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Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP
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Ann Naffziger, M.A., M.Div.
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Our readers asked:

How can I be spiritual without following organized religion?

Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:

spiritiualWOorgRelgionLet’s start with what “spirituality” essentially is. Spirituality is a growing intimacy with God experienced through the people, events, places, and things in each day’s living. And how will that happen? Through what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell. We are embodied spirits, and the doorways to our hearts and minds are our senses.

In other words, spirituality is not abstract and ethereal or airy-fairey. It’s grounded and rooted in the concrete realities of life and expressed through ritual acts. We need ritual. It’s the way we express the inexpressible. And who are the experts in ritual actions that express that for which we have no words? The religions of the world! They have developed ritual actions over the centuries that have helped people find meaning in mystery, that have given people a way to communicate with the Divine. And, not surprisingly, these ritual actions involve things like words (say, of forgiveness) to hear, bread you can taste, water you can feel being poured on your head or oil rubbed on your skin. Sound familiar? The sacraments in the Catholic Church are the ritual actions by which we communicate with God.

Neither is spirituality a solitary journey. Why? Because we are social beings. We need one another. We find our happiness and fulfillment in personal relationships. That’s why, for example, people are called to come together every Sunday: to strengthen each other in their faith in God. To offer one another assurance that “you’re not alone on this journey.” Trying to live the Gospel is hard. One can become easily discouraged and throw in the towel. But the good news is that we don’t have to try to do it alone. There’s a whole community of people coming together each week to offer each other both challenge to keep going when you want to give up and comfort when you’re feeling hurt or lonely.

I know there are a lot of people out there who like to say “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” My response to that is this: If your spirituality is healthy, it will be anchored in and nurtured by an organized religion with a long track record of ritual actions in community whereby seekers of God support each other in deepening their intimacy with God experienced through the people, events, places, and things in each day’s living.

The Author : Thomas Ryan, CSP
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.
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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.
  • James

    I consider myself religious, but not spiritual. I understand the importance of community and accept the value of ritual, but have absolutely no use for the airy-fairy stuff.

  • John Haggerty

    Irenaeus, at first presbyter and later bishop of Lyons, refuted Gnosticism in his work ‘Against Heresies’. Written between 181 -189. His early life in Asia Minor, and his contact there with Polycarp and the elders of Asia, prove he was not a spokesman merely for an isolated and remote part of the church. This great churchman was better informed as regards the earliest Christian tradition than any of his contemporaries. As John Henry Newman said, if you go back far enough in history, you are a Catholic. (This gives an Evangelical like me some problems. Who would want to debate with a giant like Newman?)

  • John Haggerty

    Gnosticism raises its head again in YouTube’s ‘The Abundant Life – John Salza on Freemasonry’. Mr Salza is a devout Roman Catholic. He points out how Freemasonry is a parallel religion. It has its own counterfeit resurrection rites which are anti-Christ. It opposes, in the most blasphemous way, the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning death on Calvary and His resurrection. Gnosticism is indeed the New Age. So many young people today say ‘All religions are saying the same thing.’ Combatting this grave error must be our primary aim in our Christian missionary endeavour. As Hilaire Belloc said: ‘Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe.’

    • Terrence Brann

      The problem is that shedding blood to atone for sins simply makes no sense.

  • John Haggerty

    Sorry, I meant to write Julie Hagan Bloch. My apologies, Julie.

  • John Haggerty

    I would be delighted if Julie Hagan Boch and others on this site could watch a talk on YouTube. ‘Dr Peter Jones: The Gnostic Gospels’. Dr Jones is one of my favourite writers. His most famous book is ‘Spirit Wars’. He is very Reformed in his theology but has been studying the drift in American and European societies towards a gnostic religious outlook. He understands the attraction of gnostsicism, and he offers a fair critique from an orthodox Biblical viewpoint. The widespread gnostic outlook is not neutral, though it likes to think of itself as tolerant. In ‘Spirit Wars’ he made a trenchant observation on how the New Left of the 1960s and 70s eventually became religious in its cultural development. Not Christian in any sense, but religious in its general discourse. This is the so-called New Age. It is a rainbow coalition of many strands of thought, from the occult to Eastern mysticism and goddess worship. The notion of ‘gay marriage’, for instance, could not have come about without this drift towards a gnostic religiosity and indeed a gnostic theory of sexuality. This is a crucial change in Western consciousness, Dr Jones argues. He himself holds to the model of understanding that came in with the Reformation. Incidentally, Dr Jones was in the same class at school as John Lennon, of Beatles fame. Dr Jones is a first-rate systematic theologian, and a very nice man.

