Spiritual, not Religious: A Sermon

Spiritual, not Religious

Rev. Julie Emery

A sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church

May 29, 2011

Text: Acts 17:22-31, John 14: 15-21

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ 

 What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: 

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 

 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’ 

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 


Tracy had grown up a Christian.* She was raised in the church, even went to a small Christian college. She considered her faith to be a fundamental part of who she was. When she got to college she surrounded herself with Christian friends; thought a great deal about how her faith affected her everyday life. She became a leader of a small community that worshiped together, prayed together, met together as a church.

But then, just after September 11th, the local mosque her college town was vandalized. The Imam there made a general appeal to the community to stand in vigil with the Muslim community at the mosque, showing that there are those who would stand against violence and intolerance. Tracy’s Muslim roommate asked if she would join them.

Tracy went to her small Christian community on campus to gather a group to go to the vigil. Surely, she thought, they will join her in this act of love of neighbor and solidarity with the outcast. Surely, she thought, this is what Jesus would do. But when she went to ask them, not only did they not go with her, but they told her the act would put them at risk. They decided she could no longer act as a leader for the Christians at the college. If she went to the vigil, they said, she was out.

She went. Tracy stood with only five or ten others at the mosque, wondering where her Christian brothers and sisters were, wondering about the faith she thought she understood, wondering if she could still be a Christian, if they were right and she was wrong. Her act of solidarity with her Muslim friend, was a choice to leave the church, possibly for good.

I don’t know why I would choose to speak about the topic of church growth and our lack of younger generations on Memorial Day weekend – a weekend with traditionally low attendance in the church, when families are often away for vacation – except for the wonderfully provocative speaker that came to our presbytery last week.  Diana Butler Bass is a church historian that has been studying church trends in the U.S. for the last quarter century, complete with statistics and studies, and points to the simple fact that every church in America has been declining in numbers for the last fifty years.

For instance, in 1960, 90-95% of people polled in a Pew poll were certain of God’s existence.* Today, that number is 72%. But lest you think that is an optimistic number, when you look at the number in people under the age of 30, that number drops to 44%. In other words, 66% of people under the age of 30 do not believe in God – of those most have never set foot in a church building.

It is not hard to see the connections between our culture and the one that Paul found in Athens in the seventeenth chapter of Acts.  He had wandered around one of the most intellectual cities in his day, filled with philosophers and scholars. As he wanders he finds idols of all sorts of different gods – for health or security, idols for gods of war or gods for plentiful harvest.  He even finds an idol and altar for an “unknown god,” just in case there is another god out there that might be angered at being missed.

Is our world much different? According to an article in the New York Times yesterday – Oprah Winfrey has developed something that very much mimicks church and religion: her shows have been replete with stories of confession and redemption. As one author wrote, “Oprah offers spiritual alternatives to mainstream religion…presiding over something like a New Age feminist congregation.”

Along with the religion of Oprah, there are those who see yoga as the new spiritual formation or exercise gyms as the new church.* What about a beautiful sail on the water or a round of golf on a day like it was yesterday?  What about an afternoon at the mall with your daughter, or a trip to see a Broadway show? How many people do you know who have said – my church is reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal with a cup of coffee on Sunday morning?

What Paul states in the Areopagus shields his true feelings, we read earlier that he is deeply distressed by the idols he sees in and around the city of Athens. He fights with the Jews of Athens about the idols, suggesting they have betrayed their traditions and God. But then, when he speaks to the philosophers of the city, he speaks with understanding, even honor: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” Perhaps he wonders what is behind their religious idols; what is the deeper longing that drives them.

He suggests that the unknown God of their idols is the God of Israel, creator of heaven and earth: “What therefore you worship as unknown…does not live in shrines made by human hands…” “(This God) gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…so that they would search for God and perhaps grope and find him – though he is indeed not far from each on of us.” And then he quotes a Greek philosopher: “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Diana Butler Bass spent some time peeling apart a phrase we all know well – “Spiritual but not religious.”  I think I was in college when I first started hearing the phrase – although statistics show that it had come into common usage in the late 1980’s. The phrase originated out of Alcoholics Anonymous from the big book of AA.  And since the late 80’s about 25 – 30% of our population has claimed it as the best way to describe their own “life of faith.”  “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

“What does that even mean?” I remember asking college classmates who would use that phrase with me upon learning I was a Christian.  By saying they were spiritual but not religious they had dissected two things I had considered fundamentally intertwined.

