Spiritual but not Religious

Here is the text of a lecture by our former minister, the Revd Donald Horsfield, given to an Engaging Issues meeting on 5th January 2016 in our church.

I was listening to, radio4 I think it was: about a man looking for a new partner – for whatever reason I don’t know, but ‘compatibility’ was his concern. Using the Internet he found one of the many websites designed for that purpose: and he began ticking the boxes, telling of his likes and dislikes, and revealing what kind of a person he was; and looking for someone with whom he would be compatible.

Under the heading of Religious Affiliation, there was a wide range of choice: one of them being SBNR. But he didn’t know what that meant, until he discovered they were the initials of SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS. I don’t know if he ticked the box or not, but I have taken it as the title of my talk: and I’ve made it into a question – spiritual but not religious?

Is that a valid option? Well obviously, it is for some or it wouldn’t have been there on the tick list. And from the evidence available, it seems there is a growing number of people, who would be ready to tick that box.

I won’t bore you with a lot of statistics, which in any case are open to different interpretations. But it must be obvious to anybody with eyes to see, and minds to think, that over the last 50 years, what we might call ‘traditional religion’ has been in serious decline.

Now, just at the moment, personally, I’m not looking for a new partner (and anyway I tend to get seasick surfing the net); but should the situation arise, I would be inclined to tick that box myself, as a description of where I am ‘at’, in my religious-stroke-spiritual life.

But before I did, I would want to look a bit deeper into what is meant by those two words – religious and spiritual. Why should anybody want to describe themselves as one but not the other – spiritual but not religious? What is it about religion that many folk are objecting to? And what is spirituality, that seems to be drawing so many people away from religion? And if that continues to happen, what future is there for religion? Those are the kind of questions I’m going to be looking at.

But first, we’ll have a poem; and I’ll be inserting others as we go along, because poetry is one of the marks of ‘spirituality’ (and I’ll say why this is, later): first a poem by RS Thomas, an ordained minister, who found communion with God out on the moors, more meaningful than what happens inside the Church. So he’s out there on the Welsh hills:-

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot.
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the minds cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Notice that God is there, but not saying anything. Not being heard but felt, and with no prayers said; all of which are marks of spirituality. He was ‘in communion with god, on the moors.

Since the 1960’s there has been a widening gap between Church and Society: between people sitting in the pews, and those sitting in the pub or the cinema or going to the football match. Richard Harries, in his book GOD OUTSIDE THE BOX (which raises the question of why spiritual people object to Christianity) says that…what goes on in church is meaningless to many people today; and traditional Christian language has gone dead. So is it any wonder that people are looking for an alternative?

The whole decade of the 1960’s was a melting pot of social and religious upheaval. Young people were looking for more freedom: they didn’t want to be told what to believe or how to behave. The times they were a change-in! Bob Dylan got it right!

And so did the poet Philip Larkin who may have exaggerated a bit when he wrote – “sexual intercourse began in 1963” but he saw what was happening. John Robinson could also see what was going on, but in his case he was looking through the eyes of the Bishop of Woolwich (which is what he was); and in that same year of ’63 he published his explosive little book ‘Honest to God’. That ‘explosion’ is still reverberating through present day theology; shaking the foundations; and causing people either to leave the Church; or keep away from the Church; or just cling on by the skin of their teeth. At all events, the numbers began to decline and are still doing so.

Statistics are just one indicator; but the indication is clear enough. In the 20 years from 1980-2000, the numbers of people attending Sunday worship in the Anglican church, declined by 47%: in the Methodist church by 44%; in the Roman Catholic church by 42%; and in the United Reformed Church by 39%. Sunday Schools today are in very serious decline (terminal perhaps), with attendance dropping from 73% to just 4% (see The Spiritual Revolution pp65, 72.)

But, oddly enough, at the same time as the decline in Church attendance, there has been a widespread growth in ‘spirituality’. So there is clearly some difference between the two: what we might call non-religious spirituality, can be real and meaningful where religion itself has become empty and meaningless. Here’s a poem which makes that abundantly clear; written by someone who is both secular and spiritual, whom you may know of as Double ‘e’ Cummings:-

I thank you God for most this amazing
Day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
And a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
Which is natural which is infinite which is yes.

I who have died am alive again today,
And this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
Day of life and of love and wings; and of the gay
Great happening illimitably earth.

How should tasting touching hearing seeing
Breathing any – lifted from the no
Of all nothing – human merely being
Doubt unimaginably You?
Now the ears of my ears awake and
Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.         By e e cummings.

