It is becoming common to hear people today describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. When pressed to explain, their idea of what it is to be ‘spiritual’ is generally confined to vague notions of higher thinking, a feeling of self-realization and liberation. God may not have anything to do with it. When it comes to the ‘not religious’ part of it they are a lot clearer. They do not want to be part of an organized church or religious community. This is so because they are of the opinion that it is not necessary to be part of an organized religion to be spiritual or attain a higher level of thinking. This opinion has spread to such an extent that even many Christians have come to regard organized religion of any kind as not only dispensable, but an evil. What does this mean and what are the implications for us?
Being spiritual but not religious becomes popular
During the 1930s a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the idea of “religionless Christianity”. He became disillusioned with institutional religion and determined to pursue a Christian life without the trappings and ritual of formal religion. Bonhoeffer was ultimately executed by Hitler for his originality. One of the more well known Bonhoeffer Christians is Australia’s former prime minister and now foreign minister, Kevin Rudd. To be free of the mind-numbing, meaningless ritualism of church structures, seen for example in Catholicism and Judaism, may have merit if that is the only result intended. But the idea can end by ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. It is popular today to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious”, supposedly meaning that one can have a relationship with God (possibly not even the God of the Bible), without the trappings of an outdated, rigid and ritualistic ‘church’ framework. Some experiment with eastern mysticism or other exotic disciplines in the search for self-realization and that special feeling of ‘spirituality’. They have deluded themselves that somehow the mysterious other confers some esoteric sophistication that will cause their heart to discover itself (see Prov 18:2). The sad truth is there is precious little to be said for the human heart without God (Jer 17:9; Mark 7:21–23). The problem is when people throw out ‘organized religion’ they are throwing out a lot more than they realize.
What is the problem with doing away with religion?
When we do away with religion we also throw out the need to be reconciled to God, a concept that Brother John Thomas takes great pains to explain in Elpis Israel. He argues convincingly that man’s sin separated him from God and since God is the offended party, He therefore determines the terms on which man can be reconciled to Him. This is suggested by some authorities to be the meaning of ‘religion’. Brother John Thomas writes, “The things of the Way of Life constitute religion. As a word, it is derived from the Latin religio, from religare, which signifies to bind again; hence, religion is the act of binding again, or that which heals a breach … between two parties. This traditional idea the Romans expressed by religio.” This way back to God was the “way of the tree of life” of Eden and God’s “way” of Noah’s day (Gen 6:12). It became known simply as “the way” in apostolic times. This clearly suggests there is a ‘divine etiquette’ to be observed in binding man back to God, that is much more than mindless ritual (see Elpis Israel p156,157).
Religion and humanism. The effect of humanism on Christianity
The first tenet of humanism is that human nature is innately good. As this view has gained currency it has become widely believed that God accepts us as we are and that we do not need to change. This falsehood has been embraced by a large number of Christian churches. Those that still have the doctrine of man’s intrinsic bias to sin on their books maintain an embarrassed silence about it, unless they want to be branded narrow-minded fundamentalists. In the new post-modern world certainty is the new sin and faith the new hubris. Enter post-modern Christianity and its champions, men like pastor Brian McLaren, who epitomizes the spiritual but not religious. Here’s an example of his line: speaking of the Bible he says, “It’s not a road-map to Heaven, it’s a manual for repairing the world. It’s not about preserving the structures of the Church but about staying true to the message of Jesus.” A typical Christian social justice line that sounds persuasive enough on the surface. However McLaren, who was rated as one of Time’s top 25 American evangelists, has a clear post-modern agenda. He was in Australia recently and shared his vision that ‘everything must change’ for the ‘emergent Church’ with Rachel Kohn, presenter of the ABC’s “The Spirit of things”. McLaren, who has multiple degrees in Arts and a doctorate in divinity, said he appealed to ‘the spiritual, not religious’ and claimed Jesus never spoke about conversion. See what I mean? No need for change in man. No conversion. No ‘re-ligion’.
Christ and conversion
Actually, Jesus used the word “conversion” four times in the gospels and expressed the idea in other words many, many times. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). And so did the apostles: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Ecumenism now embraces those who in McLaren’s words are “spiritual but not religious”. People have forgotten that religion means to “bind again” to God, from Whom man has been alienated. McLaren really seriously misrepresents Jesus and transforms him into a champion of humanism instead of the manifestation of Yahweh to men. He embraces the post-modernist position that the ultimate sin is to be certain. Yet Jesus’ whole message of hope is the certainty of his return and establishment of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness as the solution to the world’s dilemma.
Religion and the word of reconciliation
The religion-free spirit is violently opposed to all that God’s Word teaches about the principles of the new covenant, what the Apostle Paul calls “the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). It demands the death of the “old man”, symbolized by baptism and the rise of a “new man” in the image of God. Of course, God hates worship that is inflexible, mindless and lacking in spontaneity. But there is a divinely ordained etiquette by which God must be approached and a divinely ordained body, the ecclesia, founded to nurture faith. This divinely established approach, called “His Way” as early as the time of the flood, was delivered at a great cost to God, and demands a serious commitment from man. How could an arrangement involving such an enormous cost to God, the sacrifice of His own Son, confer so much benefit to man and yet make no demands upon him? This question is completely disregarded by the arrogance of humanism. It is the pinnacle of conceit to think we can have a relationship with God without embracing the “ministry of reconciliation”.
