How Jesus Invites us to be Religious and not Merely Spiritual


Spiritual but Not Religious

“Spiritual but not religious” has become the go-to posture for many Californians today. It’s a very appealing idea, one embraced by celebrities of many stripes.

Popular musicians like Bono work through spiritual and even Christian images and language as they wrestle with ultimate questions.

‘I’m not into religion. I am completely anti-religious. Religion is a term for a collection, a denomination. I am interested in personal experience of God’. N. McCormick, I Was Bono’s Doppleganger, Penguin 2004, p.114

Rowan Williams, former leader of the Anglican church highlights the appeal of this approach. 

If we ask why exactly the religious is so unattractive in the eyes of many, including so many iconic and opinion-forming figures, the answers are not too difficult to work out. Bono’s remarks provide an obvious starting-point. Religion is a matter of the collective mentality, with all that this implies about having to take responsibility for corporately-held teaching and discipline; so religious allegiance can be seen as making over some aspect of myself to others in ways that may compromise both my liberty and my integrity. It may be seen as committing myself to practices that mean little to me, or subjecting myself to codes of conduct that don’t connect at all convincingly with my sense of who I am or what is creative and lifegiving for me. It may mean being obliged to profess belief in certain propositions that appear arbitrary and unconnected with the business of human flourishing. The spiritual, in contrast, is what opens up and resources personal integrity at a new depth, developing and not frustrating the sense of personal distinctiveness and allowing ordinary human activities to be understood afresh against a broader background of ‘sacred’ meaning. Such a vision doesn’t commit you to believing six impossible things before breakfast or signing away your liberty or becoming locked into a tribal mentality, hostile to other sorts of meaning and commitment.

How Evangelical Christians Live Out “Spiritual but not religious”

Evangelicals often turn up our noses at this fashion and this phrase, but it has deeply penetrated our relationships with churches and our assumptions about how we should relate to God. Have you every heard someone say “Jesus is a relationship not a religion”. Same idea.

We also see it in American Christian practices of church “grazing”. “I get podcasts from this church, I do Bible study at that church, I read this preachers books, I go to this preacher for this, etc. ”

Now I do this to a degree. I listen to podcasts and other preachers and read the books of preachers and theologians. On one level there isn’t anything wrong with this. What we do need, however, is to have a base community, a set group of people that we are a committed part of.

In the promises that we make in church members we promise to “submit” to the leadership of the church that I am a member of. This is where the rubber hits the road and this is where we find the reason we want to be “spiritual but not religious.”

To be religious means that I give up, as Williams noted a degree of autonomy and even integrity. That sounds weird, but we are accustomed to this idea when it comes to marriage, family, or other relationships.

How Good Relationships ARE like Religion

You don’t have a relationship with anyone else until you have to live within a “no” to yourself. Relationships are all about saying “no” to ourselves and “no” to each other, and deciding to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.

To be “spiritual but not religious” means that while I might say “no” this or that for reasons I embrace and affirm, to be religious means to say “no” to myself for the sake of the group, of my God, and even sometimes for reasons I don’t fully understand but do so out of trust or faith.

Williams notes that it was because of abuses of religion and the skepticism from those abuses of the Enlightenment we have grow skittish about religion. But what are the consequences of its abandonment?

Leviticus: “All of the Bad about Religion and none of the elevation”

As we go through the Bible many see the book of Leviticus as the epitome of what we fear about religion. The rules seem arbitrary, freedom limiting, and it isn’t hard to see how use and abuse of these laws has hurt people in the past or in our opinion dehumanizes them.

I don’t think in our present context that we are in any danger of being overcome by the literal demands of the book of Leviticus, as if it were some kind of feared Sharia law that some blood thirsty group is about to impose on modern Americans. I’m suggesting that if we set our fears aside a bit, we might discover some things in the book and let the inform us about Jesus and the Christian life.

Many of its passages just seem strange. Consider this one.

Leviticus 6:1–7 (NIV)

1 The Lord said to Moses: 2 “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, 3 or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit—4 when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, 5 or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 6 And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. 7 In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.”

Vertical and Horizontal

If we read this passage we begin to feel how the world has changed.

The situation the passage addresses is someone defrauding another by deception. Think perhaps of a case of insurance fraud. Let’s imagine that you declare to your insurance company that you’ve experienced a loss. The insurance company pays on your claim. Later you conscience gets the better of you and you confess to your crime. You must restore the insurance company with damages. In our context you might also have some legal liability to the government, but do you owe God?

