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.”