Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
March 11th, 2010

Spiritual but not religious — Not so fast!

Making the case for moving beyond your own personal God



No place for humility

More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.

Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.

By the same token, religious institutions need themselves to be called to account. And here the prophets among us, who are able to see the failures, weaknesses and plain old sinfulness of institutional religion, play a critical role. Like individuals who are never challenged, religious communities can often get things tragically wrong, convinced that they are doing “God’s will.” (Think of the Salem witch trials, among other examples.) They might even encourage us to become complacent in our judgments. Unreflective religion can sometimes incite people to make even worse mistakes than they would on their own. Thus, those prophetic voices calling their communities to continual self-critique are always difficult for the institution to hear, but nonetheless necessary.

It’s a healthy tension: the wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals can moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth. As with many aspects of the spiritual life, you need to find balance in the tension.

Religion provides us with something else we need: stories of other believers, who help us understand God better than we could on our own.

To connect and correct

Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.

Isaac Hecker was a 19th-century convert to Catholicism who became a priest and founded the American religious order known as the Paulists. [FYI, the Paulists created and continue to sponsor Busted Halo. –ed] He summed it up best. Religion, said Hecker, helps you to “connect and correct.” You are invited into a community to connect with one another and with a tradition. At the same time, you are corrected when you need to be. And you may be called to correct your own community — though a special kind of discernment and humility is required in those cases.

Religion can lead people to do terrible things. At its best, though, religion modifies our natural tendency to believe that we have all the answers. So despite what many detractors say, and despite the arrogance that sometimes infects religious groups, religion at its best introduces humility into your life.

Religion also reflects the social dimension of human nature. Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.

Experiencing God also comes through personal interactions within the community. Sure, God communicates through private, intimate moments — as in prayer or reading of sacred texts — but sometimes God enters into relationships with us through others in a faith community. Finding God often happens in the midst of a community — with a “we” as often as an “I.” For many people this is a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Or more broadly, religion.

Transcending your individual understanding of God

Finally, religion means that your understanding of God and the spiritual life can more easily transcend your individual understanding and imagination. Do you imagine God as a stern judge? That’s fine — if it helps you draw closer to God or to become a more moral person. But a religious tradition can enrich your spiritual life in ways that you might not be able to discover by yourself.

Here’s an example: One of my favorite images of God is the “God of Surprises,” which I first encountered in the novitiate. My own idea of God at the time was limited to God the Far Away, so it was liberating to hear about a God who surprises, who waits for us with wonderful things. It’s a playful, even fun, image of God. But I would have never come up with it on my own.

It came to me from my spiritual director in the Jesuit novitiate, who had read it in a book of that same title by an English Jesuit named Gerard W. Hughes, who borrowed it from an essay by the German Jesuit Karl Rahner.


That image was amplified when I read the conclusion of one of the great modern spiritual novels, Mariette in Ecstasy. Ron Hansen, an award-winning writer who is also an ordained Catholic deacon, penned the story of the religious experiences of a young nun in the early 1900s, loosely based on the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite. At the end of the story, Mariette, who has left the monastery many years before, writes to her former novice mistress, and assures her that God still communicates with her.

We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.

My image of the God who surprises and the God who waits for surprises came from three Jesuit priests and the religious imagination of a Catholic writer and deacon. In other words, that idea was given to me by religion.

Overall, being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other. Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.

That’s what I’m warning against.

The Rev. James Martin SJ, a Catholic priest, is culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. This essay is excerpted from his book — published this week — “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

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The Author : James Martin, SJ
James Martin SJ is the culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything but is perhaps best known as "chaplain" to The Colbert Report due to his frequent appearances on the show.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • WooWoo

    But I do not need to attend church once a week to have a personal relationship with Christ, God, the Archangels, and my personal team of guides and angels. Too much hypocrisy within organized religion. Our Earth’s histories demonstrate this (war, hatred, intolerance, etc. – all stem from extreme religious beliefs). I BELIEVE in God, our Creator, but there is more to our purpose than belonging to a “congregation” or what “church” leads us to believe.

    Do everything for the good of all. Meditation IS prayer.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    JLK, I heartily endorse your comments. Human beings do not have the understanding and ability of how to create a universe. How, then, could any rational person claim in good conscience that any religion has all the answers?
    Certainly there are non-religious people who do claim to have special knowledge. But you have only to look to religious people to find a great meny more of them.

