John Bennison Words and Ways | On Being Spiritual, Not Religious

On Being Spiritual, Not Religious

[NOTE: This lengthy Commentary is broken into bite-size pieces. A PDF version to print and read is available here.]

 “After three days it so happened that they found him in the temple area, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who listened to him was astounded at his understanding and his responses.”  (Lk.2:46-47)

Left: The 12-year Old Jesus Teaching the Elders, Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528. The artist depicts the young Jesus with childlike features, as he takes center stage; and in contrast to the  befuddled and grimmacing faces of the religious elders who scrutinize the upstart, all the while while scouring the ancient texts to try to comprehend or confront the presence of this new authority in their midst.




An engaged couple asks if I will officiate at their springtime wedding ceremony, to be held in a barn in a Pacific seacoast town.  The bride-to-be and her family were once part of a congregation I pastored for many years.  Peggy grew up in the church, taking her turn with the leading role in the Christmas pageant, sailing through confirmation classes, and leading a team of acolytes.  As an adult, she says she has not been part of any formal faith community for years. I’m not surprised.

Next, her fiancé shares how he was raised Catholic, and was an altar boy himself for many years.  “But in all that time,” he confesses, “no one ever explained to me what it was all about.”  He then goes on to say that only in his adult life has he only recently come to recognize and explore some spiritual component in his life he calls God; to the extent that he’s made it clear to the woman who will give her hand in marriage that his relationship to this divine something or other will be given equal weight.

I make the observation, using the shorthand, “So you’re a SBNR type?”  Then, in response to the quizzical look on his face, I translate the popular acronym, “You’re spiritual, but not religious?”

“I’d never heard of that before,” he replies.

“Oh sure,” Peggy chimes in. “It’s a box you can check when filling out your profile on most online dating sites!”

Hardly a fringe group, one recent study reported nearly one-third of Americans considered themselves to be the SBNR-types, of one sort or another.  After all, religion can be problematic.  Religious types can sometimes go off the deep end, and send normal people running for their lives.  Been there. Done that.


Anything but religious

The other day a work colleague who rails against what she considers the rigid and controlling aspects of the church tradition in which she has been inextricably snagged all her life asks me, “You’re religious, you’re a Christian, right?”  My sense was she was using the two terms synonymously and interchangeably, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to being either.  After a brief pause, I replied, “Yes,” with obvious hesitation in my voice.  Here’s why:

The week before I’d attended a memorial service for an old parishioner at the request of his widow; both of whom had left the church when I did, and had not subsequently affiliated anywhere else.  The service was held 30 miles away in one of those non-denominational, independent mega-churches where one granddaughter was apparently a member.

Even growing up Catholic in a large Boston parish, my spouse had never seen anything on this scale.  The asphalt parking lot stretched as far as the eye could see, and the lobby to the sanctuary was big enough to easily hold the largest congregation I’d ever served.

Inside the windowless amphitheatre, the subdued stage lighting contrasted with a large back-lit cross hanging on the back wall of the stage, while surround sound recorded music filled the hall with a female vocalist singing a pop version of How Great Thou Art.  However, the two giant projection screens that hung to the left and the right of the cross … remained darkened, and the rock band’s drums and amps lay dormant onstage.

Presently a pastor on the staff of Golden Hills Community Church who’d been assigned to preside over the event entered and took his place before a microphone where our small gathering had assembled in the first few rows of the cavernous hall.  After a few words of welcome he acknowledged what I myself had felt compelled to do on many past occasions; and admitted his own handicap, namely, that he was probably the only one in the room who never knew the person we’d gathered to remember.

Then an honor guard from the local veteran’s hall marched in, went through their perfunctory drill, and marched out.  Strangely, in the quarter century in which the deceased and I had shared our life together in our former parish, I’d never heard him once mention his years in the military as a young man.

After that, various family members got up and shared their personal memories of their father, grandfather and friend.  Their remembrances and tears were touching and genuine.

No one mentioned Lee’s own church affiliation, or his religious beliefs.  That seemed fitting, since – despite his active involvement for years – he’d never spoken with me much about it either.  It was simply something that was unspoken.  But over the course of two-dozen years, I’d seen him through a couple of rocky times; and he and Wanda had certainly given of themselves in countless, untold ways as we lived out together what we always sought to be the most loving, compassionate and grace-filled expressions of a faith community that calls itself Christian.

After sitting through an instrumental recording of Amazing Grace that seemed to go on an amazingly long time, I thought the program was drawing to a fitting conclusion when the pastor rose again and offered what I thought would be a final prayer.

