“I don’t believe in any particular religion, I’m just a very spiritual person.”
Those who adhere to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” worldview are often peddling the notion that by being independent (by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other) they are in a deeper, more profound or enlightened relationship than anyone that is coerced via a large institution like a church or raised in a particular faith-based home.
That attitude fits with the message we are see espoused by our culture today, that “feeling” something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more “true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, logic, scientific discovery, practices, rules, and observations of any formal institution or Scripture that are handed down to us.
I’d like to offer an analogy for this type of ideology. Let’s say I’m at work finishing up my work day, my wife is at home, and let’s say I’m shutting down my computer with a picture of her fine face right there next to it. (And yes, there really is a picture of her cute self sitting next to my computer at work… a few pictures actually.) For whatever reason, I see her picture and get stirred up in my affection for her. Like all of a sudden, I’m just so aware of my love for her that I’m almost hurting. And so I finish clocking out, get in my car, I drudge through some traffic on 121, stop by a local grocery to grab some flowers and chocolates, and I hurry home.
And I walk into our home and there she is just as fine as she could be sitting on the couch. I walk up and get down on my knee in front of her, grab her hands and go, “Baby, I don’t know why, but even after all this time I love you so much. I just can’t help but love you. When I see your dark skin, your black hair, and those beautiful brown eyes of yours, something just happens to my soul.” Then I hand her a big bouquet of light blue orchids and a box of rich dark chocolate. Right now some of you who do not know my wife may be thinking that is all so sweet and wonderful, maybe not, but I’ll continue with the assumption that you might be.
Let me explain to you why that all is going to go bad for me. Despite the fact that that would be legitimate affection, let me explain why that’s going to go bad for me. My wife does not have dark skin, she has brunette hair with blonde highlights, and green eyes. Her favorite flowers are Gardenias or white and pink roses, and she doesn’t like dark chocolate, she really likes those strawberry cream-filled chocolates or those Lindt truffles. So correct affection applied wrongly is not really a win. Now some of us have affection for God or a “higher power,” but we have no idea who God is, what His attributes are, what the gospel is, who the Scriptures say He is and He isn’t, what He is and isn’t responsible for, or what He is really about.
So in the end, theology and doctrine are viewed as some sort of killjoy, some sort of love-robing, man-made contraption to your affection for God, and in the end your love is a manipulative type of love that is no real love to begin with. What people do on this side of things is they like to look at theology and the Bible as some sort of cold, dead orthodoxy. But let me tell you what they’re really doing. It’s the same as me walking up to my wife going, “It’s your dark skin, black hair, and brown eyes that stir up my affections.” To which my wife would respond, “I don’t have dark skin or black hair or brown eyes.” But then I go, “Don’t you tell me who you really are. I want you to be what I want you to be! Get contacts and dye your hair. That’s who I love.”
Now is that really love? That’s a ridiculous version of love which those on the hyper-spiritual, non-intellectual side of things try to build out as an excuse to those who would go, “Well, wait a minute. What do you do with this difficult text? How do you reconcile that with these truths?” (cf Deuteronomy 6; Luke 1:1-4; 1st Corinthians 1:10-2:16)
And so maybe you have genuine affection for God, but you don’t know anything about His attributes, you don’t know how He works. Maybe that’s where you are. Because He clearly says in the Scriptures, “Love the Lord with all your heart mind and soul, but be able to teach My attributes and know them well enough that you see Me everywhere.” Know enough about God, about how He’s disclosed Himself to us in the Scriptures that when you drive up to your house you’re aware of Him, that when you’re driving home from work you’re aware of Him, that when you walk in the front door of your home you’re aware of Him, that when you’re with your children you’re aware of Him, that when you’re laying in bed at night you’re aware of Him, when you get up in the morning you’re aware of Him, when you’re working with your hands you’re aware of Him, when you’re sitting there chatting with your spouse you’re aware of Him. (Deuteronomy 6)
If you don’t possess that kind of love, then you’re running on a juvenile version of love that suffering or difficulty will eventually snuff out. It’s the equivalent of loving your wife just because you think she’s hot. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to have a hot wife, alright. What I’m saying though is that my love for Kathryn has grown exponentially since the first time I saw her and the time we spent getting to know one another as friends. Now that’s a great type of infatuation, but love occurs when the layers start peeling back and you see both strengths and weaknesses. That’s how love grows, not just “Oh, she’s hot and she’s actually pretty smart too.” And I think a lot of us have that type of relationship with the Lord, with God, with whatever name you attribute to a “higher power.” We say we love God and we’re passionate about spiritual things, we just don’t know anything about Him. So we’re constantly saying, “Well, I don’t think God would do this… Oh, there’s no way God would really expect that… This is who God is… I feel like God would say this… it’s really the thought that counts… as long as you love and respect others, it doesn’t really matter what exactly you think about god, or the gods…” And the God of the universe is responding similar to my wife in that the response comes back, “I don’t have black hair, my eyes are not brown!” So maybe this is where some of us are.