  • John Haggerty

    Correction. Arthur Walkington Pink, born in Nottingham, England, in 1886, died in Stornoway, on the island of Lewis, in 1952 and not 1951 as I stated earlier. Lewis lies in the remote Outer Hebrides, an archipelago of Scotland. In his youth Pink made a name for himself in the Theosophy movement. His parents, who were committed Christians, prayed that he would see the error of his ways. His conversion was sudden and intense. He broke free forever from Theosophy and its occult gnostic roots. Pink’s sermon ‘The Nature of Apostasy’ is in five parts, and not four as I stated earlier. You may also want to hear ‘The Way of Salvation’, ‘The Doctrine of Election’, ‘What is Most Needed Today’, ‘Satan and his gospel’ and ‘It is Finished’. At the end of his life Arthur Pink believed Christianity was in ruins. The return of Reformed theology has changed the religious landscape of the USA. John MacArthur describes it as the most significant event of his lifetime.

  • John Haggerty

    Please watch ‘What Role Should the Bible Have in Society?’ (YouTube). A really helpful discussion between theologians Tim Keller, Alister McGrath, Brian McLaren and the Biblical scholar Dempsey Rosales-Acosta. Thanks.

  • John Haggerty

    Scripture is the only God-breathed revelation we possess.’ Dr James White in a YouTube discussion entitled ‘The Roman Catholic Church and the Gospel’.

  • John Haggerty

    If you want to challenge the assumption that ‘divinity is ubiquitous’, listen to the preaching of Arthur W Pink on YouTube. British-born Pink (1886–1951) died in obscurity. Only a couple of thousand readers worldwide subscribed to his monthly magazine, Studies in the Scriptures. He pastored churches in the USA and Australia. His life was a struggle to say the least. His theology was very Reformed and Evangelical. He died in obscurity. Now thanks to the Banner of Truth publishing company Pink has been rediscovered. American voices can be heard on YouTube reading from his best writings. Begin with ‘God’s Sovereign Election’. Don’t miss ‘The Nature of Apostasy’ (in four parts). He can be solemn and rather frightening at times. But he provides iron rations for the soul, as someone said. (Also, read Peter Jones’s book, ‘Spirit Wars’ : the seduction of Christianity by New Age ideas.) Iain H Murray has written a remarkable biography of the somewhat enigmatic Arthur Pink (Banner of Truth 2004). In the last days of his life Pink told his wife: ‘I am heartily sorry for the young men of today who are just starting out. It will be terribly dark for those who are conscientious. The times are so dark and will get much darker for them, but the Lord will keep his own.’

  • John Haggerty

    ‘Divinity is ubiquitous,’ Julie writes. ‘Spirituality is religion with its masks off.’ This is New Age thinking, Julie. Its appeal is widespread. Joseph Campbell, an exponent of New Age thought, got many people talking about ‘the masks of god’. Campbell (a lapsed Catholic) was Jungian in much of his thinking. Jung, remember, said the Blessed Trinity should be extended to include Satan, described by Jung as a ‘spirit brother of Jesus’. What is that but black magic? I always mention this to naïve Christians who are given to quoting Jung. (Some of them are Catholic priests with a poor understanding of Biblical doctrine.) New Age is occult. It is rooted in Gnosticism, hidden knowledge, magic. Nowhere in the Bible do we read about the masks of God. It is Satan who wears masks. Thousands of them. Indeed he is the master of disguise. He has no interest in other religions except Christianity. His huge project is to prevent souls from coming to Jesus Christ. To attack individual Christians and the Christian church. To sow seeds of heresy and division within the church. And to create his own counterfeit Gospel. His counterfeits are his masterpieces. They go down well in the media. They go down well in the street. They go down well in much contemporary Catholic thinking and in the liberal Protestant churches. Father Ryan, with all due respect, is falling into a New Age pattern of thought. It would be best to drop the term ‘spirituality’ altogether. It is a portmanteau word. It carries with it a lot of useless baggage. When we read God’s word (it is only to be found in God’s Bible) and when we come to church, our sole aim is to be taught sound doctrine. Doctrine which advances our salvation. So that we may grow in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. In New Age thinking the human person is said to be divine. Christianity never flatters us in this way. We are told that we are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, that ‘we go astray from the womb’. Born with hearts described by God as ‘desperately wicked’. Listen to the words of Jesus. ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies’ (Matt. 15: 19) If you want to put your New Age ideas to the test, go to the Puritans. John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, John Owen, George Whitfield, Richard Baxter. The Calvinist Methodist fathers of the 18th century always taught the doctrine of original sin. Likewise go online and listen to the preaching of the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (described by theologian Emile Brunner as the best preacher he’d ever heard), John MacArthur, John Piper, John White and Voddie Baucham. The church’s tragedy today is its failure to think Biblically.

