Religion: of a people or just of persons?

“Spiritual but not religious” is a slogan, and like any slogan it sounds insipid and simple-minded to those who take issue with those who use it. Still, I’ve been fascinated by the quasi-concept religion for the last few weeks, and as a result I now find the slogan fascinating (the interest started by finding the work of William Cavenaugh, who argues that the idea of religion is not so much a coherent and stable classification as a tool we use to marginalize certain practices. He gives a good overview of his work here.)

Assume that both spiritual and religious persons want to stand in some relation to divine things. We seem to call this relation religious when it is either:

1.) Ritualistic and formalized

2.) Ritualistic and formalized, and performed by some community

3.) Ritualistic, formalized, and performed by some community where there is an order among the persons relating to God, that is, some persons mediate this relation for others.

There are those who deny being religious in all these senses, but as one moves from 1-3 the denial, it seems to me, seems more and more reasonable to the one who describes himself as spiritual. There are some spiritual persons who deny any place for formalism and ritual, desiring that any time they relate to the divine it must be spontaneous. This is a pretty extreme position, and it seems hard that one would maintain it for any amount of time. All our activities tend to settle into habits, and habits in this sphere of activity count as rituals. This sets into relief the strongest critique of ritual – it is a habit, and habits are easily critiqued as mechanical and therefore inauthentic. In this sphere of activity, mere formalism is particularly insipid, and it has a long history of critique even within the most formalized of religions themselves: Thus saith the LORD: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?  … I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats (Is. 1:11 cf. 1 Samuel 15:22 and Proverbs 21:3).

But to have rituals is not the same thing as to have communal or public rituals, which constitute religion in sense 2. For one who is spiritual and not religious in this sense might have personal rituals (times for meditation, communion with God, etc) but they deny this ritual any communal expression.  Communities seem particularly prone to the critique of inauthenticity that is leveled against ritual. It’s hard to imagine a merely personal ritual whose whole meaning and goal is forgotten, but everyone has experience of communal rituals that have become merely pro forma and mindless. Even worse, we’ve probably all seen rituals that have corrupted into the exact opposite of what they were supposed to be: I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them (Amos 5:21).

But one who is spiritual as opposed to religious in sense 3 is leveling a different sort of critique, and is claiming that religion is a fundamentally different thing than the one who is not religious in sense 1 and 2. Here the problem with religion is mediation. For those who are religious in the first two senses, religion is immediate. Though there is a community for those who are religious in sense 2, the community itself is not religious. Religion is some order to God, and a community is a multitude of persons relating to each other, and so a religious community must be the order of a multitude of persons among each other to God, that is, some persons mediate religion for others. More simply, communities are not just persons sharing a common goal, since there can be common goals even among those who don’t know each other.

The dispute about religion can be cast as a dispute over whether religion is of a person or, in addition to this, of a people.  What is most personal is the center of the person, or the heart, and clearly authentic religion is from this heart. No authentic religion can be indifferent to the offering of the heart. But beyond this, there are also claims that this personal expression must be present within the people of God. We can also put the question in terms of holiness: Is it only the person that is holy, that is, set in order to God (irrespective of whether there is one such person or many); or is there beyond this a holy people, where a multitude is ordered to God in virtue of an order to God among themselves?


  1. RP said,

    February 13, 2012 at 4:21 am

    The answer to your last question is, I think, the Mystical Body. The Catholic religion falls into your 3rd category but even more is needed to categorize it.

    My parish, however, falls into category #2 with the community consisting of the organist, the choir and those people who do what they call singing of totally insipid hymns. We have constant noise from 10 minutes before Mass to 10 minutes after.

    Have you ever noticed the music for the responsorial psalm is generally straight from hell?

    I asked the priest after confession once if it would be a sin to strangle the organist, or an act of virtue. He replied he doubted it was sinful, but if so, only a venial sin.

  2. E.R. Bourne said,

    February 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Although I do think that the slogan is mindless, most of the people who say it probably haven’t thought about nearly as much as you have, James, if at all, I also think that a similar analysis exists at a more general level.

    Historically, religion has always been the expression of a people. Paganism and Christianity, for most of their histories, have always flourished as a communal expression because people understood that community is essential to the good life. Catholicism is a unified religion, yes, but it would be unfair to say that it was practiced in a uniform or centralized fashion for its entire duration.

    Religion, though, can only be wedded to culture, race, or civilization when there is one to be had. Inasmuch as these concepts have been destroyed by liberal individualism in the West for several centuries now, it is not surprising to see that religion or spirituality would be seen as authentic if only practiced in an atomistic way.

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