There we have a non-religious, born-again experience, if ever there was one; and there are plenty!

The ‘Soul of Britain Survey’ in the year 2000, found that of the sample taken, only 26% believed in a ‘personal God’: whereas 44% believed in some sort of ‘spirit’ or ‘life-force’. The same poll found that 31% considered themselves to be ‘a spiritual person’: and only 27% claiming to be ‘a religious person’. So something has been happening! And is still going on.

Diarmuid O’ Murchu, of whose writing I am a keen disciple, and to whom I acknowledge a considerable debt for this talk – is a radical Roman Catholic, and there seems to be more and more of them around (SBNR might even get the present Pope ticking the box one day!) As a priest and a thinker, O’ Murchu has written a book called ‘Religion in Exile’, which has the subtitle ‘ A spiritual Homecoming’. And that’s what the book is about – people on the move; moving from the barren experience of ‘exile’, brought about by a religion that is out of touch; into…the openness and freedom of a spirituality, where people can belong and feel ‘at home’.

He tells of a colleague who said this – “for me to remain in the church, feels like continuing to wear a coat I was given as a child: it feels tight and congested and desperately uncomfortable. I have long outgrown it, and need to discard it.” ‘Amen to that’ is what more and more people are saying today.

At this point I would like to have given you a definition of ‘spirituality’; but by its very nature it’s not easy to define; it’s too elusive. The best I can do is describe it as ‘a paradigm shift’. A paradigm being a framework, upon which something can grow.

Spirituality is offering an alternative to the religious framework that many of us have been brought up with. A new framework on which to grow, your life in God, so that you can blossom into your full humanity; into the best person you are capable of being.

To see this more clearly, there are some, what I am calling ‘marks of spirituality’; and it’s these that I’m going to look at. I’ve already mentioned that poetry is one of them; but there are others that come first; all of them based on the conviction that spirituality is – Creation centred: Earth centred: and Person centred. And we’ll look at these in turn.

From the point of view of what I’m calling ‘progressive spirituality’, the patriarchal God of religion, who rules from on high, has to step down and make way for a concept of God which is embedded in Creation. This is picking up on John Robinson’s ‘Honest To God’, and on Paul Tillich’s theology, where God is understood as ‘The Ground of All Being’. This is not Pantheism (where God is identical with creation) but Pan-entheism, where God is to be found and experienced within creation; in the evolving universe that we live in and are part of.

The religious God who exists in purity and holiness, in some distant heaven, while we wallow in degradation and sin; from which we need to be saved, is obsolescent. Spirituality is claiming that the religious story is too narrow: and that there is a bigger story to be told. And telling that story is the task of Progressive Spirituality; it is Creation centred.

Instead of the ‘religious God’ sending his only son, to be the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world; we now have to find our own way to the God, who is already here, waiting for us to recognise him (or her, or it; the English language fails here, and we have to accept its limitations at this point, while we explore this spiritual dimension of our life on earth.)

RS Thomas again. He knew that a different concept of God was needed: not the God out there who answers, or not, our prayers; but the God who is already here, within each one of us. His poem is significantly called EMERGING.

I would have knelt
Long, wrestling with you, wearing
You down. Hear my prayer, Lord, hear
My prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
Of mortals have kept up their shrill
Cry, explaining your silence by
Their unfitness.

It begins to appear
This is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
The consciousness of myself in you,
And you in me.

That’s the kind of Oneness, which spirituality is looking for.

In approaching the mystery of the Divine Presence, spirituality has replaced the ‘objective God’ who used to exist outside creation, with the ‘subjective’ experience of God- on- the- inside; God within.

There is no ‘outside’ anyway, not that we could possibly know anything about: we can only know what’s within range of our knowledge: but we can be aware of ‘the Beyond in our Midst’. This is the experience of spirit with spirit, which is all part and parcel of the great mystery of being alive. It’s not a mystery to be solved, but to be entered into; to become ‘one with’ a Greater Oneness’, which we might want to call God.

So Progressive Spirituality is Creation-centred. God is understood as the Life-Force, the Movement energising all things: the Spirit, wherein we live and move and have our being. The whole universe is understood to be alive, in some way; having evolved through different levels, for billions of years, until today; and still evolving.

Closer to home, another mark of spirituality, is a deep concern for the Earth; for our Mother Earth which gave us birth: on which we live, and depend completely for our continued existence. A pause for poetry. Once again by the talented double e cummings.

