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In religious community I have learned extravagant generosity, abiding human connection, limitless grace, serious forgiveness, and above all who I am as a person created by God.
Nothing gets my righteous religious blood boiling more than, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I hear it a lot. Did I say a lot?
Here’s the scene: I’m in a crowd of people. Let’s say, small intimate dinner where I’ve recently been introduced to someone. The natural question arises: “What do you do for work?” I hate this question, but I’ve become more comfortable with it over the past fifteen years. “I’m a pastor.” The responses vary. They are never simple. Sometimes I get confessions, other times I receive gushing reports on their own religious communities, occasionally I am interviewed about my vocational journey. My favorite response is, “Are you a nun or a priest?” Yet the response that I detest is “Oh, that’s nice. I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I’ve learned to move the conversation along. Occasionally, however, when I am especially defensive, I sardonically respond, “I’m spiritual and religious.”
In modern day terminology, “being spiritual” denotes a belief in *god*—in something beyond oneself. It means internally there is a recognition of something beyond what is physically evident in the world. On the other hand, the word “religious” is a modern day no-no in mixed company. Religious to most means institutional, hierarchical, and closed-minded. Without question religious institutions have done profound spiritual damage; they have denied people their own journeys and spiritually abused (and more) those who can’t tow the party line.
In the past few years of my own spiritual journey, I too have become averse to institutional religion. I too am a victim of institutional spiritual abuse. I too think organized religion in America needs a new way of relating to our ever-changing world. Yet I am still spiritual and religious, because I believe my spiritual life can only be fully nurtured through active participation in religious community.
Being spiritual but not religious is easy. It’s like saying, I’m for the environment, but I don’t recycle. Or I read exercise magazines, but I don’t go to the gym. Participating in religious community is hard. It means dealing with all the messiness that people bring to community. It means getting your butt to religious gatherings, usually weekly. Yet with this work comes depth and joy. Gathering with other like-minded people—in my case progressive Christians—week after week, month after month, year after year, my spirit is nourished in a way it never would be alone. In religious community my beliefs are challenged and deepened by others instead of remaining self-serving and stagnant.
Imagine celebrating a holiday alone. Thanksgiving comes and you make a turkey, all the sides, a pumpkin pie, set the table for one with festive candles, and even give a heartfelt prayer of thanks before you sit down to the abundant dinner you have prepared. Would the celebration have as much meaning alone as it would if there were a group of people gathered around the table with you, giving thanks, delighting in every bite, and sharing the experience that is thanksgiving?
In religious community I have learned extravagant generosity, abiding human connection, limitless grace, serious forgiveness, and above all who I am as a person created by God. In religious community I have come face to face with a gracious God who breathes new life into every day. I have done this all with others, with those who help me to grow, with those who are too kind to leave me where I am. And I’ve done this in religious communities, even in institutional religious communities. These communities have called me beyond my limited individual spirituality into faith much deeper and broader.
I am spiritual and highly religious.
*replace the word God with whatever you feel comfortable: spirit, creator, Yahweh, Allah, mother earth, goddess.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.