“Being true to ourselves doesn’t make us people of integrity. Charles Manson was true to himself, and as a result, he rightly is spending the rest of his life in prison. Ultimately, being true to our Creator gives us the purest form of integrity.” – John Wooden
We need to understand and realize that our relationship with God, our spirituality, although immensely personal, was not designed to be private. The more you make your struggles and your victories private, the more you turn sanctification into a crawl and the less you’re able to know God relationally. It was not designed to be that way. You weren’t created to hide or keep your feelings, your love, your mind, to yourself. We were designed to have spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers, spiritual brothers and spiritual sisters, spiritual sons and spiritual daughters. We were designed to live in community; to have men and women above us who speak life and encouragement into us and walk with us, and men and women underneath us whom we can serve, help to guide, and mentor.
All of us can certainly understand institutional disenchantment. Institutions can be slow, plodding, dictatorial, and full of politics; they can both enable and shield wrongdoers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others.
But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why do we have universities? If words were enough to defend a country, why have a military? If self-governance is enough, let’s hurry up and get rid of Washington. The point is that if you really want to do something lasting in this world, you’ll have to set up something that will be able to sustain. We may do well to recall the wise words of the French Catholic writer, Charles Péguy, when he wrote “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” If you have a vision, you will need a blueprint.
While spirituality is an emotion. Religion and faith is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion and faith mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion and faith is dissatisfied with the world. Religions and faiths create aid organizations. The largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not “Save the Children” or “Care,” rather it is “World Vision,” a Seattle-based Christian group.
There is also great number of people who would say “I love Jesus, but just can’t stand the church. I really like Jesus, he was a good teacher and nice guy, and I’m totally cool with Him, but the church is nothing more than a dirty mess, full of judgmental, hypocritical idiots.” However, many of the same people who say those things, aren’t very familiar with what Jesus actually said or taught, and don’t know the Jesus of the Bible. In the same breath they used to say they liked Jesus, they just insulted the very bride Christ said He loves and gave His life for… My wife is certainly not perfect, she does have some faults. Those aren’t for me to discuss on this blog, but my bride is not perfect. However, even with that being the case, and I don’t know about everyone else, but even so, if you told me you liked me and then continually insulted my wife… we’re not cool at all, I might even slap you. However, I believe the majority of those comments are made as intellectual cop-outs. It is more of a weak excuse for not giving a reasonable or deeply considered response to the claims of Jesus Christ, but oddly trying to sound less offensive or politically correct to some degree.
To live life well, it requires real relationships, and authentic community. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Stepford Wives,” there were actually two of them made. It was really a brilliant plot. These men hated their wives, and one of them figured out how to build androids. You can see what I’m talking about when I say brilliance here… It’s like a five year old made it up. So anyway, what they do is kill their wives and then just get this android that would do whatever it was told to do.
Here’s the thing about robots. You can’t have a relationship with a robot; not one that’s intimate, not one that is real. I mean, you can have a relationship with one, but that just makes you kind of sad. Doesn’t it? What if Tony Stark (Iron Man) didn’t have Pepper, or Rhodes, or any other people in his life, but just talked to and hung out with his robots 24/7. We wouldn’t be laughing as much at that scenario, would we? Anyway, in order for there to be genuine, real, deep relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you and then you have to submit to it. Like there are things that I do that my wife doesn’t like. I know… I can’t believe it either. Anyhow, there have been times where she’s engaged me on those things and she was like, “Look, this is not ok, I don’t like this.”
