Whenever a survey or census wants me to check the box of my religious preference, I usually select “Catholic;” for that is the religion I usually prefer—though I admit I have had moments when it didn’t seem like my favorite. Nevertheless, it’s the one I’ve known longest, the one of which I am most familiar. To me, it seems to make sense (as much as harnessing divine mystery can) and, since it is among the gifts my parents gave to me, Catholicism is the one I prefer. Not only do I prefer it, I embrace it. However, if I were not a priest, there’s a chance I might be SNR (spiritual not religious). SNR seems to be the fastest growing category for one’s religious preference. Many of us don’t like being associated with organized religions because we perceive within them a lot of hypocrisy, bigotry, arrogance, etc. Jesus recognized the same things within His own religion. Like many twenty-somethings today, He, at a similar age, challenged the rules, obligations, and structures they presented Him. For us, as it was for Him, it would be easy to disregard the structure, ignore the expectations, defy the rules, shun the obligations, and simply commune with the Almighty—just be spiritual.
Being spiritual is, no doubt, a fabulous thing. Every human is spiritual, much as every human is sexual and every human is social. It would be awfully difficult, if not impossible, to exist without being these things. Spirit is energy, passion, and zest for living. Father Ron Rolheiser develops this concept powerfully in his book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. Spirituality is active—it moves us somewhere. The spiritual journey develops faith, those things which we believe in. It directs us to determine whether or not we believe in the existence of God and, if we do, whether or not we trust in God, i.e., put our faith in Him. Religions help to structure our spirituality. Though not as important as faith, religion serves as a vehicle for it, i.e., it takes us where we need to go with our faith. Most people benefit from structure like this: children crave it, families are more strongly rooted with it, and couples often rely on it.
But teenagers and young adults usually undergo a phase where they question and challenge, even fight, it. It’s during this phase that some people decide that they don’t believe in God. When these young souls talk to me about it, I invoke Harry Emerson Fosdick, twentieth century minister who is credited with replying, “Tell me about this god you don’t believe in.” After listening to a litany of how God permits war, famine, holocausts, and plagues of misery to harm and destroy innocent people, I simply say, “I don’t believe in that god either;” then I can guide them toward a God worth believing in. It’s during this youthful phase, also, that most of us get introduced to the SNR way. We perceive God more clearly in nature than we do in a faith community. We commune with the Lord in the stars and seasons, the sunrise and sunset, the mountains and beaches, the colorful leaves of autumn and new blossoms of springtime, the birth of babies and miracles of creation—without having to encounter those arrogant bigots or hypocrites at church.
But SNR doesn’t last because, among other things, it lacks a framework for being in communion with others (which is core to being in communion with God), it lacks accountability for recognizing our faults, it lacks a framework for outreach to the poor, marginalized, and suffering among us, and it lacks the structure that challenges us to become better people. Fortunately, as many young couples with children are reminded, religion can be the grace that anchors their home, shapes their moral values, influences their guiding principles, forms healthy attitudes, behaviors, habits, and routines, and guides them through life’s challenges. I think that is why we witness big crowds in church after tragedies occur: war breaks out, tornadoes touch down, hurricanes strike. “Religion” comes from a root word that means to link or connect. There is something about us that needs to connect to God and link to one another.
Though I understand the attraction to be SNR, and I realize the value of honoring what we feel and believe (faith) which ultimately outranks our Sunday ritual of communal prayer, religion is what shows us how to live out that faith, how to direct that wonderful spirituality that we each possess. Jesus was certainly spiritual, perhaps far more spiritual than religious. Yet, as far as we can tell, He was at temple every Sabbath, even a rabbi for His community. He understood the importance of being in communion with one another; and that leads me to conclude that though spiritual is good, spiritual and religious is even better.
I’ll write next about CND, those many church-goers who are consumers not disciples…