Spiritual, Not Religious

By listening to the echoes of an older Christianity, we gain a better sense of our own place in the long history of the church. We are not chained to the past, we are free to innovate. We must constantly translate Christianity into contemporary culture, but we do so by maintaining a conversation with our mothers and fathers, with our older sisters and brothers. Their echoes are important, their voices need to be respected. Christianity doesn’t belong exclusively to the living, but is the shared faith of all who have confessed Christ. This is why tradition matters. G.K. Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead.”

-Brian Zahnd

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Most young Christians today, scarred by the long, questionable history of Christianity, and embarrassed by modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism have begun to either deny Christianity itself, or disregard the religious and traditional aspects of it in favor of it’s state of being. Thus rendering themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”

At first glance, this is an attractive idea. The religious aspects of Christianity are rather boring and unattractive to the modern individual. We really don’t want liturgies or traditional prayer. We don’t want songs and chants from the Medieval Age. The sacraments are nothing really important. Many protestants and evangelicals have realized this. In these circles, music is fun. Music rocks us and excites us. We also really only have a need for communion once a month, and the liturgies and creeds are merely nonexistent. And the saints, well they hold virtually no value.

So what are these churches left with? Well, pretty much the Bible and a pastor. So from these two things come all authority. This is what constitutes the majority of American Christianity. The Bible and a pastor. Having a strong emphasis on only these two things leads to vastly over-emphasizing the importance of them.

And so, protestants and evangelicals construct their faith from the Bible and their pastors. But we seem to forget that Christianity has a long historical tradition that consists of so much more.

Unfortunately this can lead to troubling situations for those coming out of these churches. Not the parents and grandparents, but the youth. The generation that leaves the house and their former church to become exposed to the secular world in which a vast range of beliefs exists.

So, when a child raised in a family that has constructed their Christianity merely from the Bible and a pastor, and goes on to graduate high school and enter into college, they have but one stronghold to their faith: Biblical fundamentalism. And in college, when they take a history course and hear about some of the terrible things that have been done in the name of Christianity, or take a Bible course and hear about the drastic contradictions within the Bible, or a biology course and realize the world is actually 4.5 billion years old rather than 6,000, they become embarrassed of what they have always believed. All of the sudden their entire Christian faith structure is falling apart.

To any thoughtful person, these are tough things to deal with. For some it can become so embarrassing that they choose to deny their entire belief in Christianity. For others, unwilling to completely give it up, they resort to a new spiritual kind of Christianity. One that is formed through their own thought and their own personal life. This is fun and intriguing. It is freeing in the sense that any of the problems of religious Christianity can simply be washed away in a denial of the religious, and an embracing of the spiritual.

The spiritual doesn’t have problems. It has no history. It is your perception of reality. It is how you feel in the moment. How you are moved. It doesn’t have dogmas, liturgies, chants, sacraments, rules, fundamentalism, or any of the other boring and frustrating things about Christianity. It simply embraces the moment and offers the occasional and very personal prayer. Religious Christianity however is not suitable enough to amuse ourselves in the age of personal satisfaction, entertainment, and consumerism.

First, I want to say to those who have gone down this rode, I understand. It is hard to not be bitter about a significant chunk of Christian history. It is hard to feel like at times you have been fed a lie. I would like to offer a few words of encouragement to help you through this process and maybe allow you to rethink abandoning Christianity or religious Christianity.

Before we address this I would like to examine the Christian religion and what exactly makes it up. It is important to always understand that at the center of Christianity is Christ. Not the Bible, not prayer, not your pastor. Christ. And this really is a great thing. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Virtually everyone admires Christ. As Brian Zahnd says,

One of the most astounding things about Jesus is that virtually no one is a critic of Jesus. Critics of the church yes, indeed. Critics of Christianity as it has developed, absolutely. But Jesus himself remains deeply admired. I don’t really know of any serious critics of Jesus. As they begin to criticize Jesus they begin to sound silly even in their own minds. Nietzsche tried. Nietzsche would try to rail against Christ and then he would change his mind and think he was the greatest man that ever lived and he just kind of bounced back and forth. He could never truly convince himself that he ought to be attacking Jesus.

No one can truly accept the fact that Jesus was anything less than a great man. So the idea that Jesus is at the center of our faith is a pretty great thing. Not just for us individually, but for all of Christianity.

