I may not feel God's presence.

It is a religious experience when I walk forward in church to receive God in bread and wine, believing that Christ is truly present in these acts of breaking, eating, and drinking.

It is a religious experience when the words of a sermon make me think differently about Christ or my own actions.

It is a religious experience to read the words of theologians and other Christian writers, past and present, and allow them to have a role in shaping the way I think about God.

It is a religious experience when I pray with my Saint Hilda's House housemates around our dining room table before digging into a community meal or a text for discussion at one of our Friday seminars.

It was a religious experience when I attended large group sessions of a campus ministry in college, where I listened to speakers preaching the word of God, sang with my peers in worship, and formed strong friendships with those in my community.

It was a religious experience when I went to Bible studies throughout college and learned from other students' interpretations, reactions, and thoughts on Scripture

It was a religious experience to, in that same college fellowship, encircle someone and lay hands on them as we prayed for their life after college (and to receive that same prayer when I was about to graduate).

This just scratches the surface of what “religious” can offer us and has offered me. Sometimes these experiences are spiritual as well, which I feel in bright, shining moments when the presence of God, of love, which is always close, actually seems it. “Spiritual” and “religious” don't represent a binary. The spiritual and the religious are overlapping, intersecting, and intertwining. If there are boundaries, they are boundaries that will be blurred and sometimes nonexistent (at least for those who consider themselves both adjectives). However, remove the “religious” from the equation, and for me, the tapestry of faith falls apart. I consider it religious that, even when my spirit is at its most dry, I can call myself a Christian and say that I am Christ's own. As someone who often doubted her faith in her teenage years because I felt like my emotional and spiritual experiences of God were inadequate compared to others, this is of tremendous importance to me personally.Without the boon of religion, I rarely would experience the “spiritual.”

Religion gives me discipline. Religion keeps me grounded in the meaningful particulars of the narrative of Christ, our Redeemer, instead of leaving me to navigate only the abstract. Most importantly, religion helps brings me back to Jesus. As the beautiful (and relatable!) hymn “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,” says, I am “prone to wander” and “prone to leave the God I love.” I need all the help I can get and will gladly take it from “religion”!