Religion and the privilege of God’s covenant
Psalm 50 is God’s response to such thinking. Verse 5 introduces the covenant: “Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself.” Consider the whole Psalm in relation to the privilege of the new covenant, what it costs and what it requires of us to be re-tied back to God by a covenant. Does God want ritual sacrifice? No, the cattle upon a thousand hills are His. Does the flesh of bulls or the blood of goats move Him? No, of course not! But never fall into the opposite conceit and think that God is “altogether such an one as thyself”; that He can be treated lightly and that He turns a blind eye to sin. For those God has a warning: “… consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.” So what does God want of us? He tells the reader in verse 14: “Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High.” Clearly the covenant God “made … by sacrifice” with His people enjoins certain obligations upon them, to “pay (their) vows” declaring his righteousness and “offer … thanksgiving”. These are the functions of ‘re-ligion’.
Paul in the letter to the Hebrews is at pains to emphasize the indispensability of the covenant God has held out to us in His Son. He quotes from the prophet Jeremiah: “… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind and write them in [upon] their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people … For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb 8:10–12). Compare what he says in Romans 2:14,15: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…” How does something get written on your heart? When it has an emotional impact: things like the “strong crying and tears” of Christ are examples of powerful emotions at work in the struggle between flesh and spirit (Heb 5:7,8).
‘Re-ligion’ and spirituality. God’s covenant produces Spirituality
The new covenant involves an intimate relationship between God and His people based on emotion, a relationship of the heart. God says He will write it there. How will He do this? By the emotional impact of His own Son’s sacrifice. By the emotional impact of the experiences He allows to occur in our lives. Hence Paul urges, “despise not thou the chastening of the Lord” (Heb 12:5). Things written this way are indelibly stamped not just on our minds but our hearts. These things will influence our actions powerfully and spontaneously in a way nothing else can because they arise from something deep within our mind, things inextricably associated with who we are, the springs of our feelings and actions. The disciples were powerfully moved, shaken to the core, by the death and resurrection of their Lord and Master. We too should never underestimate the power and significance of this event upon our lives. There can be no transition from darkness to light, no movement from apathy to action without emotion. “When the emotions are stirred the will is energized”, says Dennis Gillett. This in turn will produce true spirituality, the spiritual-mindedness which is “life and peace” (Rom 8:6).
What is spirituality?
There are as many versions of ‘spirituality’ among men as there are days in the year. Recently the environmentalist John Seed used the expression “eco-spirituality” in an interview on the ABC. His version of spirituality saw us all embracing the “spirit”, which he used interchangeably with the “soul” of not only animals, but of the rivers and mountains. The truth is most people have a very vague notion of what spirituality is and more often than not, it has little or nothing to do with God.
Throughout the Bible, spirituality is represented in a variety of ways, but in the end it always relates to thinking like God and seeing life through His eyes. Here are some defining Biblical expressions of spirituality:
to “walk with elohim”
to “see the sun”
to “enter into that within the veil”
to “walk in the light”
to know “the mystery of godliness”
to “be perfect”
to “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” and “be renewed in the spirit of your mind”
to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.
If we were to look at each of these phrases in their contexts we would readily see the developing pattern. They all convey the idea of a relationship with God in which God’s thoughts influence the mind of men and women and His character is expressed in their actions. This is a long way from the vague notions of the philosophy and vain deceit of men.
Spirituality or spiritual mindedness is referred to by Paul in Romans to contrast with carnal mindedness or the thinking of the flesh. He says true spiritual mindedness is “life and peace”, the very things that elude so many seekers for selfrealization. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that they that are “in the flesh” cannot please God (Rom 8:8). True spiritual mindedness is so far removed from the popular notion of ‘spirituality’ as to be the opposite. Spirituality is thought to be selfrealization. The Bible says it is self-abnegation. This denial of self allows the thinking of God, real spirituality, to develop. “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8:9,10 esv). So ‘spirituality’ or spiritual mindedness is thinking like Yahweh, our Creator, and it cannot be reached without the sublimation of self first. This involves us assimilating the principles of Christ’s offering into ourselves. Christ showed in his life and death that the full manifestation of God is only achieved through the sacrifice of self. So spirituality and religion go hand in hand.
It is impossible to be spiritual without being religious
Ultimately the greatest casualty of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ delusion has to be our appreciation of the grace of God extended in the giving of His Son. This may well be the reason Psalm 50 laid such emphasis on “offering thanksgiving”. To labour under the illusion that one can somehow be ‘spiritual’ without embracing God’s way of reconciliation, is surely to tread under foot the Son of God, to count the blood of the covenant an unholy thing and to do despite to the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:29). In seeking true spiritual mindedness we must embrace the whole counsel of God, remembering it is impossible to be truly spiritual without being religious. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb 10:22–25).
 Post-modernism is a refinement of humanism and rejectingobjective truth is its cornerstone. It bases “truth” and reality ona local narrative or “story” that is true for one class or culture. It does not even have to follow reason, as modernism did.