O sweet spontaneous earth
How often have the doting fingers
Of prurient philosophers
Pinched and poked thee.
Has the naughty thumb of science prodded thy beauty.
How often have religions taken thee
Upon their scraggy knees: squeezing and buffeting thee,
That thou mightest conceive gods
But true to the incomparable couch of death thy rhythmic lover,
Thou answerest them, only with Spring.

Resurrection is built into life on earth; with death as part of it -our ‘rhythmic lover’

Spirituality even claims that we don’t so much, live ON the earth; but that we live WITH the earth ( or should do; in partnership). And that if we don’t start doing that with more sensitivity, and concern for all forms of life, the earth will perish, and we will go with it. It was recently claimed by an eminent scientist, that we (humanity), are sawing off the very branch that we are sitting on!

Spirituality wants to see a shift from our domination of the earth; as if it was there only for our benefit (an opinion which is sometimes defended on religious grounds).

A shift from seeing the natural world as just raw material to be exploited relentlessly, until it’s all gone… to seeing the Earth as having a life of its own, which needs to be respected, because we depend on it: what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves! Part of spirituality’s appeal to many people is a deeper consciousness of our ‘oneness’ with the rest of creation.

Not unrelated to this concern for Mother Earth, is a rediscovery, and a restoration of the female side of God.

But how did that get lost in the first place? What has religion done to the female side of God? It was there ‘in the beginning’, when God’s likeness was embodied in the creation myth of Adam and Eve! It seems that in the hands of religion, the likeness of God as both male and female has been distorted. Indeed, the evidence is clear, that as religion developed, God became more and more exclusively masculine and patriarchal; being referred to as He, Father, King and Lord.

The consequences of this have been very serious: detrimental not just to women alone, but to the whole of humanity. A state of affairs which needs to be rectified; and the growth of the Feminist Movement is part of that rectification; and this movement is another mark in the paradigm shift of spirituality.

Prominent female theologians, are putting the ‘fear of God’ (or perhaps the fear of ‘no God’) into established religions; firmly pointing out that…”patriarchal religion is built on hundreds of years of repressed fear of the power of the female body”. Women accused of witchcraft was an expression of that fear: hundreds were burned or drowned; with male priests sitting in Inquisition, as judge and jury.

The shift taking place has to be from a masculine and patronising religion to something more feminine, sensitive and tolerant. The patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all had an unhappy, unhealthy and even fearful relationship, not just with the female body, but with the body itself, male and female.

Of course they don’t acknowledge this! Like the lady said, it’s a ‘repressed’ fear. These religions are all hiding from the frightening truth, that in effect, they regard God as having made a big mistake, in creating people with the kind of bodies that we have: there was a serious design fault, which needs correcting – religion to the rescue!!

Divide and conquer, that’s the policy! Divide the created world into the sacred and the secular: God and the Devil; the saved and the lost: those who will be rewarded with eternal bliss and those condemned to hell. Such a policy, based on fear, enables religion to be in control, and keep in control. ‘Control’ is really what religion is all about. Whereas…spirituality proclaims freedom, for people to explore who they are; discover their sexuality; and enjoy being themselves.

Religion’s main weapon in keeping control, is the concept of ‘sin’, which by and large is identified with the human body: and especially with sexuality, which is really what lies at the heart of religion’s problem…SEX… that really was God’s big mistake! But religions can’t admit to that; they need a scapegoat; and they put all the blame on Eve, the feminine temptress: she’s the one to blame, and she’s been paying a heavy price ever since.

Progressive spirituality is all in favour of sex, because body and spirit are one. People are both spiritual and sexual beings at the same time; and we need to rediscover that unity in a healthy and wholesome way. Sex is not a mistake that needs correcting: it is part of the Creator’s intentions.

Undoubtedly sex is a powerful instinct; without which the human race would have ceased to exist long ago; it’s not something to be ashamed of, in spite of what we are told happened in the Garden of Eden! Sex has been slandered and blamed by religion for the world’s sinfulness; but is now coming back with a vengeance; and making us pay a high price for accusing it of being the source of impurity and iniquity.

Today we don’t know where we are with sex! Confusion reigns, with celibate clergy becoming paedophiles: and hard core pornography available to all at the click of a button. We have maligned and debased the gift of sex. At one end by denying it; and at the other end by abusing it. It now needs to be welcomed back into the body, as an important part of who we are: to be enjoyed for the pleasure it can give; and with respect for its role in the continued existence of the human species here on earth. It needs to find its rightful place in that bigger picture of creation, where the natural is also the supernatural; the human is the divine, and we are all one in God. Progressive spirituality, with self-control at the helm, would keep sex wholesome, and help us to get out of the present confusion that many people are in.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the marks of spirituality is a preference for poetry over prose. This is because prose tends to be definitive and legalistic. The Ten Commandments were written in prose, so that there would be no misunderstanding, The Law needs to be clear and unambiguous (although it never is!)