Now, with our understanding that Christ is at the center of Christianity, anything that is truly Christian should in fact look “Christ-like.” Just because horrible acts have been committed and are still being committed in the name of “Christianity” doesn’t make those acts “Christian.” In some cases, far from it.

Here’s what we Christians need to remember. Before the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine and the converting of Rome into a Christian Empire in the 4th Century, Christianity was a radical pacifist religion of people oppressed by the powers of empire. And thus, it was not only a religion of the oppressed, but for the oppressed.

But things changed with the reign of Constantine. Now Christianity transitioned from the religion of oppressed and radical pacifists to the very oppressive empire that it had previously been oppressed by. It became the oppressors. And in this process, it lost sight of the central figure of Christianity. (This whole idea is brilliantly portrayed in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) Since this moment, Christian Empires have engaged in horrific crimes against humanity in the name of Christ and “Manifest Destiny,” while completely disregarding Christ’s radical teaching.

So if we are to understand what is Christian, well, it is Christ. And be careful when someone claims to be doing something in the name of Christ. All too often they fool us, and are really doing something in the name of “empire,” or “consumerism,” or “republicanism,” or “fundamentalism.” It is surprising how we Christians fool not only others, but also ourselves. In America, the majority of Christians have convinced themselves that Jesus is republican. And without further ado, are now capable of sitting in a church pew on Sunday and going out the next day to cast a vote for a man who brags about “grabbing women by the pussy,” lies without constraint, has had multiple affairs with porn stars, loves to flex America’s military might, constantly demonizes groups and individuals, and is the physical embodiment of American wealth and power. It takes a complete reformulation of the Christian religion to convince oneself that this decision is in any way “Christ-like.” Yet, this is where Christianity stands in America.

Keep in mind, this is not saying that those who engage in particular acts like the one above or other acts throughout history are not Christian. It is simply saying that the acts themselves are not Christian, and they are extremely harmful to the Christian body as a whole. But as we all know the great thing about Christianity is you don’t have to be very good at it. If we did, we might all be doomed.

While Christianity has had its moments of completely losing sight of it’s central character, Christ, it also has had its times where it has engineered some moments of the most supreme beauty. Moments like Saint Francis fighting for an end to the crusades. Or the Catholic liberation movement in Latin America. Or Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin starting the Catholic Worker movement. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer fighting for the Jewish people and against the Nazi regime. Or Martin Luther King Jr., fighting for an end to racism, militarism, and poverty. This past Christmas I saw a video of a group of Christians, led by Shane Claiborne, protesting for DACA members by standing outside Speaker Paul Ryan’s office holding hands and singing “Silent Night.” The video ended by showing them still singing “Silent Night” as they were handcuffed and sent to prison.

What I’m saying is that yes, Christians have engaged in embarrassing acts. But these acts were not truly Christian acts. And when we examine Christianity in light of its true tradition, we see the profound beauty of it.

One of the major aspects of being a part of this religion is not only engaging with it in the present world, but also in its rich historical tradition. This is why when we take communion and eat the body and drink the blood of Christ so that we can embody the love and forgiveness of Christ, we are not just doing so as a single church but as an ancient historical tradition in which Christians have collectively engaged in for 21 centuries, all with the same goal in mind. To become as a people the living embodiment of our redeemer.

The same goes for all the sacraments. The same goes for the Scriptures, the prayers, the psalms, the creeds, the liturgies, and the saints. These are not just mindless practices that we engage in occasionally because we call ourselves “Christians.” They are part of the rich historical tradition that shapes us and connects us to all those throughout history who have confessed Christ as King, back to the very man himself.

This is what it means to be a religious Christian. For some reason, modern versions have turned Christianity into solely an individual religion about personal salvation, personal sin, and prayer for God to do what we want, rather than prayer as formation. But Christianity is so far from that. We are a body of believers, and have been so for 21 centuries. 2,000 years. And if you count our Jewish roots, which you should, probably something more like almost 4,000 years.

If we choose to deny Christianity because of cowardly imposters of the religion we will allow the slanderers, the hypocrites – the Pharisees, if you will – to absolve us of the most beautiful and gracious message of Christ.

So keep your spiritual, cause you need it. But don’t loose your religious. I truly believe it will benefit you if you allow it to. And perhaps more importantly, may be the saving grace for the Christian church’s survival.

 

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