And what makes our relationship life-giving and intimate is that I can hear that and respond. I can humbly submit, apologize, and work to better love and serve her… or more realistically I will argue and be stubborn for a little bit, before the Holy Spirit blows me up and opens my eyes to the unbelievable amount of selfishness that still resides in my heart. But in our relationship, my wife can contradict me and I can contradict her. And it’s a faulty illustration at some levels because you never get to contradict God or motivate Him to change, but do you see what happens if you make God whatever you want Him to be? You have no God at all. You have a robot or something made by your own hands, imagination, something that our own ignorant minds created that has existed for a mere fraction of a fraction in the scope of history.
To be “spiritual but not religious” confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is actually sometimes a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with every single little thing done in my own church, but I’m a member who serves there regularly. However, living in the light of community does mean living in transparency and testing yourself in the arena of others.
No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a “religious” community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no communal searching and struggle, no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic. If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. However, I doubt that goodness plays itself out in isolation. We should join in; because even though together is harder, together is better.
It’s a far less arrogant position for one to submit to the teachings of Jesus Christ, than to claim they themselves know ultimate reality. If at the center of our faith is God in the flesh praying for and dying for His enemies as they kill Him and you are saved by grace alone through faith alone, what in the world would you ever boast in? What could you boast in?! The Bible is unbelievably clear that you have nothing to boast in but the cross of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the broken body an shed blood of Jesus, not our works, not our good behavior, not our intrinsic goodness, not our arguments or obedient righteousness (which is really nothing more than a pile of crap in comparison to a Holy God… just look up Isaiah 64:6 and Philippians 3:7-11), but rather we celebrate His goodness. We celebrate the gospel of Christ Jesus.
There are all kinds of articles and polls however, that claim something like 98% of Americans believe that there is some sort of God, but at the same time, the majority of Americans believe that no single religion can know the fullness of spiritual truth, or really more truth than any other, and that those who claim they do know the fullness of spiritual truth, are arrogant and intolerant.
A common parable to prove that point is the old parable of the elephant and the blind men. The story goes something like this: A group of blind men were asked to describe an elephant. And the first one grabbed the trunk and said, “An elephant’s like a snake. Yeah, it’s just like a snake with two holes on the end. It’s really weird.” And the other one was feeling the leg going, “No, it’s nothing like a snake.” He’s feeling the leg. “What are you, blind? Does that guy not have any hands? It’s like a tree trunk. An elephant’s like a tree trunk.” And the other one on the other side’s like, “What is wrong with these people?” He’s feeling the side of the elephant. He’s going, “An elephant’s like a wall.” The last guy’s at the end; he’s just holding the tail. He’s saying, “No, it’s kind of hairy, short, and somewhat rubbery.” This is essentially the parable.
Now, here’s the point. The point of the parable is to show how each of the religions, although somewhat correct, is in the end wrong and that anyone who would steadfastly say, “An elephant is like a snake and I don’t care what anybody else says and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. It’s like a snake,” that that guy is arrogant, foolish, and causes violence against humanity. Isn’t that right? That’s absolutely right. Now surprise, I have some problems with this. I have problems on two levels, but I won’t even use the one that you think. I have problems with it first because I’m a believer in Christ. But if you’re a skeptic reading this, you don’t care. So I won’t even address that part of it here.
I also have problems with this idea because it’s intellectually inconsistent and it uses smoke and mirrors to pretend it’s more tolerant than the rest of us when in reality it’s no more tolerant. Let me explain. The only way the parable of the elephant and the blind men makes any sense is if the narrator of the story sees the whole elephant. Here’s what I’m saying. The moment you claim that ultimate reality is unknowable, no one religion or faith can be the true one, you have just claimed the knowledge that you say can’t be known. The second you say ultimate reality is unknowable and that ultimate truth is unknowable, you’ve just claimed what you say can’t be claimed.