But to the contrary, he then proceeded to launch into a 20 minute harangue, using the gospel of John to deliver the formulaic requirement for anyone who wants to go to heaven; namely, that Jesus is the only way, and only by believing in him – and believing in him in a very specific way the pastor spelled out for his captive audience – could we inherit eternal life.  The only, unavoidable conclusion that could be drawn when his tirade came to an eventual end was that my dear old friend and I were both going to hell.

I thought to myself, if that’s what the Christian religion is all about I don’t want anything to do with it.  I may consider myself to be spiritual in some way, but certainly not religious!


What is religion anyway?

What is religion? It is a way of making sense of things, of providing a way of seeing the world around you, and finding meaning.  It typically provides a framework, with rules and rituals, mythic stories and communal values, to give one a sense of order out of chaos. Without it, there is an implied and underlying fear that some form of spiritual anarchy could be the only alternative.

But some such spiritual anarchy eventually emerges nonetheless, as a counterpart to any set of canonized texts, holy writ, doctrinaire beliefs and ecclesiastical authority that eventually proves insufficient to keep everyone playing by the same set of rules.  Such subversives then assert their god-given right to be spiritual, but not religious!

The inherent problem in “organized” religion lies in its efforts to respond constructively, in response to our innate “spiritual” inclinations.  A cornerstone gets laid, and then things start getting nailed down. After all, one could then reasonably argue, if there is no orthodoxy (right thinking), how can anyone get burned at the stake for heresy (dangerous and wrong-headed thinking), or nailed to a cross for blasphemy? But sooner or later, new lines get drawn in the shifting sands of time, history, culture, and successive claims to revelatory truths.


The Church of Whatever

Here’s another thing: You can make a religion out of anything, of course.  Call it the Church of Whatever. Just fill in the blank.

Recently, the government of Sweden actually recognized as legit a new religion known as Kopimism; whose central tenet is the right to file-share, with the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste representing the church’s sacred symbols.

“For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament,” said 19-year old philosophy student and founder, Isak Gerson. “Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore copying is central for the organization and its members.” [BBC News, Jan 5, 2012]

I wish them well in their newfound religious fervor, because the competition is fierce. In the days when I used to fret over Sunday church attendance I finally had to accept the fact I was competing with the lure of numerous other weekend activities that parishioners would pursue with equally religious zeal.  In the suburbs, children’s sports schedules were sacrosanct.  So defeated was one colleague with a nearby congregation that one Sunday morning he removed the Bible, chalice and paten from the high altar and bowed down in idol worship to a soccer ball.


Religions emerge and exist because they serve a needed and beneficial purpose

Swiss philosopher and writer, Alain de Botton, has recently published a book entitled, Religion for Atheists.  And, in a recent 18-minute non-sermon entitled “Atheism 2.0,” de Botton has proposed a new kind of atheism that incorporates religious forms and traditions to satisfy the human needs for connection, ritual and transcendence.

“One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe, and those who don’t, into the religious, and the atheist,” he says. “But it’s too easy to simply say all those ideas about doctrines and deities are ridiculous.  That’s not the end of the story, but only the beginning.”

He then proceeds to succinctly capture the problems and pitfalls inherent in organized religions; as well as the genuine need human beings seem to have for what he summarizes as “morality, guidance, consolation, and even ritual.”  Where he is more than ready to jettison the worst of what organized religion has to offer, he admits he still loves to sing Christmas carols!

So convinced of the need for a tangible expression of such a human longing that de Botton has even announced plans to construct a $1milion pound “temple for atheists.”  The temple’s 151-foot spire will to challenge those of the medieval church buildings that still dot the downtown London cityscape.

It seems one can not only make a religion out of anything, including atheism; along with a much-needed religious construct of some kind or other for some very real reasons.

Many of the reasons people belong and actively participate in religious activities are the same as why they get so religiously involved in other organizations that give shape and meaning to their days: a sense of purpose, of belonging, shared values, community, common identity, mutual acceptance, support, and encouragement; as well as codes for behavior, public and private rituals, even the lore of sacred myths and other legends.  Just ask an avid golfer or superstitious fisherman, and you’ll quickly realize the seriousness with which they regard such things as far more than a sport or hobby.

I once knew a devout churchgoer who split his Sabbath observance evenly between early morning worship and then joining his best buddies who’d tear up the desert in their 4-wheel off-road vehicles.  He was as faithful in his affiliation with one as with the other.


