Spirituality devoid of the Christian religion is not in conformity with God’s plan; therefore, the “spiritual but not religious” approach is not the method God himself has instituted in order to guide humankind into Trinitarian communion.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
13 January 2017
It seems the 21st-century axiom for many young Americans is: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” A recent 2014 Pew Research Center study found that folks of this persuasion are on the rise: adults in America who choose not to identify with any organized religion (called the “unaffiliated” group) is increasing, while Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are in decline. In 2014, 22.8 percent of Americans identified as unaffiliated.
There are a number of factors which contribute to the unaffiliated group’s growth. We’ll briefly explore a few of them. Also, given the assumption that people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are sincerely interested in growing closer to God, a crucial question to ask is whether such a path of spirituality devoid of religion is in harmony with God’s divine plan for humanity. We’ll look at that question also. With regard to the question of the importance of religion, we will limit the discussion to the Christian religion transmitted by the Church because it can be shown that, as a matter of history, it is divinely revealed by God himself, through his Son, Jesus Christ. This means it is singularly unique, an “absolute religion,” as the Church Fathers referred to it.
Most Americans, of course, are believers in God of some type, with the majority self-identifying as Christian. Additionally, everyone is seeking God and his perfect goodness, whether they recognize it or not: some actively seek God in concrete, properly ordered ways, loving the Tripersonal God for his sake according to the virtue of charity and practicing the Christian religion in the heart of the Church; others seek God’s goodness in disordered or confused ways, such as by walking the ultimately unsatisfying and unhappy path which is focused on evanescent things like wealth, created possessions, and power; still others seek God in sincerity but in an individualized, subjective, vague manner.
Nevertheless, the desire for God cannot be totally erased from the human heart because the human person craves the fulfillment found in transcendent and perfect Beauty, Goodness and Truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us in its first article that the desire for God is ontologically embedded in the human person because man is created for the purpose of sharing in the divine life of God; therefore, man is drawn toward God as his perfect fulfillment and end:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. . . . (CCC 1)
The purpose of the Church, what some would call “organized religion,” is precisely to unite men to God in order for them to share in his divine nature and enter into eternal Trinitarian communion. The Church, then, is the visible instrument of God’s salvific plan at work in the world. We ordinarily begin to share in God’s own blessed life through faith and baptism, in which we are configured to Christ and made members of his body, the Church.
However, according to some people’s thinking, the Christian religion transmitted by the Church is thought to be restrictive, burdensome and demanding, a system populated with excessive prohibitions and laws, something largely unpleasurable and thus to be avoided. Yet the desire to enter into union with God is recognized by any attentive, reflective person. It is, therefore, easy to understand why the unaffiliated group is growing.
But is it logical to pursue a spiritual path devoid of the Christian religion? Is it the most reasonable method? Further, does such a path conform to God’s plan as it is revealed by the living Church’s Tradition, Scripture, and even human nature and history itself? Simply stated, if we seek to experience the presence of God, we ought to follow the divinely instituted method, according to God’s divine plan, not, on the other hand, take up a purely subjective, individualized and man-made approach. This brings us to the central problem inherent in the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon:
It is incompatible with God’s revealed plan for humankind.
When we look at God’s divine plan of salvation as it has unfolded historically (yes, history is important!), we find that, starting with the people Israel, God has drawn a people together as a society in order to educate them, form them, and make them holy unto himself. For example, through the Exodus event, God freed the people Israel from Egyptian slavery and led them, together as one people, through the desert toward the promised land. Along the way, he gave them the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and progressively taught them and revealed himself to them. Ezekiel 14:11 narrates how God informed the people Israel that they would be his people, and he would be their God. The historical events of the Old Testament were in preparation for the fullness of divine revelation and the salvific mission of Jesus Christ, in whom the divinity of God dwells bodily.
In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God appeared on earth and founded the Church on St. Peter as a Spirit-guided, ordered, hierarchical community with authority and structure (see Mt 16:18-19; 18:15-18). The Church is a visible, specific and definite, divine and human society in which we hear the words of truth and receive the sacraments of life for the purpose of attaining our end of perfect happiness in God. Further, the Church is God’s divine plan for humanity collectively: the Church knows no ethnic, national, political or intellectual boundaries. The Church, whose members are the body of Christ, is a community for all men.
Let’s take a look at the remaining section from the first paragraph of the Catechism:
[God] calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC 1)
It is clear that God’s plan is such that he works in harmony with created human nature in consideration of our need for society. We learn and grow in society, with others, not in isolation and exclusion from others. God’s plan of salvation is carried out through our insertion into the society and community of the Church, as we become members of the body of his Son and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the womb of mother Church, we hear the truth received from On High, from the lips of Christ himself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—this is accomplished through the organized, hierarchical structure of the Church and her teaching and sanctifying activities. This divine truth teaches us, forms us and prepares us to share in God’s own blessed life. In receiving the sacraments of the Church in faith, the Spirit of God is communicated to us and we become partakers of God’s divine nature. The Church, then, is the unique and divinely instituted community through which we obtain salvation in Christ—in the Church, we move toward our perfect end in eternal communion with God! It’s a beautiful and holy place to be; it’s a sacred life in conformity with God’s divine plan of love and goodness.
However, the “spiritual but not religious” philosophy presumes that God’s revelation in history, found in Tradition and recorded in Scripture, the Church and the practice of the Christian religion based on divine revelation, is unnecessary and unimportant. It fails to recognize that the Church is willed by God from eternity and instituted by the incarnate Son of God as an instrument of truth and salvation for humankind. Often, moral issues and pride are connected to the intention to engage the unaffiliated method; at other times ignorance and/or personal biases and misunderstandings are the driving forces. In all cases, it is unfortunate that people should attempt to seek God in a way that is in disparity with God’s own divine plan in which, within the community of the Church, we become sons and daughters of the divine family in the Son and through the Holy Spirit.
Do you want to experience God to the fullest? Of course you do, because you want to be happy! The solution is to follow God’s divine and loving plan which takes place in the womb of the Church. The Church, the Christian religion, and spirituality cannot be separated as if you can have one without the others, but rather go hand-in-hand, comprising a threefold oneness. The Church is the divinely instituted means to experience God and enter into union with him, now and forever.
So, be Catholic, be religious, be truly and authentically spiritual.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.