Many people begin a conversation with the words, ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’ Sometimes they go on to articulate a philosophy of being that is fundamentally religious with their acknowledgement of a Supreme Being and their sense of personal obligation, duty and relationship. More often they lose themselves, and me, in a series of well-meaning but inchoate propositions that suggest something between pantheism and humanitarianism. The idea of a personal God who is to be known and loved, reverenced and obeyed, does not fit easily into such a scheme of things. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered, perhaps unfairly, whether to be spiritual as some people explain it is to worship a God made in one’s own image and likeness — a God with all the difficult and demanding bits left out. To be religious, as Christians understand that term, is quite the opposite. The ‘difficult and demanding bits’, with their language of love, sacrifice and obedience, are essential, because they are what conform us to Christ. They are only possible because of the immense otherness of God, his existence above and beyond our understanding, coupled with his immense humility, his willingness to be close to us and dwell within us; but we cannot side-step them. They constitute the Way we must follow.
It is no accident, I think, that the words ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ were, for many years, synonymous with living under monastic vows. The conventional etymology, identifying the words with the Latin religare, meaning to bind, oblige, revere, seems to fit. The monk or nun is someone who has vowed their love and obedience to the Lord in an unbreakable covenant. The emphasis is not so much on our response (living monastically) as on God’s invitation (to become one with him). Paradoxically, that invitation, which binds us to the Lord, leaves us supremely free in a way that ‘being spiritual’ never could. It is as if choosing to follow the guidance of the gospel, the rule and one’s superior cut away all the unnecessary complicatons that being spiritual imposes. The path is Christ, and Christ alone, not a multitude of choices, all apparently equally good, all apparently leading somewhere. That doesn’t mean that following the path of Christ will be easy, but of one thing we can be certain. If we follow it to the end, we shall reach our destination; and I’m not sure that being spiritual will do that for us.