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Are we religious, spiritual, or something else?

Most of us will have observed that in the western context religion is out and spirituality is in, and we may well have adjusted church life, preaching styles, and mission strategies with that observation in mind. Religion is institutional, spirituality is personal; religion is controlling, spirituality is liberating; religion is toxic and polluting, spirituality is environmentally friendly; religion is intolerant and competitive, spirituality couldn’t care less—whatever floats your boat; and so on.

According to an article on the BBC website, research by Professor Michael King from University College London shows that one in five people in the UK regard themselves as spiritual but not religious. The figure is roughly the same in the US. It also appears that people in this category are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. The study concludes that “there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder”. Of course, the correlation could be stated the other way round, to subtly different effect: people who are vulnerable to mental disorder are more likely to profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework. But that’s another matter.

The shift from religion to spirituality leaves the modern Christian in a bit of a quandary—in fact, arguably, it highlights precisely the failure of the church after Christendom to redefine itself. We don’t like thinking of ourselves as a religion, but biblical Christianity is not especially compatible with individualised or privatised forms of spirituality. Even the word “spiritual” is misleading. We tend to think of spirituality as a capacity or condition that we have—and which we are entitled to explore and express as we see fit—rather than as a relationship with God through the Spirit. The misunderstanding is a measure of the extent to which we have bought into a sub-biblical notion of what it means to be human.

Christians are not “spiritual” in this modern sense. We are a people of the Spirit, and pneumatikos defines the work of the Spirit. But even that is not the whole story. What the whole story suggests is that we are, in the first place, a people, descended from Abraham, set apart as a renewed creation, empowered to mediate the goodness and blessing of that novel repristinated existence to the ever-changing nations and cultures of a world that has chosen to construct its own identity.

There is, unavoidably, a “religious” dimension to this existence, if by “religion” we mean the organized social aspect of a people’s relationship to God; and insofar as that relationship is mediated by the Spirit, it is perhaps not inappropriate to speak in terms of a variegated Christian “spirituality”. We can do both either well or badly.

But what the modern church is only just beginning to grasp is that a people of God must also have a credible political and cultural existence. Christendom did a very effective job of generating a political and cultural identity—that’s why we still have bishops in the House of Lords and so many extraordinary representations of biblical scenes in the art galleries of Europe.

Modernity, however, has robbed the church of much of its political and cultural relevance, perhaps for good reason, leaving it with a dwindling religious or spiritual function. The challenge we face, therefore, is to recover what was lost without reverting to the Christendom modelAccepting that the church has to get used to living on the social and intellectual margins of the Western world, how do we ensure, nevertheless, that we do not remain confined to the narrow religious-spiritual role that has been foisted upon us?

If the only categories we have are “religion” and/or “spirituality”, we are going to struggle. It is not enough simply to keep reinventing church in the hope that people will eventually be fooled into thinking that it is not the tired anachronism that they turned their backs on long ago. It’s not enough to keep practising our self-absorbed spiritualities in the hope that they will somehow prove more appealing to people than tantric yoga or reiki.

We need categories that go much deeper and stretch much wider if we are going to capture the fullness of created existence: community, society, people, culture, polisethnos, microcosm (anything but “tribe”, please!).

Modern evangelical community, for the most part, covers only a very limited section of the bourgeois social spectrum. Modern evangelical culture runs, for the most part, a pitiful, stunted gamut from reactionary dogmatism to a consumer driven piety. 

Our world is much too small. We need categories of self-understanding that allow us—indeed, push us—to develop consistent patterns of righteous and just behaviour, ingrained habits of difficult compassion, compelling social and economic alternatives, bonds of community that transcend intractable divisions, ways of wisdom that give intelligent and imaginative expression to a different mode of being. The relationship of a people to the creator God sits firmly at the heart of all this, but it does not exclude or override it: on the contrary, it empowers this whole new world.

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