For others – this new and rising word “Spiritual” was foreign and laden with other cultural baggage.  For those of older generations, the term “spiritual” is somehow connected with crystals and seances and communing with the dead. Butler-Bass, from the baby boomer generation, shared a story about asking her father about this term “Spiritual, but not Religious,” and what he thought about it.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been a Presbyterian all of my life.  I’m a religious man…and there’s nothin’ spiritual about it.”

While Paul called the Athenians religious in every way, perhaps in our culture today we might instead say that we see that people are spiritual in every way. Butler-Bass cited another survey in 2009 by Newsweek in which people were asked if they are: Spiritual Only, Spiritual AND religious, or religious only or neither.  Only 9% of the people asked said they were neither.  Only 9% more of the people asked said they were religious only.  People who were Spiritual only were 30%.  People who were both: 48%. So, 78% of the population said they were spiritual – with or without the religion to go alongside of it.

It may be helpful for us to define the differences between these two words.  In 1997 a fellow by the name of Brian Zinnbauer tried tease out within our culture what people thought they meant by the two words – and, as you might imagine, came up with definitions that by “Religious,” most meant something that had to do with an institution or organization and that was primarily external.  By “spiritual” people seemed to mean something experiential, connectional and internally derived.

Our culture seems to understand these two things as opposing forces. One can be either religious, attending church and participating in rituals, or spiritual, experiencing a connection with the divine through personal, individual reflection. But when a religious institution is thriving, Butler-Bass said, they sustain their members with both religion and spirituality; rituals mirror inner experience, people feel connected to one another and the wider world around them, external acts of service are strengthened by inner experiences of grace and faith and vice versa.

Not Spiritual, or Religious, but both.

Perhaps this is a little of what Jesus meant when he told the disciples “I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.” When he promises the Holy Spirit will come after him, he calls her an “advocate,” who will come and be with us when he is gone. Most of us think of this as a gentle spirit, the kind that comforts us when we are suffering, the Spirit that sustains us when we are troubled.  But the word “advocate” has a different meaning: one who is called to our side, to stand up for us, to speak when we are voiceless, to push and shove for us when we deserve space, to help us to be seen when we are invisible.

One who is internal, yes, the Spirit that is in us as we grope for the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  But external, too, as the spirit that troubles the waters and challenges injustice, the spirit that bubbles up in outward expressions of faith, here in our rituals, here as we pray for one another and share our lives with one another, here, as we seek to live out the internal love we have for God and that God has for us in external ways.

Like Tracy, it is not religion persay that people in younger generations are opposed to but religion that smacks of hypocrisy.  If you look outside of the church you will find a culture that is deeply seeking, groping for deeper meaning to fill them up, yearning for connection and belonging, questioning and questing.  The question that we should be asking is: do we have the depth that they are looking for?

I don’t know what happened to Tracy, exactly. I know interfaith activism became a significant part of her life. So much so that after college she began working with a small group of interfaith activists who would create the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago – an organization headed up by Eboo Patel that builds up interfaith dialogue with young people in Chicago and inspires interfaith dialogue around the world.  I don’t know if Tracy considers herself one of the Christians of her organization or one of the Atheists.  Maybe she tells people she is “spiritual, but not religious.”

I wonder what kind of church would draw someone like Tracy in? What kind of place could feel like home to her? What kind of place could heal the wounds inflicted by her prior church community?

Will she ever find a church community whose rituals do not feel hollow but whole? Will she ever find a church community whose activism and activity in the world feels connected to the life and words of the Jesus she loves and knows? Will she find a place where the quest is one of questions, doubt, participation in the world around her? Where the inner life of faith is directly tied to the outward walk of life?

Is our church a place like that?

How would she know?

Jesus describes a faith that is both spiritual and religious, not one or the other. He participates in rituals that are connected to justice and love. His welcome at table is directly connected to feeding the hungry; his reaching out in love is directly connected to healing broken people and mending broken relationships; his urging for repentance is directly connected to the suffering he sees around him in the world; and his knowledge of what amazing things are possible by the grace of God;

As we are in him and he in us – in our loving, in our living – May it be so here, as well. In the name of the one who lives in us, and we in him, Amen.

*A version of the story of “Tracy” was shared by Eboo Patel duri0ng a lecture at the Princeton Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry Forum in April 2011.

*The statistics and information in this sermon were shared by Diana Butler Bass during two lectures for Hudson River Presbytery in May 2011.

*PS – I love yoga and think it’s great. I am just using it as an example of ways that people find “church” elsewhere, and perhaps wondering how we can express more of what people find in yoga in the church…?


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