May 252014

religious or spiritual

I have just been looking at a fascinating article posted by Tom Shakespeare – Is it better to be religious or spiritual? – on the BBC Magazine site.

He is commenting on the difference between those who would claim to be religious and those who would claim to be spiritual, and the idea that there are many people seeking spirituality outside of the context of organised religion. He challenges this approach, arguing that many people seeking spirituality retain the trappings of religion while leaving behind the sense of relationship which many people find in religious groups. He thinks this is a consequence of the growing sense of individualism in our society which ends up with us no longer being challenged to work towards a better world for everyone.

He clearly states that he doesn’t want the beliefs which go with a “pick’n’mix” spirituality:

I don’t want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.

But he does find value in organised religion due to the relationships and connections, traditions, disciplines and teaching which it provides.

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself.

Its an article well-worth reading but I wanted to comment on a couple of specifics – one on a point made in the article itself and another on a question it raises for those seeking to live in a Christian community.

1) In his article he makes the following statement:

The word “religion” is thought to derive from Latin “religare”, to bind or connect. I think that sense of a connection is the key point. Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps them form a connection to the wider universe.

I think this statement is valid (although some see “religion” being derived from “re” + “legere” – which means to “reread”) but I want to comment briefly on this from a Christian perspective (which is not the sole focus of the original article). For the Christian faith, I think the implications are wider. The rebinding or reconnecting which was in view is, I believe, primarily related to

reestablishing by worship a lost or broken intimacy between God and worshippers

(Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

It is, however, interesting to note that the term doesn’t appear extensively in the Bible. There are just five occurrences in the New International Version (Acts 25:19, 26:5; 1 Timothy 5:4, James 1:26, 27) with only one of these (the first) relating to questions of faith with the remaining four looking at how it works out in practice with relationship to others.

A true understanding of Christian religion – in my view – does depend on a belief in, and relationship with, God from which flows relationships with, and care for, others and the environment in which we live.

2) But I think his article is challenging to those who meet and worship and work in Christian communities as to whether we do so to get the benefits he refers to or whether we do so, primarily, due to our relationship with God.

He suggests that many people who go along to church on a Sunday morning are:

going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent

And this raises a question which is important for us to think about.

When we – those who meet regularly as Christians – are together in our “religious services” is our priority and focus firstly on God and what He wants to say to us and how he wants to change us? Or is it on meeting with our friends and seeing what has been going on since we last met?

Interestingly enough, we recently asked ourselves this question in the church which I have the privilege of leading and we said that when we meet together these should be times:

  • Which are centred on God in worship and where we appreciate and rejoice in who He is, where we focus on Jesus and are empowered by the Spirit
  • Where what we believe and our experiences of life should come together in powerful and transforming ways
  • Where we meet together as family to love, support and encourage each other
  • Where we participate in being refreshed and renewed from the challenges and difficulties of life
  • Where we are prepared and equipped to live on our frontlines (places where we live out our faith each day)
  • Which provide opportunities for us to be challenged in our faith or to come to faith

From what Shakespeare wrote I expect he would align himself with some of these – but not most.

For those of us who meet regularly as Christians it is worth asking ourselves the question “Why?” from time to time.