Can you be spiritual but not religious?

By | January 15, 2010

When people identify themselves as being spiritual but not religious, they are suggesting they do not need to belong to a faith community (a church, temple or mosque) in order to experience God. God is everywhere, all in all. I AM WHO AM. We feel God’s touch when we see a beautiful sunset, when we lift a newborn child, or as we laugh with loved ones over a shared meal. We don’t have to go to church to be spiritual.

This is true. When we are aware of God’s presence, whether that is in the woods or during Mass, we are definitely touching the spiritual dimension of our lives. We have cause for celebrating the person who takes his spirituality seriously, who spends time cultivating this relationship, who desires to know and experience God more fully. Each and every human being is called to have a personal and intimate relationship with God as we understand God. No one else can do this for us. I believe the choirs of heaven break out in song when a human being begins responding to God tenderly calling their name.

Celebrating there may be, but this spiritual person would not be considered a Christian. Even if they pray to Jesus Christ or spend time at home with the Bible, the spiritual person must belong to a faith community to be considered Christian.

Why is this so? Quite simply, because of the incarnation.

For Christians, God not only created the universe and is above and beyond all human understanding; God also becomes human and dwells among us. Incarnate — In carnus, in physical flesh. With the incarnation, God takes on physical flesh, and interacts with us in visible and tangible ways. And the incarnation is not simply a “past tense” event, happening once in history more than 2,000 years ago. God is present, is incarnate, today. Scripture consistently refers to the Body of Christ not just as the historical Jesus, but also as the Eucharist and as the body of believers.

According to Fr. Ron Rolheiser, “The fact that God has human flesh has some rather hard consequences regarding spirituality and community. Spirituality, at least Christian spirituality, is never something you do alone. Spirituality, for a Christian, can never be an individualistic quest, the pursuit of God outside community, family and church.”

For those of us who desire to follow Jesus Christ, we have no choice but to do so with others, in community with the remaining body of believers.

When the Catholics Come Home commercials air this Lent, many people will genuinely wonder why they should consider returning to church. Can’t they follow Jesus by reading the Bible and praying to him? They ask a good question. Our loving answer is that, as Christians, we are called not only to attend to our individual spirituality, but also to take our rightful place among the body of believers. If, as Christians believe, there are many parts but only one body, then our church community is incomplete without them. The body of believers, the Christian community, needs them to be part of us. We need them to come home.

DeNeve is director of spirituality and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay.

Next week: How is Christian hospitality different from the hospitality we normally give and experience?

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