Fleming Rutledge: Why Being ‘Spiritual’ Is Never Enough

We hear a good deal today about “the triumph of the human spirit.” Books and movies about disasters are frequently marketed as triumphs of the human spirit, even though they often portray examples of human depravity. This emphasis on the human spirit first impressed itself upon me when, 32 years ago, our family was undergoing a crisis. I received a long, compassionate letter from a friend on the West Coast. Although the letter was wonderful, one line bothered me. My friend wrote, “Your spirituality will get you through this.”

When I read it, I recoiled. Whatever “spirituality” meant, I was keenly aware that I didn’t have any of it. In and of myself, I had nothing adequate for what was facing us at the time. I had only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

As Barna and other research institutions have reported, there is a fast-growing category of so-called “Nones”—those who, like my friend, identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Generally speaking, people use this self-definition to mean that they want no part of the “institutional church” but seek a connection to some sort of transcendent dimension. Many millennials define themselves in these terms, so it is important to address these conceptions with warm pastoral sensitivity as well as audacious theological imagination.

Nonetheless, I would argue that the biblical witness is neither “spiritual” nor “religious.” Both of these categories present us with serious problems concerning the proclamation and teaching of the gospel.

When I use the word religion, I am using it the way Freud used it in The Future of an Illusion. He argues that religion is the projection of human wishes and desires onto a god or gods who require ritual, worship, prayer, sacrifice, and so on. John Calvin argues the same point as Freud in a certain sense, since he famously declared that the human mind is “a perpetual factory of idols.”

I am also using religion in the sense that Karl Barth used it. He calls religion “a human work” and goes on to say that “a religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God … is unattainable by human beings.” This statement—about the incapacity of humans to come up with the story of God in Jesus Christ—is a foundational affirmation of the Bible and essential to the renewal of the church.

Spirituality, too, like religion, is essentially a human activity or trait that stands in stark contrast to faith. To put it in the simplest terms possible, spirituality is all too easily understood as human religious attainment, whereas faith itself is pure gift, without conditions, and nothing can be done from our side to increase it or improve upon it. On the contrary, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, saying, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

In Walker Percy’s novel The Second Coming, there’s a hilarious description of a wildly eclectic gathering of people, among them born-again Christians, old-line Episcopalians, a trendy minister in a jumpsuit (this is the 1980s, remember), a believer in astrology, a theosophist, and a Jehovah’s Witness. As he observes the scene, the narrator reflects,

Is this an age of belief, a great renaissance of faith after a period of crass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?

These so-called “New Age” philosophies, where “everyone believes everything,” seemed new back in the ’70s and ’80s. But they have since become integrated into the psychological makeup of our contemporary culture, so much so that we hardly notice them anymore: “Master the possibilities.” “Create your own reality.” “Live your truth.” These ideas about human self-creation are deeply religious notions. They are born out of illusion, wishful thinking, and a failure to look radical evil straight in the face. Human potential—which often takes the guise of “spirituality”—has itself become the object of worship.

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Source: Christianity Today