Spiritual but not religious? You should read this.

There are countless ways that we can make music, and many of them can be found in my home. I own an $8000.00 saxophone, and a $10.00 clay whistle. There are two guitars, several plastic recorders, a flute, two clarinets (one, an unplayable antique), and three fairly decent singing voices – not to mention the wide variety of electronic gadgets that play an even wider variety of recorded music. And the latest edition – a perfectly wonderful electronic organ; a gift from friends.

Yes, we are a musical household – but not ‘musicians’; there is a difference, at least in my mind. Music is a personal joy rather than a professional obsession. When my music and my vocation intersect, it is helpful and joyful and occasionally even appropriate, but most often the two pursuits occupy very different parts of my brain. You see, I studied music long enough to understand the basic principals behind good music making – and I made some pretty good music along the way – but I realized early on that to pursue a career in music – to be a musician – required more of me than I was willing to give. The idea of good music still excites me – it lifts my spirits and soothes my soul; but I am just as happy to hear someone else make that music.

So it seemed to Paul, newly arrived in Athens, where religion was concerned. Paul finds himself in Athens on the strength of a vision. While waiting for his friends, he continues the mission, meeting first in the synagogues, then in the markets, with Jew and gentile alike, pleading Jesus case. But Athens is different from the other places; a city of learning, of culture, whose citizens are used to hearing (and debating) new ideas – a fertile field, you might say; the perfect place for a guy like Paul. And in this place, he notices something; everywhere, there are idols, temples and things of religious significance – and as a faithful child of Abraham, he is discouraged. His own faith and experience tells him there is but one God, who has been revealed (in spectacular fashion, to Paul) in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul knows that he must offer them his story…but how?

It is a stroke of genius, really; he has noticed, among the vast array of religious artifacts, including an altar ‘to an unknown god’, and he uses their respect of religious things to share the Gospel with them. His speech moves some of them to join him and become believers (Acts 17: 34).

And how can this be of any use to us, you ask?

We inhabit a time and place that couldn’t be more different than Paul’s Athens. Modern conveniences and the lessons of history have convinced us that we are, in fact, in a much better time and place. Our habits as human beings however are not so different Technology has turned us into ravenous consumers of information – we spend our time doing nothing “but telling and hearing something new.” (Acts 17: 21). This knowledge has (among other things) connected us with a wide variety of religious and spiritual practice and tradition – and our sense of ‘liberation’ has freed us to be consumers of these ideas. Failing the usual methods of religious expression – worship, ritual and service offered out of new understanding – we make new beliefs out of old and misunderstood practices; so on the ‘religion’ shelf at most bookstores we find everything from Roman Catholic prayer books to palm-reading and tarot card guides. Our defense for this is that we are “Spiritual, but not religious.”

I used to consider myself in that category. It was a reflex against the hard (and often dangerous) work of religion, which is divisive and clearly defined by necessity – Spiritual seems so much gentler; more humane. No Spiritual person would prosecute a crusade, or launch a jihad. Spirituality is surely the realm of compassion and good feelings, while religion denotes rigid structure and self-righteousness. The choice is easy, and that’s the problem.

There is no genuine spirituality without religion – and every effective religion produces spiritual change (and practices) in its followers. We separate the two because religion demands hard work of us, and we prefer to be aficionados – we are happy to be surrounded by the trappings of religion, so long as we are free to use only what suits us. As I grew in my faith, and began to study, I realized that the hard work was necessary for me to truly appreciate the spiritual benefits, and so I took a path to Ordination. Which is why I appreciate the genius of Paul’s argument in Athens.

Paul speaks as an ‘expert’ – as a musician among music lovers. In a city full of curious people, Paul appeals to their respect for the products of religion; the rituals, the objects, the prayers that offer protection. Paul apeals to their hunger for something ‘other’ – a hunger that is present in all of us.

We are among those whose hunger has been satisfied – and like a musician in a room full of instruments, it is hard to resist the urge to make some music. Sure, it is easier to be in the audience; to appreciate the gift offered by “the experts” among us – and yes, even the experts need to be fed. But in a world that wants to take the easy way out, we are all experts in the gospel. We are religious and spiritual, every one. And we have been called by Christ to witness to the gospel.

It is hard work; dangerous work by times. It requires dedication and determination to move past the simple solutions and accept that, in Christ, God has done an amazing and mysterious thing. But our religion has produced spiritual fruit, and it is our job to feed the hungry.


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