In the book of Leviticus, as in the whole Bible there is a pervasive sense that when we hurt our neighbor we have offended God as well. You see it in the perhaps duplicitous plan of the Prodigal Son as he plots his speech to regain entry into his father’s home and a seat at his father’s table. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” Luke 15:18. A secularist might say “how has he sinned against heaven?”

Modern secularism tends to be two dimensional. We relate to each other. We’re all the world that matters or all the world that can be public. But what if there is a third dimension? How does that impact the two in which you and I see each other eye to eye?

Jonathan Haidt summarizes a 19th century book called Flatland..

Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures. The protagonist is a square. One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain—in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north.

In desperation, the sphere yanks the square up out of Flatland and into the third dimension so that the square can look down on his world and see it all at once. He can see the inside of all the houses and the guts (insides) of all the inhabitants. The square recalls the experience:

An unspeakable horror seized me. There was darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw space that was not space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.” I looked, and, behold, a new world!

Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 181-182). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Mistrust of Atheists

A number of recent studies have revealed that when it comes to trusting people we don’t have an actual relationship with we have a bias against atheists. Many of us might know some very moral atheist people that we trust deeply, probably more than some of the religious people we know. I surely trust some of my atheist friends more than I would trust some of my Christian friends, but I very much believe the studies. They even found that atheists have the bias as well.

Take, for example, a situation I found myself in outside a rail station in an Irish seaside town years ago. My luggage in hand, the cold gray sky windy and threatening rain, I was confronted with two taxis at the curb waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a dog-eared copy of the Bible on prominent display on the console.

The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose, considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious — and that being an American during the “W.” administration, I might add, elevates you one step above our forty-third president in respectability? Both drivers are in all probability devout Catholics — this is Ireland, after all. Still, there’s no way to know for certain.

Unless you’re trying to make a point about how “atheists are good people too” or you happen to despise the Catholic Church, it’s really a no-brainer: Go with God. Why is this so obvious? As the political scientist Dominic Johnson has argued, “If supernatural punishment is held as a belief, then this threat becomes a deterrent in reality, so the mechanism can work regardless of whether the threat is genuine or not.” In other words, from a psychological perspective, the ontological question of God’s actual existence is completely irrelevant; all that really matters in the above case is that the taxi driver is fully convinced that God doesn’t like it when he cheats his passengers. Salon

What About the “Spiritual”? 

You can see by the Irish cab illustration the part religion plays in social communication and expectation of the soaking pedestrian. What happens when someone says “well I’m spiritual but not religious and that makes me moral.”

I can understand this. What I don’t know, of course, is what exactly their spirituality is about. Last week we noted that Aztecs were spiritual people. ISIS are spiritual people. Both are religious as well, but their religion informs me about their spirituality. If I know the person, and know their spirituality a bit, I may have a sense of what it means, but again, without knowing them personally, what exactly does “spirituality” mean? There really isn’t much of a community.

 The Lonely Spiritual Elephant

The “spiritual” person has an additional problem. Haidt who’s an atheist scientist notes that humanity isn’t simply evolved apes, we are also bees. What does he mean? He means that the two aspects of our brains, the elephant and the rider are enormously communal. The “spiritual” person by continuing to assert their autonomy and individualistic integrity have great difficulty training their elephant. The “spiritual” person attempts to be attuned to the elephant but they tend to be less attuned to how the elephant is learning from their context and community.

One of the most popular and important Christian books written recently is James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom which while not talking about the elephant and the rider notes that in fact our culture, our contexts, the subtle common ways of life are in fact all the time shaping the elephant.

In 1996 our daughter Madison was born. My wife liked the name partly it sounded cool and unique. She was also born on Christmas day so we gave her the middle name “Noel”. We thought we were such original people. In the hospital goody bag that they give out filled with samples and advertisements for baby products we saw a sample birth announcement with the name “Madison Noel” in one of the samples. I stopped and pondered. “Wow, how could they have gotten this printed out and to us with the goody bag so quickly? That’s amazing just-in-time marketing!”

It wasn’t. In 1984 the popular movie “Splash” featured a mermaid named “Madison” implicitly impacted the teenagers of 1984. By the time 1996 rolled around, with another dozen years those teenagers were having babies. Can you guess what all those new, creative, parents named their baby girls in huge numbers? “Madison”.

