Spiritual but Not Religious? Not So Fast: Disney, I-Clouds and New Religion

People are more religious than they give themselves credit for. But who are these new gods, what is this new spirituality, and what is the object of our new belief?
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About a year ago I attended an excellent conference on the great American author, Flannery O'Connor, at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus. O'Connor is a colossal figure in American letters -- not only because of her superior literary craftwork, but because she resides in the Holy of Holies in the hierarchy of writers of Catholic fiction. Moreover, O'Connor always inspires deeper thought about what it means means to be "religious" and "spiritual" in the late modern age, a dichotomy that piques the interest of reflective people everywhere.

During one of the breaks at the O'Connor conference, a friend and I took advantage of the fine weather and strolled down Michigan Avenue to take in the sights. News of Steve Jobs's death had hit the wire and we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Apple Store in the midst of nothing less than a religious event. Scores of people gathered in mournful assembly to bear witness to Jobs' passing; hundreds of Post-It notes were bannered on the store windows with messages of farewell, gratitude and other forms of spontaneous prayer. If this was not the death of a god, at least it was one of a prophet of the age. I thought about it again, the insights from the O'Connor scholars effervescing and coalescing with my own ideas about new forms of religion and being religious in an increasingly secular age. Looking at the makeshift shrine on Michigan Avenue, I concluded again: people really are more religious than they give themselves credit for. But who are these new gods, what is this new spirituality, and what is the object of our new belief?


It's a commonplace bifurcation and we've all heard the line before: "I'm spiritual, not religious." So many contemporary thinkers, in decrying institutional religion as destructive and backward-thinking, have revealed a cultural juggernaut. In one way or another, we all seem exhausted by the erratic behavior and rank fallibility of big religion and prefer, more and more, the perceived credibility and utopian autonomy of our own personal spiritualities. There is even a "Spiritual but not Religious" community (SBNR) online -- whether it will reach the status of religion or not is anybody's guess. We may have encountered the phenomenon more intimately around the table recently as our forks and knives met our Christmas roasts. Maybe this time, given all of the troubles and intrigues that the Catholic "brand" has experienced, it was one of us who joined the movement and said, "I too have had it with religion; I too am spiritual and not religious." I am here to tell you, I think we have it upside down: the preponderance of evidence suggests that we are more religious than we are spiritual. We are as hungry for worship -- to worship -- as we ever were, but we have substituted the supreme object of worship with other supreme objects of our own making. The structures of ritual adoration and belief remain intact, but the specific liturgies, sacraments and devotions have been recast to fix upon other content -- newer and shinier objects of belief and ultimate concern. Consider the religious character of professional football, of Hollywood culture, of Western consumer culture. Do not all of these contain and operate upon the architectural components of religious belief, with their attendant prayer books and devotions, with their apostles, prophets and commentators? It's been clear for quite some time now that Nietzsche was right on at least two counts: 1) as far as contemporary culture is concerned, God is dead (and be advised -- we are the prime suspects in this contract killing); and 2) because we are so naturally and helplessly religious, we have created familiar cartographies of worship and linked them to new gods of our own making. We have created new temples of belief and poured new wine into the oldest skins. In short, the religious instinct is stronger than ever.

There is nothing terribly original in this observation. There are many varieties of golden calves and some even come with re-chargable batteries. I used to work at Disneyland when I was an undergraduate and often passed my time by listing all of the ways that visiting the Happiest Place on Earth resembled the practice of pilgrimage in medieval Europe, the ways that going to Disneyland had become a religious act. The similarities, as one can immediately appreciate, are vast. Hungry travelers journey systematically, making various stops in different lands as they set their communal focus on the bigger picture. Significant challenges ensue as the physical and emotional work of doing Disney is nothing if not a kind of spiritual trial. Thresholds are passed; and we experience -- individually and in community -- the ecstasies, beatific visions, virtual deaths and rebirths that attend religious experience. By the end we realize the desired content of our ersatz faith. It's "happiness," of course, and it is achieved as far as it can be in this setting, a peculiar blend of psychological consolation mixed with, more often than not, an un-nameable sense of spiritual desolation. Sacred trinkets are purchased as sacramental icons and remembrances. Plans are made for another pilgrimage in the next year and protracted Disney experiences will sustain us in the parishes and outposts of Disney culture while we bide our time in the days between. In this version of happiness -- like so many others -- the longing for communion remains because the pilgrim is left essentially unsated. In the end, Disney cannot provide the kind of happiness we crave.