Being “ordinarily spiritual,” not just religious

Can one be “spiritual” apart from any kind of religious tradition or affiliation? Of course.  There’s ample evidence of having an autonomous and intrinsic sense of whatever one may deem as the “sacred,” and that dwells within. Moreover, often it’s even perceived as an encounter with something outside ourselves, and our own imaginings.  It is so common a phenomenon that I would suggest it is a very ordinary thing.

But furthermore, it seems this ordinary spirituality is not a category, not a compartment, not a corner shadow of life, but rather a way of being that colors the canvas I call my life. It is the stuff of my daily existence, with an awareness that requires nothing more, nor less, than a kind of mindfulness. Otherwise I could easily forget to notice, and forget to pay attention.

Ordinary spirituality is a way of seeing how the hours pass with something more than meets the eye. It’s the back-story to the story, I like to say. It’s what gives depth to a more meaningful existence.  It’s what lies beneath the otherwise mundane and perfunctory passing of the minutes.  After all, what is the difference, really, between some mystic’s spiritual discipline of prayer, and a laborer in the vineyard who tills the soil and participates in the creation of an elixir sometimes fit for the gods?

Ordinary spirituality is everywhere.


Crossing Guard

Down the street, at the corner intersection from the house where I live, it happens each weekday morning.  Without fail, he arrives before the first middle school student could possibly show up, to make their way across six lanes of heavy commute traffic on Ygnacio Valley Road. Armed with a red paddle in his hand that reads “STOP,” his uniform consists of a bright orange vest and a red cap he’s provided himself for added visibility.

By almost any measure he’s an old man. But he’s been showing up with each passing school year for quite awhile now; so he’s been an old man for quite awhile too.  He’s tall and thin, with a moustache and a shock of white hair tucked under his cap.  He walks with deliberate, small steps that suggest stiff knees, and an unsteadiness that could overtake him if he didn’t pace himself.

Cold or heat, frost or rain, he shows up undeterred.  He does his job with serious intent, and an air of authority; as if he could stop traffic at will.  Like Moses stretching out his hand, if the light signal failed I’d wager he alone could stem the tide and part the six lanes of heavy traffic to allow the children safe passage.

By and large, the adolescents prefer not to notice him, pretending they’re grown up enough to make their own way, and smart enough to cross when the light turns green, or wait when the flashing orange hand counts down the remaining seconds.  But the crossing guard is not selective or dissuaded from helping anyone and everyone who comes to his intersection with the same, basic need to cross over to the other side.

Businessmen walking briskly to the commuter train station with briefcase in hand stop and await permission.  Women in their fashion sportswear and earbuds jog in place awaiting his nod, his benevolent rule, his constancy, and his assuring presence.

Like the perpetual roar of crashing waves on some distant shore, it seems the sound of an endless stream of traffic will never subside on Ygnacio Valley Road.  But I will miss the Crossing Guard, his ordinary rituals, and his once-faithful presence when he is gone.


An ordinary Jesus may have been spiritual, but not very religious

One of the gospel writers imagines a fanciful tale of Jesus presiding in the Jerusalem temple as a boy (Luke 2:38-52).  His parents were halfway home from their religious pilgrimage when they realize Jesus has remained behind, only to be eventually found presiding in the temple.

It’s helpful to try to appreciate the historical context in which Luke’s audience would have heard this story in the aftermath of that very temple – the symbol of their elaborately institutionalized religious life — having been literally reduced to rubble by the Romans in 70 CE.  In other words, the actual setting for the story no longer existed. The new temple – the gospel writer’s message would essentially go on to proclaim – would no longer reside in an outward temple that could be successively razed to the ground; but instead raised up in a “spiritual body” of which the early believers would be a part, called the risen Christ.

Thus, in Luke’s story this precocious Jesus eludes his parents in order to instead preside over his “father’s house.”  Similarly, in Mark’s first portrayal of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum as he begins his brief itinerant ministry as a grown man, his listeners “were astonished at his teaching, since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars.” (Mark 1:21) Each time, the evangelists would have us believe Jesus’ audience perceived he taught with a sense of inner authority; in contrast to the dreary scribes who perfunctorily regurgitated what an old friend of mine used to characterize as “nothingness in many words.”

How many such sermons by those same scribes have we ourselves had to endure; only to awaken and lean forward if by some slim chance an ordinary story was included in such a way that an extra-ordinary truth was persuasively revealed to us? Everyone knows the best preachers are storytellers, and the best storytellers are those who understand the power of their craft is one of opening spiritual windows to the sacredness of the ordinary.

