There are many great things about the "I'm spiritual but not religious" movement: the desire to escape oppressive hierarchies and abusive organizations, the thirst for authentic and real relationships, the confidence to ask questions many people are afraid or unwilling to ask. Yet there is no doubt that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Being "spiritual but not religious," as I hear it, is code for wanting to follow the "god" of one's own image. Here are four reasons I hope to fight that "once-hip-but-now-it's-too-popular-to-be-truly-hip" trend.
1. Anyone can wax poetic about loving "humanity," but what about your crotchety neighbor?
Chesterton said it best when he remarked, "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor." It is all too easy for us to isolate ourselves among people who are just like us, and meanwhile, people who are "different" become harder to understand. Trying watching FoxNews if you're a lover of MSNBC, and vice versa. Now try watching them in order to understand the deeper heart issue for which its viewers are crying out for. You don't have to agree (or even think they're sane), but don't proclaim you're a loving person who loves "humanity" but can't imagine loving half the population of your own country. Being merely "spiritual" often means you're not going to be in community with people you don't like or understand.
2. Duty enhances relationships, it doesn't hinder them
Marriage is the easy example here -- a marriage certificate is not for the less passionate, but the more! It declares, "Even when I change, even when my feelings and moods change, I love you so much I'm willing to cut off options now and live for you in the future." Without a promise like this, we are trapped in consumer relationships that are left to the whim of our appetites. If I join a church, I am vowing to worship God and love my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even when it's not convenient or fun. Consider this quote from Lewis Smedes, "The only way to overcome the unpredictability of your future is the power of promising. If forgiving is the only remedy for your painful past, promising is the only remedy for your uncertain future... When I make a promise, I testify that I was not routed along some unalterable itinerary by the psychic conditioning visited on me by my slightly wacky parents. I am not fated. I am not determined. When I make a promise to anyone I rise above all the conditioning that limits me."
3. Choice is not my God (at least I try to limit my worship of it)
My wife just came home from the delivery of a good friend's baby, and she remarked, "It's like a runaway train, once it starts, you're not stopping it!" In pregnancy and labor it is abundantly clear that so much of it is not our own doing; it is forced upon us. In our modern world, we are left with very few things that we do not have a choice over, but very often they are the best things in life. Even when they are not the best things, they are the things that produce depth and character in ways that having a choice to get out of simply cannot. Consumer choice seldom leads to consumer happiness. I praise God for the relationships in my church I have with folks who are demographically, racially, socioeconomically, generationally, and personality-wise different from me. I don't always understand them, but I can grow in the grace of God more than I could otherwise imagine! The tragedy of the American church is that it all too often aligns itself along the same boundaries as the rest of the country, based in the same partisan choices that the God we claim to worship transcends.
4. Authority can be for our good
I realize this is probably the strangest and hardest to appreciate, since "authority" is almost universally a negative term in our culture. But can you imagine someone with influence over your life that has your good in mind, has a better grasp of your life, is not limited by subjective biases, or to whom you could submit even if you disagree or doubt? I'm not just talking about God. This happens all the time -- take physics, for example, where the best physicists are always building upon the shoulders of giants, whose truths they accept on authority. Church authority, when done based in the grace of the gospel, is meant to steward us away from the sins that so easily entrap us in order that we would see the mercy of Christ. All too often, our problem is that we don't see just how gracious God truly is, and properly regulated authority is meant to guide us toward that.
The "I'm spiritual but not religious" mantra has a great tendency toward selfishness and superficial morality. When we submit to something outside of ourselves, we are actually able to encounter the good, bad, and ugly in another person; we're actually able to encounter another person -- even if it hurts, and even if they support Trump.