As I walked by the Apple Store last week I was reminded again of the passing of Mr. Jobs and the tension between "religious" and "spiritual" in our time. As I paused to watch devotees of Apple products engaging in communion with the items of their religious practice, I was struck once more not only by how religion and spirituality have reached an almost comic level of topsey-turveyness, but also with the stark recognition that Marshall McCluhan's prophetic insight from 1964 is made manifest every minute of of every day in the digital age: the medium has indeed become the message. McCluhan's observation, moreover (and let us note that it is no longer as shocking or radical as it was 50 years ago), best explains our current state of affairs in regards to the perceived chasm between religion and spirituality. In mass media culture, where, if you will, "religion" becomes the formal media and "spirit" becomes the content mediated, it is religion, not spirit, that rules the day. iPads illuminate texts quite literally and the texts take the backseat in this negotiation. Apple "Geniuses" offer homilies from priestly pulpits to help us interpret the screens and counsel us -- ever so gently -- toward a kind of new media orthodoxy. Devotees ambulate through their temples of belief, ear-bud scapulars dangling over their shoulders. The tools of digital expression have become both the form and content of a value system and all is awash in a media whose main object is itself. Do I strain the soup too thin? Admittedly so, but you get the picture.

You Keep Using That Word: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think it Means

The word "religion" finds its root in religio, which means "to bind." And herein lies the main point: we like being "spiritual" because the concept, as we perceive it, makes no claim upon us. It binds us to nothing -- or at least nothing communal, confessional or public. Of course, it is liberating to be masters of our own faith practices. To be both founders and adherents of a "Sheila-ism" or a "Murph-ism" -- that is, to participate in the postmodern practice of inventing and practicing one's own hodge-podge religion -- is a uniquely empowering proposition. The problem is that it is also an isolating, atomizing and ultimately inauthentic approach to spirituality. When we are in our own iClouds, if you will, we think we are free. But to be truly spiritual, ironically, is to be bound to something greater than ourselves. It is to be in relationship. It is to be earthy and physical precisely because we are seeking the transcendent; and the transcendent, as St Thomas Aquinas demonstrated so persuasively, moves through the finite. As Flannery O'Connor wrote in regards to writing her transformative fiction, "I beat on matter until I find the spirit in it." Spirituality is more physical -- more messy -- than we often realize; and true spirituality does not point to some airy-fairy nowhere of a vapor-land where all is abstracted and/or privatized by our will. Because we are made in the image of God, we are not an either/or species. Shall we be all color and no structure? Shall we be odor and scent without form? Souls without a bodies? A rose made of ice? Spiritual and not religious? The spirituality we religiously espouse is really not spirituality at all. To be truly spiritual is also to be authentically religious. It is a both/and affair; it is to participate wholly. It is a continual act of will, a choice to participate in a tradition that seeks, however imperfectly, to navigate the mysteries, a tradition that is both always in need of reform and always in need of full participation.

The Imago Dei: Or, Our Hearts Are Restless...

The Jewish personalist philosopher, Martin Buber, made popular a grammatical dynamic of true spiritual encounter. He called it the "I-Thou" state, a place where persons encountered one another in loving freedom, the ultimate of these "I-Thou" encounters taking place between the individual person and God, a fertile dialog between religion and spirituality. In Apple theology we have a lots of "I's" but very few "Thous" and this explains much about the contemporary ethos that claims to be more "spiritual" than "religious." The point is not to give Apple a good drubbing (for it can be argued that Apple is the most relational technology going and that Jobs was inspired by Renaissance humanism); but as an icon of the digital age, the Apple phenomenon perfectly represents our misdiagnosed and misconstrued ideas about the relationship between religion and spirituality.

Flannery O'Connor wrote: "Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing." The Incarnation of God in history is the locus where all of these false dichotomies cohere, are redeemed and reconciled. Jesus alone is able to be form and content, singer and song, rose and thorn. Jesus alone negotiates opposites, especially where spirituality and religion are concerned. The religious dimension is essential, but let us not confuse the yearnings of the spirit with the formal expression of these yearnings. Spirituality thrives best in liturgical participation, sacramental practice, and in dialog in and with the church. It is an oft-quoted insight, but St. Augustine put it best: "Lord you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." We are bound to the God who walked among us, bound to the God whose empty tomb founded the church, bound to the God who calls us by name and draws us into relationship. When we find the balance between religion and spirituality, we will enter into this marvelous conversation with both ears. After all, a bird doesn't fly on one wing!

Michael P. Murphy teaches theology and directs the Catholic Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago.

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