Religious But Not Spiritual

Jefferson Bethke's YouTube video, "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus," has been viewed by more than 18 million people. Bethke raises questions about the intentions of Jesus and the nature of the Christianity, and these questions are properly dealt with by Christian thinkers. But the video and its incredible popularity touch upon broader issues that are deeply rooted in the history of the Abrahamic traditions and that impact the lives of all American religious believers.

Many of the commentators have seen Bethke's arguments as a reflection of recent trends that show growing skepticism among younger Americans about organized religion. These trends exist, but it is amusing to suggest that the problems that Bethke points to are in any way new. They are not. They are as old as religion itself.

Bethke yearns for an intense, personal relationship with God, a yearning given expression by the words of the Psalmist: "God ... I search for You, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for you" (Psalms 63:2).

Yet when Bethke looks to religious institutions -- established communities usually directed by a religious officialdom -- he does not find support for his search. What he finds, in fact, is the opposite: self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He finds people who speak the language of morality and caring for the oppressed while actually focusing on themselves rather than others. He finds rules that seem to him to be confining and controlling rather than liberating. And he gives voice to the anger expressed 2,500 years ago by Amos, Isaiah and Micah, who made it clear ("I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies," Amos 5: 21) that morality is supreme over ceremony and sacrifice.

But when he seems to jump from this devastating critique to the dismissal of organized religion altogether he has gone too far. And when he apotheosizes spirituality as the alternative to religion, I groan in dismay.

I hate spirituality, at least as it has come to be used in these contexts. Spirituality is a weasel word, impossible to define or pin down. It can, and does, refer to pretty much anything. The only thing that it seems to mean with certainty is the absence of the disciplined, regular, organized spiritual seeking that is so essential to religious belief and moral behavior.

And we need that. I need that. Because as much as I may thirst for the holy and yearn for God, I know that there will be times when I will be tired, distracted or lacking in inspiration; and when that happens, I will simply be incapable of heartfelt prayer or moral uplift. I know that spirituality is a matter of moods; sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not, and therefore it is never enough. I know that the "behavior modification" that Bethke dismisses is precisely what I -- and most of humankind -- must have to do.

Spirituality, by definition, is an occasional impulse, while ritual, liturgy and taught moral behaviors serve to keep me in relationship with God. Spirituality is intensely personal, while only structured community can give me the language, the rites and the ethos that enable me to be in readiness for the sacred.

I don't mean to be too hard on Mr. Bethke. The fact is that religious institutions -- of all kinds and all sizes, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim -- are prone to the shortcomings that he has set forth. And religious history is nothing if not a narrative of ossified religious establishments that are revived and energized by rebellious young people who find their religious structures to be unimaginative, self-serving and too limiting.

But in the final analysis, there is no substitute for religion of the organized sort. Spirituality is a day trip, while religion is a journey. And we will only find God if we commit to that journey.