    • Julie Hagan Bloch

      John Haggerty, you seem like a very nice man and I wish you well. However, you are making some assumptions that are incorrect. For instance, when I wrote that “spirituality is religion with its mask off”, it was simply a metaphor intended to indicate that a religion, any religion, is simply molding pure spirituality into a limited style of expression. The use of the word “mask” was only to make the point more concise, so whether or not the word is used in the bible is irrelevant.
      Likewise, “New Age” references are also irrelevant, as are references to Gnosticism. Seeing beyond the limitations of religion is not new.
      Dropping the word “spirituality” serves no one. I invite you to explore the dictionary definitions of “religion” and “spirituality”.
      And finally (because your posts are rather extensive, I won’t go into every little detail unless you make an issue of some particular one), if you do not think that divinity is ubiquitous, then I must say, please tell me a place where god is not.

      • John Haggerty

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, Julie. ‘Spirituality’ has become a promiscuous word. A lifestyle-choice word. Holy Spirit, yes. Spirituality, no. Using it as you do would rank me alongside natural religion (Freemasonry) and world-faith ecumenicists such as Thomas Merton and Father Thomas Keating. (Not that I don’t admire the character of both Merton and Keating but they are WRONG.) John Wesley and George Whitfield never used the term ‘spiritual’ in their preaching. It was ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to salvation’. As for the word ‘religion’ I go along with Karl Barth who said the Christian revelation puts an end to ALL religion. Indeed the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ spells the death of religion, Barth is saying. Religion is over. Done with. Finished. Dead as the god Pan. All that we can know of God is through Jesus Christ and Him crucified (Paul). I would also quote Iain H Murray’s new book Evangelical Holiness. ‘No man or woman is born in a state of holiness. There are no seeds of godliness within us that simply need to be nurtured and cultivated. All mankind fell in Adam and became strangers to God.’ This is why we Evangelicals are in conflict with the spirituality and religiosity of the unchristian world.

      • Julie Hagan Bloch

        Hello, John. I’ve been away from the computer for a while, so my husband and I could celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. And then he got the flu, poor man! You know how it goes, life keeps us busy! :-)
        So, back to our discussion. John, something to remember is that the reason so many religions rely on faith is because there is no incontrovertible evidence to support the claims. One claims that this scripture is true, someone else claims that another one is, and so forth. None of them are provable, in the sense of verifiable, objective proof. And while there is much to admire in all of them regarding guidelines for living, there is also too often much that is cold and mean spirited. It’s pretty much according to the mindset of the culture that produced them. (I recommend to you the Busted Halo topic “Bible 101”.) So while I appreciate your dedication to your beliefs, please understand that any claim of superiority is only valid in the eyes of the people who make the claim. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you understand that there is no way to prove it, and that people who have a different opinion are not bad people, but only different. I do realize that you won’t agree, of course. :-) That’s fine. I just want to let you now that your arguments are not convincing to people whose premises differ from yours. To me, it’s all okay, as long as people treat others with respect and kindness. And I’ll say again, I wish you well.

      • John Haggerty

        My warmest congratulations on your 30th Wedding Anniversary, Julie. I hope your husband is recovering from the flu. I wish you many more happy years together. I agree there is ‘no incontrovertible evidence’. I agree that superiority over convictions is unpleasant to observe. Coldness and mean spiritedness are horrible too. Last night on YouTube I watched an appeal for tolerance towards atheists who often feel persecuted in America. The pleasant young woman and man reminded us that America’s founding fathers put a wall between church and state. Here in the United Kingdom we are going through the ‘culture wars’ too. I mentioned Karl Barth on my last post. He refused to take his oath of allegiance to Hitler, and was forbidden from teaching theology in Nazi Germany. Only his Swiss citizenship saved him from being arrested and executed like his friend Bonhoeffer. Yet in postwar Europe Barth stood apart from Cold War politics, fearing polarisation. He attended an ‘open session’ of the Second Vatican Council of the RC Church along with other Protestant theologians, in spite of criticism from Reformed colleagues. You can watch him speak on YouTube. Barth spoke of God’s immense good will towards all men and women, expressed through the love of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

      • John Haggerty

        The YouTube video about respecting atheists is called The Thaw // A Secular Response. I heartily support this intelligent plea for tolerance, respect and gentleness.

      • John Haggerty

        Julie and everyone else at Busted Halo, please watch ’14 minutes of religious people getting served by Richard Dawkins’ (YouTube). I am a huge fan of Mr Dawkins and am reading his engrossing autobiography. His advocacy of the great Charles Darwin on this YouTube interview is persuasive as well as moving. I think I could answer all his objections of a God who is concerned about our sins and so sent Christ to save the world. But Richard D is a class act, and a much needed ambassador for the sciences.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    No, we don’t *need* ritual. It’s fine if you like it, but for some of us, it is just another way of creating distance. Divinity and humanity are, in fact, so close that the only distance is in people’s minds. How about seeing the inherent divinity in such everyday actions as walking your dogs, writing a letter, brushing your teeth? Realizing that ALL of it is divine. To have to do something out of the ordinary to express a connection is like saying that I have to wear a special beret and smock in order to express that I am an artist. Anyone could wear a beret and smock. It doesn’t make a person an artist. It is merely an external expression that may or may not reflect what is an inner truth. I don’t need them.
    One of the problems of ritual is that it is limiting. It is “this” ritual, from “this” belief system, to be distinguished from “that” ritual from “that” belief system. It creates distance not only between the individual and the essential divinity, but between the individual and those in other belief systems.
    Divinity is ubiquitous. Different religions are just different masks on it.
    Spirituality is religion with its mask off.