As such, Jesus, the itinerant teacher/preacher was a master storyteller.  He spun imaginary tales about the most common things about which a 1st century Galilean peasant class could easily understand; yet with such an underlying resonance of truth to be found in some of those agrarian parables that 2,000 years later we readily overlook the arcane and alien setting because of the way in which a larger context can retell our own stories so well.

In other words, I can’t fully comprehend what it would have been like to have lived as a Jewish peasant, repressed under imperial rule and strict religious practices; with little hope of anything more than a subsistent standard of living. But I’ve known what it’s like to pass by on the other side of the Jericho road; as well as the cost of stopping to play the part of someone deemed unacceptable doing something good for another in need. And I’ve known what it’s like to be the stranger left for dead.

I’ve known what it is to leave the ninety-nine, and run the fools errand in search of the one-percent who’s lost; because I myself have known what it’s like to be lost and found, or blind and given sight once again.

I’ve known what it is to be both the prodigal, as well as the father trying to wait, and wait, and wait patiently at the gate on the slim chance of a child’s return; a return that would render absolutely everything else to be of no consequence whatsoever.

I’ve known what it is to discover, embrace and hold fast to something of such singular importance — like buried treasure, or a lost coin or pearl of great price – that I was willing to forego all else to possess it, and suffer the consequences.

It’s not that these are sacred stories because they have been canonized by any religious authority.  Rather, they are extra-ordinarily spiritual tales because they are stories about the sacredness of the ordinary life as revealed to us by the one who taught – as Luke would tell it — with a different kind of inner authority.  And that makes ordinary life – so infused with the sacred – to be undeniably, unavoidably, deeply, and essentially spiritual.

And It is also why I believe ordinary people are as reluctant to relinquish their claim to be “spiritual,” in the most profound sense of the word; just as adamantly as they disavow being “religious,” in the worst sense of that word.

It’s not that these are sacred stories because they have been canonized by any religious authority.  Rather, they are extra-ordinarily spiritual tales because they are stories about the sacredness of the ordinary life as revealed to us by the one who taught … with a different kind of inner authority.  It’s what makes ordinary life  so undeniably, unavoidably, deeply, and essentially spiritualAnd It is also why I believe ordinary people are as reluctant to relinquish their claim to be “spiritual,” in the most profound sense of the word; just as adamantly as they disavow being “religious,” in the worst sense of that word.

And yet, being religious about somethingreligiously passionate about something – is also important; in order to keep our ordinarily spiritual lives from otherwise unreflectively simply slipping by in the shallows.  An example:


Mix & Match Religiosity: Kosher Muslims

I was utterly amused by a recent story about some very ordinary sounding people who would seem to be utterly religious about their love of the perfect bagel, and who worship the perfect bialy.

Coney Island Bialys and Bagels claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City. Founded in 1920, it still makes everything by hand, using an original recipe and method. Morris Rosenzweig, who came from Bialystock, Poland, where bialys originated, founded the store at the turn of the 20th century. Later, the store was run by his son Donald Ross, and then by Steve Ross, Rosenzweig’s grandson, now in his fifties.

At one point the bakery did so much business, it was open 24 hours a day on the weekends. But then many of the once-devout customers moved to the suburbs, the neighborhood changed and business fell on hard times. Ross tried unsuccessfully to sell the business, but no buyer could be found.

Eventually two Pakistani Muslims who’d once worked in the bakery for 11 years before leaving to drive taxicabs heard it was for sale, decided to buy the business.  Slowly the store is being renovated and a small group of loyal customers who are still passionate about these bagels and bialys are determined to keep it going.  The biggest hurdle is keeping the bakery kosher.

“Kosher and halal is very, very close, like brother and sister, maybe twins,” say Ali and Shah, the two new Muslim owners.  “The only thing remaining is official kosher supervision and certification.” So they are looking for a rabbi to bless and supervise their efforts.

I thought to myself, I hope they succeed in finding a cleric who won’t let religion get in the way of such a truly religious pursuit …


Wisdom spirituality is not about knowledge but awareness

The writer Richard Rohr offers the wonderful line, “God comes to us disguised as our life,” while also speaking of wisdom the way I think of being ordinarily spiritual.

“Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is precisely a different way of seeing and knowing the ‘ten thousand things’ in a new way, … the freedom to be truly present to what is right in front of you. … Presence is the one thing necessary for wisdom, and in many ways, it is the hardest thing of all. … Most religions just decided it was easier to believe doctrines and obey often-arbitrary laws than the truly converting work of being present. Those who can be present will know what they need to know, and in a wisdom way.”

When I consider the earliest believers of that Jewish sect that eventually became the religious tradition we call Christianity, I wonder what it must have been like to have broken ranks and set out on this unchartered path. The temple was gone. How would their spiritual longings be resuscitated among the ruins of their former religious life? Yet, when they heard the stories of the itinerant rabbi/sage retold they would say something akin to “did not our hearts burn within us, as he talked with us on the road, and ate supper with us?”

There had been the formal, institutionalized religion that provided form and substance, convention and conformity.  There had been the temple, where the “holy of holies” was enshrined and revered; as well as the stuffy and stultified piety that always seems to eventually cloy about what was once a “spirited” kind of spirituality.  It had become just this kind of rigid adherence to the letter of the (religious) law at the expense of the spirit of the law (what was meant to be life-giving and life-affirming) that Jesus was regarded to have railed against in the gospel stories we read of him.


The Holy Ordinary

“SBNR” is nothing new.  As important and necessary as religion of any kind seems to be, it devolves and become equally problematic.

But, just as it is often easier to identify a problem than it is a solution to any given problem, so too it may be easier to state what one is not, when it comes to matters of values and beliefs; as in religious beliefs of some kind to which each of us might be willing to ascribe at one point in our lives; but then readily leave behind, as we stretch and mature in our “spiritual life.”

Consequently, one’s “spiritual” dimension might be described as a state of being, or becoming, rather than a set of doctrinaire beliefs. So, I may feel spiritual in the way it infuses all of my life; but, in truth, that only goes so far.  That sense of otherness and my mindfulness to its presence usually manifests itself in the need to also hold certain convictions that I feel strongly about, as well.  And those convictions, filled with meaning, usually need to reside somewhere.

So it is that the biblical tradition gives us both the temple and Abraham’s tent, or supper in an upper room with bread and wine, followed by a transcendent itinerant.  Spiritual-type pursuits get organized, then institutionalized, then run the risk of eventual atrophy. The Ark of a Covenant is enshrined in a temple.  The reserved sacrament is placed in an ambry in a sanctuary. So another religion emerges, and the Church of Whatever pops up on a street corner.  Then religious types proceed to squabble endlessly over what it’s supposed to mean.

Meanwhile, there’s a voice that beckons with an invitation to leave behind such entangled nets and follow the one who embodies the spirit that blows wherever it chooses.

But if one leaves the temple for the tent, is there nothing left for the ex-communicant than to join the castigated flocks of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other so-called heathens? Does one have to utterly surrender that intangible presence of what is most important, meaningful and of ultimate value, that is also beyond your full knowing?

Maybe the whole fuzzy debate short changes the deeper question; namely, can one be spiritual and religious, without one’s spiritual journey being fractured by the fault lines of institutional religion? That is, can one be religiously passionate about something? If so, what might that be for you?  And, is it worthy of such passion, commitment and devotion?  How might one be SBAR — both spiritual, but also religious — in the most profound sense of that word?

Rejecting codified religion that tends to emphasize non-credible creeds or empty rituals that have become devoid of meaning is the easy part.  Seeing, discerning, being mindful where the heart of the spiritual dwells in the ordinary rituals of daily living is the challenge.

Call it the holy ordinary.

© 2012 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article may be used or reproduced with proper credit.




  1. Barbara Fogerson /

    John, you really outdid yourself with this commentary. Your description of the Memorial Service was right on – I was there! All of this writing serves to sort out our spiritual? – religious? social? outlook and connections.

  2. Rev. Philip S. Krug /

    Well, you caught me! I am a Disciple turned Episcopalian. I still believe in word over sacrament, but you can go on at great length! How do you do it? I enjoyed your SBNR. I guess I am holding on to the structure without much else. Keep it up. I belong to the old Jim Adams group of Progressive Xns. And I still go to church … and learning that wonderful cry of Jesus: Who am I? Who do you say that I am? Answer me, God! …Phil Krug. NJ.

  3. Katherine Angle /

    I really liked your description of BSNR; clearly being identified one way or the other is problematic depending on who is asking, or even why?
    If sticks and stones will break my bones –then labels of words are just that–labels. I personally can’t be bothered with being called either because my only judge will know– where my faith acts in my community.

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