Why are so many “spiritual but not religious” spiritual in the same cultural way? They are getting their spirituality from their elephants and their elephants are getting it from each other, but not with much intentionality or communal discernment because each elephant is antonymous.

The Intrusion of The Other

Rowan Williams continues about what shapes responsibility.

Responsibility has about it an irreducible element of being called to ‘answer’ for and to other agents; its roots have a lot to do with the sense of being the recipient of something at the hands of another. Something is bestowed which both enables and requires an answer. Yet to speak like this of ‘bestowing’ or ‘endowing’ is to move immediately into a realm in which I confront something like another personal presence. A generalised ‘sacred’ dimension of reality may be independent of my mind, but doesn’t in itself need or suggest this language of ‘bestowal’. Talking about God, not just about the sacred, assumes, on the contrary, that there is not only a sacred reality but an initiating agency that is independent of anything in our world. I am invited to make myself answerable for the good, the human welfare and spiritual health, of the human other, to make myself disposable in some measure for them, in part because of how I have learned to ‘read’ the world around, reading it as suggesting that an agency independent of any circumstance within the world has ‘taken responsibility’ for my welfare – has not only given life in general but put at my disposal the life that is its own.

Religious traditions that speak about an active divine presence thus maintain that my responsible action is in some way a reflection or even continuation of the foundational act which initiates everything we perceive. And that act may be discerned vaguely and generally in some aspects of the world; but it is not given precise shape in terms of freedom and initiative without some more specific story that can be told about the free self communication of the sacred which makes this act visible. Morality becomes not a matter of compliance with arbitrary rules enforced by threat but the struggle to identify and move with the direction of fundamental creative action as it has shown itself to us. Freedom is indeed the freedom to be in union with this act; anything less is going to be ultimately frustrating and self-destructive. But freedom in this sense, a freedom that allows for radical change, is triggered only by the clear representation or realisation of an unconditional divine gift within the world’s own story. And this at once involves us in claims about uniquely revelatory or transforming events, in dealing with questions about where we can best stand in order to see, with some measure of authoritative clarity, the direction, the ‘flow’ of things with which we seek harmony.

Religious identity that works in this way allows for a complex of elements that ‘post-religious’ spirituality cannot easily deal with or accommodate. There is, most obviously, the whole world of language and feeling that connects with personal relation – supremely with love, in the Christian tradition. The process of exploring the ‘endowment’ offered is more like the discovery of a person than anything else, and the responses we develop are closely analogous to the kinds of self-examination we may undertake in the light of a serious and lasting relation with another human being. Yet when this has been said, what comes most sharply into focus is a vastly intensified sense of what can also appear in human intimacy – the inadequacy of thinking and responding as if the other were simply a version of oneself.

What religions offer, is a communal story within which the elephant and the rider live. Freedom and life are how we live within that story reflecting the giver of life and the author of the broader story. It’s within the context of that story that defrauding the insurance company has meaning not simply for money but for the person and the self and that self in the context of all the other selves the author has made.

What Is and Isn’t Strange about Leviticus 6

Now for the religious among us none of this comes as a great surprise. We, like the Prodigal son feel, by virtue of communal elephant training, that when we harm our neighbor we are offending God. Jesus put this so succinctly when he summarized Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Matthew 22:34–40 (NIV)

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It isn’t strange to know this. Religious, Spiritual, Atheist, we all kind of get this. Where we fall apart is in practice.

If you look at the literature on Leviticus 6 what you soon see is what surprises scholars about this passage. Generally speaking atonement can only be made for unintentional sin. Again and again it is declared that there is no atonement for intentional sin. In Leviticus 6 we see an example of atonement for very intentional sin. Scholars don’t quite know what to make of it.

When it comes to dealing with each other, one spiritual notion is that of “second chances”. We all like “second chances”, but we also imagine “three strikes you’re out”.

Intentional Sinners

When I think about other people the idea of “second chances” but “three strikes” makes sense. I’ll place my bets on the religious, but if you keep crossing me, betraying me, cheating me, at some point I’m going to lower the boom on you. I’m going to look for a law bringing and a law enforcer to bring justice and make things right. In that moment I’m not looking to afford you liberty and I sure don’t believe in your integrity.

When it comes to myself, however, as a rider on the elephant I have a tremendous capacity for rationalization. When I fool, defraud or cheat I’ve got “good reasons to do it” like the psychological coin flip experiment. In this moment I surely want to be spiritual but not religious. Being spiritual I can imagine that God will just look the other way, forgive, forget, not take it too seriously because he understand me just like I understand myself.

