The National Catholic Review
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The advent of a new school year reminds every instructor of the persistence of certain catchphrases, clichés and verbal chestnuts much beloved by students and inspires wonder at the sheer staying power of some of the more curious idioms in the collegiate patois. Resurrected again this fall, for example, is perhaps the most shopworn phrase since “the dog ate my homework.” It’s the one heard so often when a young person responds to a question about his or her personal beliefs: “Oh, me? No, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

 

It’s a lovely sentiment, but what exactly does it mean? Rarely what it says, to be sure, for both spirituality and religion in such a formulation are defined in ways probably unrecognizable to any serious practitioner of either. Perhaps the modern-day Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich really are in the student lounge watching “The Secret” or reading Eat, Pray, Love. But I doubt it. My suspicion is that the phrase cheapens the meaning of both religion and spirituality, and in the case of the latter actually hijacks the authority of spiritual traditions thousands of years old.

One must be compassionate, of course. Many fans of such a phrase are at the beginning of a long journey of knowledge and self-discovery, and it is useful to remember the regrettable things one did and said in the folly of youth. I distinctly recall a month during my freshman year in college when I never wore shoes. I also have vague memories of a high school afternoon spent lecturing a Jesuit priest on the similarities between the cult of Christianity and the myth of Santa Claus. No doubt I bored him to tears, but he was thankfully a man of few words, listening to a child of many.

A further complication is that rara avis who really means it, the young person for whom the longstanding traditions of spirituality, either in the East or West, actually play a significant role in daily life. I was once taking a classmate at Columbia University to task for employing the language of spirituality as an alternative to religion when she coolly informed me that she yearly attended a 10-day Vipassana retreat, in which she sat lotus-style in meditation, staring at a wall for 12 hours a day, and so had little interest in a lecture on superficiality.

And yet when I hear students speak of being “spiritual but not religious,” it still sticks in the craw. Yes, I know, the great Buddha was spiritual but not religious, but so was my erstwhile college roommate with the medical marijuana prescription; both approached something they called nirvana. Too often, the phrase implies the smug abandonment of a naïve religiosity in favor of a more sophisticated understanding of the universe, when in fact the reverse may be happening—someone is making an uninformed surrender to the silly wind blowing at the moment, a capitulation to what Pope Benedict XVI denounced as “the dictatorship of relativism.” You’ve got your religion, fine; but me, oh no, I don’t judge. And I’m better than you for it.

Sometimes the phrase also means something relatively harmless, that perhaps “football games are televised at the same time as Mass,” or “you have no idea how embarassing my parents are in church,” or even “I now live in a city where the bars are open until four in the morning on Saturday nights.” And no doubt the expression sometimes allows a young man or woman to retain deeply held beliefs while avoiding the public impression that maybe they’re just a little too churchy to be any fun. Then there are the students who explode the dichotomy, who are both, as their religious faith helps them move into a deeper spirituality that builds on and informs their pre-existing religious views.

Ultimately, however, I suspect there is another reason for the popularity of the phrase. Too many of us have internalized the tiresome commonplace of our contemporary culture that “religion” is the province of all things narrow-minded, dogmatic, intolerant, fanatical and old-fashioned, whereas “spirituality” encompasses that which is open-minded, meditative, reflective and tolerant of all creeds. Unfortunately, so defined, the latter is also inclusive enough to embrace all that is amoral, directionless, apathetic, slothful, banal and pernicious to the human spirit. Given the choice, I’ll stick with what got me this far and continue with my current riposte whenever the subject comes up: “Oh, me? No, I’m religious, but not too spiritual.”

James T. Keane, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

CANDACE FISHER | 9/25/2007 - 5:03pm
When my daughter was about ten, she announced that she no longer wanted to be a Catholic. When I asked her why, she replied that only men could become priests and since she was a girl, what was the point of being part of this religion? I never could give her a good answer to that question, because there isn't one! Perhaps the authority of this two thousand year old spiritual tradition should be
CANDACE FISHER | 9/25/2007 - 5:02pm
When my daughter was about ten, she announced that she no longer wanted to be a Catholic. When I asked her why, she replied that only men could become priests and since she was a girl, what was the point of being part of this religion? I never could give her a good answer to that question, because there isn't one!
FRANK DEVITO | 9/25/2007 - 1:51pm
I can appreciate James Keane's frustration with individuals who describe themselves as “spiritual” (“Of Many Things,” 9/24). The term is sometimes code for an unexamined and/or noncommittal faith life, but I believe this occurrence is an exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, Keane has unintentionally reinforced what he describes as an unfair characterization of religion: “the province of all things narrow-minded, dogmatic, intolerant, fanatical and old fashioned.” He prematurely dismisses his students’ interest in “The Secret” and “Eat, Pray, Love” as examples of beliefs and practices that “cheapens the meaning of both religion and spirituality” rather than examining why they are embracing these messages. As an alternative to speaking from a defensive soapbox, we self-described religious people need to ask two questions: first, what kind of faith are we practicing if popular culture continues to characterize it as “narrow-minded and dogmatic;” and second, why have movies such as “The Secret” and “Da Vinci Code” continue to capture the imagination of the public? I have often wondered how we would have responded to a certain rabbi two thousand years ago who spread a message about the “kingdom of God” and used stories, images, and symbols of his day to communicate his message. Would we have accused him of a religious/spiritual approach that “hijacks the authority of spiritual traditions thousands of years old” and dismissed him?
FRANK DEVITO | 9/25/2007 - 1:51pm
I can appreciate James Keane frustration with individuals who describe themselves as “spiritual” (“Of Many Things,” 9/24). The term is sometimes code for an unexamined and/or noncommittal faith life, but I believe this occurrence is an exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, Keane has unintentionally reinforced what he describes as an unfair characterization of religion: “the province of all things narrow-minded, dogmatic, intolerant, fanatical and old fashioned.” He prematurely dismisses his students’ interest in “The Secret” and “Eat, Pray, Love” as examples of beliefs and practices that “cheapens the meaning of both religion and spirituality” rather than examining why they are embracing these messages. As an alternative to speaking from a defensive soapbox, we self-described religious people need to ask two questions: first, what kind of faith are we practicing if popular culture continues to characterize it as “narrow-minded and dogmatic;” and second, why have movies such as “The Secret” and “Da Vinci Code” continue to capture the imagination of the public? I have often wondered how we would have responded to a certain rabbi two thousand years ago who spread a message about the “kingdom of God” and used stories, images, and symbols of his day to communicate his message. Would we have accused him of a religious/spiritual approach that “hijacks the authority of spiritual traditions thousands of years old” and dismissed him?
LAREINE MOSELY S N D | 9/21/2007 - 2:21am
There is a very thoughtful and nuanced lecture given by Sandra Schneiders, IHM titled, "Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals or Partners?" It is part of the Santa Clara Lecture Series which is a forum for very fine Catholic scholars. This lecture was given in 2000, and can be accessed at the following link: http://www.scu.edu/ignatiancenter/events/lectures/archives/ Enjoy.
Hugo Gonzalez | 9/19/2007 - 8:17pm
After reading James Keane "Of Many Things," I regretted having paid for a web subscription. I found his words "Unfortunately, so defined, the latter is also inclusive enough to embrace all that is amoral, directionless, apathetic, slothful, banal and pernicious to the human spirit," unprofessional and useless. I find that remark offensive even in describing the popular definition of the phrase "I am spiritual, not religious." Reading such an article I can understand why someone might say "I am spiritual not religious."

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