Prose is for the exercise of power and control. It tends to be more rational: it appeals to the mindset that wants certainty: truth written in stone, which doesn’t change with the vagaries of time and feeling.

Poetry is more open-ended: it invites you to look deeper, and find the meaning for yourself. It is more liberating; it encourages you to be yourself; respond in your own way, and discover your own truth; or as some friends of mine put it, be in touch with the God of your own understanding. Karen Armstrong tells us that Scripture is best understood as poetry and myth; as parable, analogy and symbol, pointing to a truth which is beyond words.

Poetry is not so much RATIONAL as RELATIONAL. TS Eliot says that “poetry communicates itself before it is understood”. It’s a bit more risky; it takes chances; it’s about seeing connections, the outcome of which you don’t know until you’ve committed yourself. It’s not based on certainty; it’s always one step ahead, beckoning you on (just like God!) and it opens the way to my last mark of progressive spirituality, which is MYSTICISM.

God is understood as the great mystery of being alive. And if you are truly alive, you will want to explore that mystery; spirituality invites you to do so, in your own way; at your own speed. It’s important to know that this exploration does not involve a confrontation with Science; rather the opposite. There is a point of contact between spirituality and science; and the meeting place is called Quantum Physics

The universe was once thought to be composed of minute solid particles, atoms and molecules as the basic building blocks of creation: but now, at the sub-atomic level, creation is understood in terms of ‘movement’; in waves, and ‘energy fields’ which science is unable to predict or control the bottom line seems to be ‘uncertainty’; with the universe having a mind of its own.

This is the same mystery that we all live in. It’s not there to be solved, but to be entered into, by everybody including scientists, some of whom are beginning to kneel down in awe and wonder.

The best word for this mystery, is the word SPIRIT. We can all be aware of a mystical or spiritual dimension to life; wherein we can feel ourselves in the presence of something greater than ourselves. Gordon Lynch in his book The New Spirituality, speaks of this experience as “taking part in the dance of cosmic energy” and he goes on to say that “the human story needs to be placed in this wider context, of the story of the evolving universe.”

Progressive Spirituality invites us to do just that, with poetry leading the way. William Blake felt very much at home here and able to … see a world in a grain of sand; and a heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand; and eternity in an hour.” Wordsworth tells of “feeling a presence; a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things.”

So in the light of spirituality’s appeal, what hope is there for the future of religion? In our case the Christian religion as proclaimed by the Church. O’Murchu believes that religion, as traditionally understood, has no future. He claims that religion is disintegrating because it has served its purpose: it has become redundant, and its day is spent: and not only so but that the end of religion is highly desirable.

Richard Harries, being a bishop and thereby committed to defending the church and orthodox belief, thinks otherwise. In the book already mentioned, God Outside the Box, (which is an excellent book, and well worth reading) he makes a strong case in religions defence. But of course he does it within a Biblical context, which from spirituality’s point of view is far too narrow.

The bishop tells us that Christianity has within its store, enormous spiritual riches”… and that you can be both spiritual and religious at the same time. And of course that is undeniable: but it comes at a high price, and carries with it a lot of unacceptable theological baggage. And in spite of having a wide liberal outlook, and a deep sensitivity, the bishop ends up making exclusive claims for Christianity; with Christ as the one true way (because the bible says so!)

So in effect, Harries’s spirituality is controlled by his religion. But it needs to work the other way round, with spirituality giving people the freedom to find new ways of thinking about life and God and religion.

From the point of view of this lecture, religion’s understanding of God; pre-packaged for general consumption is far too narrow; and needs to shift into a wider, more cosmic dimension.

Spirituality will not be setting itself up as an alternative religion. It will continue to be a ‘movement’… of the Spirit… unpredictable…blowing where it will… inviting us to hoist up the sails of faith, hope and love; ready to move on the next stage of our journey into the Mystery of being alive.

Progressive Spirituality is based on a ‘paradigm shift’ from God being somewhere outside the universe, to God being more intimately involved at every level of creation… where all things are connected and interrelated, in a Oneness holding everything together. That Oneness, though shrouded in Mystery, is our true home, and we won’t get lost.