  • Mike

    Even Jesus had to be somewhat organized and he brought about the Christian religion, so why are you having a problem with organized religion?

    spirituality, is for them that are like Priest that know about spirituality the way they know it, and spirituality too is for everybody, because Jesus said. God is looking for them to worship Him in truth and spirit. therefore you have to be at least part spirit and part human too, honest and spirit ….

  • Eric

    Nice article, Padre. I get the “spiritual but not religious” line at least once a week. Very apropos.

  • Maureen

    Yes, I have a few friends that say they don’t need an organized religion. They can pray in the garden or in the mountains. But my response to that is, and I always qualify it with..I don’t want an answer, I just want you to think about it…how often in our busy day do you spend one hour just with God? When one or more are gathered in my name, I am there.
    I find it confusing that a certain friend is always posting religious quotes and referring to Jesus in her FB and will get up at the crack of dawn to go to horse shows and travel to other states for showing, but will not bother to find a church that she can worship in. I love this person and don’t want to alienate her so I have not said anything other than making a few general statements. Once I said she should check out some of the churches in our town to see if they are somewhere she would like to participate but got no response. She is extremely generous and a really good person.

    • Stephen

      Sounds like your friend has found Jesus and in time, he will lead her where she needs to be. I do not believe everyone needs to be in a church. I do believe everyone needs to share their faith with someone. A bible study group, a spiritual director, a friend with the same beliefs. A church is not always necessary and sometimes, if the churches in her area are mostly toxic, (which many are) then it’s better she not engage. There are some beautiful churches out there, but there are also ones where Jesus is nowhere to be found.

    • Julie Hagan Bloch

      Maureen, you don’t know what’s in your friend’s heart. Be very careful about making judgments about someone’s spiritual life based on what you see externally. Besides, to be blunt, her personal spiritual life is none of your business.

  • Theresa

    well said!!!!

  • Jude

    By their fruits …

  • PWB

    This is a two-way street. It’s been my experience that people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are quite open-minded to religion, but they haven’t found a community/organized religion that makes sense to them. We can’t just expect them to come through our doors without first opening our doors. And certainly using a derogatory tone (i.e., calling them egoists), as some do, towards people at different points in their faith journey does not create a welcoming environment.

    • Stephen

      Thank you for this. It took me many years away from the church to finally come back. That is only because I found a really great community. If not for them, I wouldn’t have come back. Everyone is on a path and if they are genuinely seeking….they will find their way and yes, you are right — the church needs to be more welcoming and not judge other people’s experiences of faith. We aren’t all at the same place. The church is really quick to forget how much it has wounded people and continues to do so….they quickly get agitated by people who walk out but refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater as I did.

  • John Fox

    Nicely put. Thank you.

  • Jude

    My take on “Spiritual but not religious” is I’m a “taker”!

    I’m a consumer even in the most sublime area of human life. I will take what I need/want . I will not be making a contribution to this Tradition (teaching the young, putting some money in the basket, etc.). Nor will I be accountable to anyone in my “spirituality”.

    I will not even realize that all “spiritual” programs are essentially programs of giving not getting. That is, of course, except one – Satan’s. (The Devil is “spiritual” too after all)

    In short, “I’m spiritual but not religious” (usually said in a superior tone!) translates to egoism and consumerism which sounds like the default for our current American culture to me.

    What baffles me is why this is not challenged by the “spiritual and religious”.

    • John Haggerty

      Yes, Jude, Satan can play the ‘spiritual’ card just as he can quote the Scriptures the way modernist theologians can quote them. ‘Thou believest that there is a God; thou doest well: the demons also believe and tremble.’ James 2:19 King James Version. The English Standard version says the demons ‘shudder’ and the New Living Translation that ‘they tremble in terror’. The God of our faith is to be approached in fear and awe as well as love. The demons tremble and shudder because they see God’s holiness. Richard Baxter the Puritan preacher said, ‘I felt like a dying man, preaching to dying men.’ We are all dying men and women. Soon we will be in eternity. And we will shudder in fear before God, lost forever like the demons, or we will be presented by Christ before the Father as ‘flawless, with exceeding joy’.

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