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” — Steven Weinberg

    • Fernando Garcia

      On the contrary, religion has evil people do good things.

      • JuliePurple

        Fernando, the two points are not mutually exclusive.

      • Fernando Garcia

        Nope, they’re not. But the second part of my sentence stands, and not everyone sees that.

  • Barbara Bray

    Thank you, Fr. Martin, Pete and Steve for their exchanges — keep searching..I have six spiritual children who do not believe in organized religion. I’ve asked them if they believe in unorganized religion — no answer. I love them all dearly and when they or someone they know gets in serious trouble, they ask me to pray for them, to which I will do but ask them to add their prayers. Seems this spirituality is a form of control — we cannot control when and how we are born, nor can we control when we die — we can only try to control what happens in between. I applaud those who question, but keep an open mind — this is the only way we can learn what God and religion is about. Keep up a healthy dialogue. Fr. — will see you at the Congress in a week.

  • Michelle

    Love the article, Martin, thanks

  • JLK

    Interesting article, although you may be making assumptions.  There are numerous reasons people deviate from organized religion.  Some feel betrayed by religion, some just don’t feel like they “fit”.   Some people don’t know what to believe & don’t want to pretend.  Some people have tried to feel the connection for years & just never did.  To assume that these same individuals become focused only on the self is unfair.  I am spiritual, I question my behavior, my words, my thoughts.  I am very charitable to food banks, animal rights & human rights because those are areas in life which resonate most with my heart.  I don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand to my friends & neighbors, even at my own inconvenience.  I believe, there is a spiritual place but the definitions organized religion have given do not make sense to me.  Every living thing on this planet is both male & female, yet I’m supposed to believe the Creator is exclusively male?  I have read numerous books from different religious disciplines to understand them all more & to seek the similarities because I feel the similarities draw us to the closest truth of what the Divine really is.  And, if the medical field is unable to define the human body in a single book, how can we define the Creator that way?  Does this sound lazy, indifferent or uncaring to you?  We are given an inquiring mind, but religion seems to want to limit how we inquire.  I think it’s beautiful that you are able to connect spiritually through your religion.  But, “thou shalt not judge”…just because an individual doesn’t seek spirituality through organized religion, doesn’t mean they are lazy, self-absorbed or don’t care.  Maybe that individual is more vested in their soul-purpose than individuals who blindly attend church one day a week.  We are all individuals, we are all unique & one size does not always fit all.

  • William Grogan

    I’m not a church goer but also not an atheist. I’m perplexed at the author implying that non church goers who may think of themselves as spiritual are atheists. Not that there is anything wrong with atheism, mind you. I’m sure many non believers live far more ethical lives than many church goers. If one is serious about living an upstanding, compassionate and moral life, I feel religious dogma is just not needed. In some instances it even gets in the way. One writer here mentioned catholic bishops threatening to ostracize or excommunicate catholic politicians who believe in choice for women. Or how about the midwestern bishop who excommunicated a catholic nun for her decision in allowing an abortion within a catholic hospital to save the mother’s life. These are, I believe, decisions born from compassion to fellow human beings, even when there are sorrowful consequences. In either case, where was the compassion from church hierarchy toward those whom they felt so violated church doctrine? I’m sure that decision by the nun was heart wrenching. Yet she made it based on the premise of better to save a life rather than watch as two people die. I don’t know. I grapple with faith and religion almost daily but for now am content with talking with my God in my own way and trying to live an authentic, moral life. That does not make me a non believer.

  • Pekka

    Dear Martin.

    Surely if religion or church would been essential to your spirituality Jesus would have left such an organisation here on earth in the first place. Instead these organizations with built in hierarchies and rules where developed later.

    In my mind worst part of religion is not that you try to convince me about what God wants. But the same time you try to give the same rules to God.

    You state that religion is even necessary and doesn’t damage your spiritual self. But if you yourself grow above dogma. Then how can you continue teach it to others?

    This is the part of organized religion i don’t understand and i can only come up with negative reasons like power, money…

    Please help me to see otherwise.



  • pete

    Thanx Mike I love your last sentence.I found this to be true of many priests I had as friends. God Bless Pete

  • Mike Hayes

    Great comments! I would also add that we all end up in some kind of informal religion simply by saying that we are spiritual. In other words we develop our own systems of belief. This is even true for the formally religious who tend towards certain principles over others within their own tradition.

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