I want to be spiritual, to have no one come to me and say “no”, to hold me to account, to grip me and violate my will. I want others, however, to be religious. To be held accountable, controlled by a law I can know and use to predict their actions towards me. Will they hurt me? I want God to curtail them.

How Often to Forgive

Religion, unlike mere spirituality, affords traditions of conversations in communities. Our elephants standing in the rain waiting for cabs know this and bet that even though religious people often fail to uphold the standards of their religions they are at least a better bet than people with no publicly known standard.

In Matthew 18 Jesus and his disciples are talking about religious people sinning. He says that when one of us is blind to the sin we are doing, or unwilling to fess up to it we should help each other out by showing each other our fault.

For us today this is anathema. We want to be non-judgmental people, at least until we get angry enough or imagine someone is getting hurt. The idea of humbly, quietly going to someone in love to point out their fault is terrifying, mostly because spirituality is strong and religion is weak. If I consider myself spiritual, more spiritual than you, who are you to point out MY flaws?! In that case “spirituality” is simply another word for blind egotism.

Jesus then continues because Peter asks how many times should we forgive someone who sins against us?

This is no ancient or merely academic question. If you type in “how often should I forgive” into the Google search bar it the fill in prompt will be ” a cheating spouse”.

Jesus tells his disciples not 7 times, which would itself have been an audacious number, but 70 times 7.

Now you might think that this is typical of nice, all forgiving, all welcoming Jesus, but bear in mind this is the same Jesus that talks about millstones and hell more than anyone else in the Bible. While we tend to keep hopping over the line between “spiritual” and “religious” depending how it suits us in circumstances, Jesus is both spiritual and religious.

The Puzzle of Jesus’ Niceness

Here is the puzzle. How could Jesus both be all about forgiving 70×7 AND be also about hardline religion like he describes?

The mystery is also in a parable in the same chapter where a servant who owes a tremendous amount of money is forgiven but refuses to forgive his own servant who owes him a comparatively small amount. Jesus says “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Jesus seems to want it both ways, but not in the way we usually want it both ways.

Jesus knows what hell and law and crunchy religion are like, because it will fall on him. When he invites his disciples to forgive 70×7 he invites them into his costly brand of forgiveness. To forgive that often means to keep paying a price for the guilty. This in fact will be exactly what Jesus does.

The System of Religion

We saw that the difference between religion and spirituality is one of a consequence outside of yourself, both vertically and horizontally. We opt for “spiritual” for ourselves because we don’t want that kind of consequence or limit imposed on us. We opt for “religion” for others because we want to benefit from that control and order in the world around us. We are, by nature, by virtue of our elephant, self-interested self-preservationists and playing the line between spiritual and religious is one of the best ways to do it. It keeps us in control of ourselves while at the same time trying to not let others off the hook.

Jesus acts, and invites his disciples to to reverse the polarity. Voluntarily be held to standards while being enormously forgiving of others. This is the path to life because this is exactly Jesus’ path.


How does this work? Jesus, who did no sin, paid the price for the sins of others. Isn’t this what forgiveness is about? Jesus enacts this forgiveness on the vertical plane and the horizontal plane and asks us to do likewise.

Jesus essentially says there are two systems, which one do you want? If you opt for the “normal” way we work, defining our own “spirituality” while enforcing “religion” on others, will, that is what God and the world will give you.

If however, if you decide to follow Jesus in his way, the way that looks absolutely nuts, by forgiving, and embracing Jesus’ forgiveness, then in fact a life of freedom in this world and the next awaits.


Isn’t this invitation just another set of bondage to religion? If I opt out of Jesus’ track by failing to forgive my neighbor or holding a grudge aren’t I back into the other law? Doesn’t that simply nullify the second path? It does if you approach it in the first track.

Jesus invites you to live in his life by gratitude. You are invited and asked to enter and join it freely. This changes the dynamic. Now you forgive, not because you’re afraid of judgment, but because you’re inspired, or at least are working towards it through gratitude rather than compliance. This makes 70 times 7 a gift of freedom.

If to be religious is to live within a story outside of ourselves, beneath a God who impinges upon our reality, Christianity makes this special. By Jesus we live in free pursuit of mirroring the life of grace given. We forgive intentional sin in costly way, because Jesus forgave our intentional sin in the most costly way.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Jesus Invites us to be Religious and not Merely Spiritual

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