A couple of years ago I was watching one of those TV talent show featuring a panel of celebrity judges critiquing various acts and deciding who would continue on in the competition. On this particular episode, one of the contestants performed an artful display of indoor kite flying set to music (it was actually pretty cool). At the end of the performance, one of the judges remarked, “That was very spiritual!” to which the audience cheered with approval.
It got me thinking. What did that judge and audience members see in the performance that made it spiritual? Don’t get me wrong — I loved the act; it was unique, expressive and soothing to watch. But I was curious about what made it “spiritual” in the eyes of some. As a pastor and lifelong believer, I’ve always applied that adjective to matters of faith, like worship, prayer and living out the teachings of Scripture, etc. Obviously, there are varying opinions about what makes something spiritual.
In an effort to better understand different viewpoints, I performed “extensive scientific data research”. OK – I googled it. But to my surprise, a simple online search revealed results I believe provide a good starting point in the conversation, and in some ways, gets to the heart of the matter. One definition went this way:
“Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
The other stated:
“Of or relating to religion or religious belief.”
Well, that clears things up, doesn’t it? In my simple mind it does. At the very least, I think it points to a distinction which may help explain why one person would view musical kite flying as “spiritual” and another see it simply as interesting. Is something spiritual because it is inspirational (an emotion conjured up within me) … or because it is religious in nature (belief in something external to me)?
Maybe I’m splitting spiritual hairs, but there is actually actual scientific research that seems to clarify the distinction. A January 2016 article by Pew Research caught my eye with this title: Americans may be getting less religious, but feelings of spirituality are on the rise. (The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact gathering organization that researches public opinion and conducts analysis on social science data.)
The article stated:
Americans have become less religious in recent years by standard measures such as how important they say religion is to them and their frequency of religious service attendance and prayer. But, at the same time, the share of people across a wide variety of religious identities who say they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe has risen.
I was not surprised at the results of the article. As a pastor, every once in a while I will have a conversation with someone who tells me, “Well…I’m spiritual but not religious.” My general sense is that for some folks today, spirituality is seen as something private and individual – how you get in touch with the divine (however you define the divine). Religion, on the other hand is seen as “institutional” — lots of rules, dogma and doctrine.
The challenge for spirituality of an individual nature lies in its subjectivity; two people can have two different opinions about what makes something spiritual (see my comments about kite flying above). And because of that, it makes sense that individual emotion and inspiration work their way into the mix. And before you know it, my spirituality becomes just that – mine. In an extrapolated sense, I then become the center of my spirituality, because I most paying attention to what I think and feel.
But what about God’s perspective of the issue? What about His role in spirituality? What about His standards of grace and truth? Could there be a form of spirituality that lies outside of me, that doesn’t depend on my feelings, emotions in order to exist… something that compels me to cling to and believe in?
The answer is “yes”… and that leads us to religion — a belief in and worship of something supernatural outside us. For Christians, that belief is made manifest in Jesus Christ and in many ways, is the antithesis for individual, self determining spirituality. Through Jesus, God seeks us calls us into a spiritual relationship with Him. Why is it spiritual? The Bible describes it this way in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Feeling, emotions and opinions can fluctuate. Some days I am more motivated than others. For that, I am thankful my spirituality doesn’t depend on me. Instead, I am thankful for a God whose emotions and opinions never fluctuate, whose “motivation” always remains constant. I thank God for His Spirit given as a gift through His reading and hearing His Word (the Bible)…and through preaching, my Baptism and Holy Communion.
I thank God for things that cause my emotions to stir – eye-catching sunrises and sunsets, beautiful music… and even artistic displays of kite flying! But most of all, I thank God for the gift of His Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies me and the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. And I thank God that “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever!” (Isaiah 40:8)
(Image Credit: Toni Verdú Carbó)