I preached this sermon at King’s College Chapel, Sunday 5th October 2014. The penultimate paragraph was added at the last minute and refers to the killing of Alan Henning.
In recent years Radio 4 has been broadcasting a ‘Point of View’ at ten to nine on Sunday mornings. These brief talks are invariably thoughtful and engaging. They are not sermons in a religious sense, but they often offer insights and perspectives which connect with what people today call ‘spirituality’.
A few months ago the speaker was a Non-Resident Member of this College, Dr Tom Shakespeare. And it was a very ‘Kings-ey’ talk. His point was to take issue with the often heard self-description of people today, ‘I am spiritual but not religious’ or ‘SBNR’, and to replace it with the exact opposite. Thus he invited people to consider the path that he himself is pursuing of being religious but not spiritual: ‘RBNS’. Atheists, he suggested, would be well advised to go to church – or perhaps, and like him, to the Quaker Meeting House.
Intrigued as I was by his counter-cultural approach, I was not convinced. I do not hold the view that you improve Christianity by removing God from it. Rather I am more inclined to follow Evelyn Underhill who in a famous letter to Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang pointed out that ‘God is the interesting thing about religion’.
I have twice spoken in the religion debate at University Union Societies. On both occasions I surprised the person who invited me by agreeing to do so on condition that I could speak in favour of the motion: ‘This house has no faith in religion’. I have no faith in religion. My faith is in God, so I do want to take the ‘spiritual but not religious’ approach seriously, even though the phrase has become a bit of cliché and something of a slogan.
One meaning I have found in it is that people want to distance themselves from intolerant and violent expressions of religion. I can identify with that. Another is that people want to distance themselves from any form of religious hierarchy or authority. I can understand that. Yet I also see the point of hierarchy, and recognise the need for authority beyond myself. I certainly understand myself as an individual with personal freewill and conscience, but I draw the line at individualism. Accountability matters; even in matters spiritual.
Another use to which the ‘SBNR’ label is put is that it helps people excuse themselves from any serious, disciplined or ungrudging participation in formal liturgy or structured acts of worship. I can also identify with that. But it’s the lazy bit of me that is doing the identifying. And one thing I am sure of is that the path to a better future is not the path of indolent self-indulgence, any more than it is the path of intolerant judgement of others.
Let me return to the positive side of ‘SBNR’. People who use the phrase are often looking for a spirituality which has personal, experiential meaning for them; they are seeking spiritual wisdom which connects with the stresses and strains of life today. ‘SBNR’ often means that people are looking for a healthier, more balanced, more meaningful life. And so the phrase labels a set of aspirations that many could identify with and which are positive and respectable.
It is inevitable, I think, that if you are spiritual but not religious you find yourself moving in the direction of the more psychological and applied religions. Buddhism soon comes into focus and often provides the practices which people today most readily identify as ‘spiritual’.
Mindfulness is perhaps the most popular bit of applied religion in the world today. It doesn’t get much coverage in the news pages, of course, or in the headlines. But the number of feature articles, documentaries, new books and, I understand, book proposals about mindfulness is staggering. Mindfulness is very attractive. And there is certainly much to be said for it. We do need to attend gently and yet fully to the present moment and all that surrounds and presses upon us.
But even mindfulness needs qualification and is open to critique. One Buddhist monk I discussed it with was very firm with me that true Buddhism was not interested in mindfulness per se – but in right mindfulness. In saying this he introduced an ingredient to spirituality that ‘SBNR’ often leaves out: the grain of criticism, rigour or astringency which, when finessed by Christian wisdom, tells the spiritual seeker that as a human being they are not simply on the road to wellness, but on the road to truth; not only on the road to peace, but also on the road to justice.
Christianity is a path, a way, which is both spiritual and religious. It is importantly and seriously both. Christianity has no use for the ‘but not’ which hides in the middle of ‘SBNR’. That ‘but not’ is not quite as benign a couple of words as we might first think. There is judgement there, and a spot of hubris, and maybe also some pain.
So yes, we do need to be mindful of the criticism and the longing which the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’ carries. It is a statement of disappointment with religion – and therefore religious professionals like me. But it is also an expression of a deep longing for God, which is why we should reflect on it here.
The response cannot be to defend religious practice as it is. Defensiveness never persuades anyone of anything in the realm of spirituality. The best response, I think, is to shift the ground away from personal peace for the individual and towards ultimate reality and final conclusion.
The Christian name for that is the kingdom or reign of God. That is, the drawing of all people and all things under the loving dominion of God where all is delight, where everyone flourishes in complete fulfilment, and where no one loses out.
The Christian way is a path towards peace, but it is one that knowingly goes through the territory where injustice is challenged and untruthfulness is exposed. To put it more poetically, it involves visiting what Edwin Muir called the ‘fields of charity and sin’. This means that the Christian path inevitably involves a profound seriousness about both spirituality and truth and also about relationships and justice.
It also means that self-sacrifice and even martyrdom make sense within a Christian frame of reference. And it makes a very specific sense: Christian martyrdom is not a fast track to paradise or an escape to nirvana. It is a gift of the self to God’s redeeming, healing and transformative mission. It is never sought. But it is always possible where love, compassion and truth encounter merciless evil.
It is into all this mix that the practices and disciplines and habits that we call ‘religion’ must fit. Religion is not an end in itself, but without religion spirituality is a delusion, just as without spirituality, religion is dangerous. Put them together, however, and you have something supremely powerful. You have a means of grace. A means whereby God, the most interesting and important thing about both religion and spirituality, fills the heart and overflows in attitudes and actions that both witness to and hasten the fulfilment and flourishing of all: the kingdom of God.