This is intellectually inconsistent. I’m not speaking religiously, I’m not speaking merely spiritually. I’m speaking intellectually, philosophically – this whole thing has an unbelievable amount of holes. On top of that, I’ll tell you this. The belief system that no one can know God in such a way as to invalidate what someone else believes about God is in itself religious, it is in itself a religion that has its own affirmations, denials, and absolute truths. That’s what I’m saying; this thing is comical on a philosophical level. It’s just sexy and appealing, but it’s sadly, ironically humorous.
Here would be the basic affirmations: “that God is ultimately unknowable, that no one can know the full truth about God or the gods or how the universe was created/came to exist.” The only way you could possibly know that would be to know how the universe is wired and why it’s wired that way… which is the same thing they’re claiming can’t be known. Now listen to these statements. “All religions are the same. All religions are following a path to God. It doesn’t matter what you believe; it’s how you live.” Does any of that sound familiar? Now follow me here. These are religious statements. They are dogmas, they are doctrines. Those are doctrinal statements about God (and some higher power) and the universe. So they are claiming, by saying there is no knowable absolute truth and then coming back and saying, “No one can know God in His fullness. All religions lead to God. It doesn’t matter what you believe but how you live,” those are absolute, religious statements.
This relativistic objection of any religion being more valid than any other is commonly stated as: “No one religion can know the fullness of spiritual truth, therefore all religions are valid. It is arrogant to say otherwise.” However, as I’ve been attempting to explain, that objection is self-refuting. In order to know that no one religion can know the full truth (or more truth than another), you yourself would have to know the full truth to know where any particular religion falls short of knowing the full truth. You’re in no position to say a given religion is partially true and partially false unless you have access to the whole truth, which forms the basis of your comparison.
So here’s the irony of ironies. (And by the way, I really don’t like or enjoy throwing this all out on Facebook, or on a blog, or in an email, or some article that might be read as impersonal ramblings, like this very well may be taken, and think I’m just some egotistical jerk that just likes to scribble… I would much rather chat in person with someone about these important things, I really like talking about this kind of stuff over a meal and a good beverage. Because I think it works better relationally than in this setting. However, I wrote this out and decided to post it…) So, to continue on with this, the irony is: A philosophical relativist and me, we’re claiming the same thing at different points of emphasis.
Here is what’s happening in this instance… I, being what some would consider more “fundamental” in doctrine, “orthodox” in doctrine, “conservative” in theology, and then a “philosophical relativist” (or hyper-spiritual person who despises doctrine), we’re claiming the same thing: an understanding of ultimate reality. Only more often than not the philosophical relativist is calling me arrogant and themself enlightened. If it is arrogant for someone to claim to know something is true, how can it be humble to claim that nobody can actually know truth, but that rather truth is relative, and I’m wrong? But that’s what’s happening. I’m arrogant and I’m intolerant because I say I know ultimate reality. And because I don’t really know ultimate reality, he knows ultimate reality, I’m arrogant for claiming I know ultimate reality because he really knows ultimate reality. That’s what’s happening. In the end, relativism just zealously fights to make sure no one believes in any absolutes while using its own absolutes to establish this idea. (cf Deuteronomy 6; Ezekiel 11-14; Jonah 2:8; Isaiah 2:8; Jeremiah 10:8; Habakkuk 2:18-20; Luke 1:1-4; 1st Corinthians 1:10-2:16; 1st John 1:1-10)
“Spiritual pride is the illusion that we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth, and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God.” – Tim Keller
We all need to realize and admit there are layers of emotion, motivation, and rationality that everyone has built on top of their first principles for their particular worldview. In one sense, this puts us all on a level playing field: there is no neutrality, as everyone has a worldview. In another sense, not all worldviews are created equal, and each one obviously has different consequences.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not less than an understanding of biblical truths and principles, or simply the correct set of beliefs, but rather it is infinitely more. The truest spirituality, the most humble worldview framework, the real essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and maturation and work and weeping and rejoicing and celebrating and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and it calls that the “core of true salvation and freedom” and the greatest reality.