Many of us have heard someone say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” This has become a popular identification for people in today’s culture as traditional, structured religion is spurned in favor of individualism and “freedom.” But what do people actually mean when they say they’re spiritual but not religious? And how can the Church respond and learn from this movement?
Father John Bartunek has written on a book on this topic, titled Spiritual but not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World. Fr. Bartunek joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss his book.
“Many people think that religion is actually disassociated from transcendent meaning,” says Bartunek. “They have maybe had experiences of people who are very religious but don’t seem to be very spiritual,” people who lack joy and a desire to search for meaning and adventure.
“So, when they think of religion, they don’t think of someone who is spiritual. They think of someone who maybe follows some rules, someone who is very judgmental […] and I think that’s one of the reasons why people will continue to say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’”
Fr. Bartunek urges Christians not to be afraid to share about their own spiritual experiences, because this can help bridge the gap for people between the spiritual and the religious. “You can help by witnessing to your own spiritual experiences, experiences of transcendent meaning, of truth, of goodness, of God’s beauty and how that has moved you. That can be a witness that can open them, can take down that wall of prejudice against religion.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Father John Bartunek dive deeper into the “spiritual but not religious” conundrum.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. You may have heard about the rise of so-called “nones”—that’s people with no religious affiliation. Interestingly, many of these people consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious. What are the implications for our culture, and how do we go about sharing our faith when this is the case?
John Bartunek, who recently released a book on this very topic, is joining us today. The book is called Spiritual but not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World. It looks at this growing trend and offers insight into how we can engage with the “spiritual but not religious” perhaps members of our own families and in our communities. One interesting factoid about our guest: he provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.
Father John Bartunek, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: The suicide rate in the U.S. has been rising rapidly in the past few years. The statistics are actually startling, and the number of clinically depressed is very high, especially among women where it’s hovering around 10 percent. So how do we explain today’s lack of fulfillment and community despite living in a country of abundance and seemingly having everything at our fingertips?
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there’s probably many different causes which come together in different ways for different people. But as a priest and from the contact that I have with people in the confessional and then various forums, I can definitely say that the lack of a sense of meaning, of transcendent purpose in life, is definitely one of those factors that’s contributing to this. The sense that yeah, we have a lot of material abundance. We have a lot of possibilities for staying connected with people on a superficial level, but we’re actually made for more, you know? We’re spiritual beings in God’s vision; it’s how he created us. We actually yearn for some kind of meaning that goes beyond the passing material things.
TRACI GRIGGS: But why is “religious” less attractive and how does this create problems for us?
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: So, the concept of this book—the difference between spirituality and religion is really an important distinction for this book, Spiritual but not Religious.And when I kind of got the idea for the book, it was after an extended period of time. And I used to hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Even back in the 90s, but in the last 10 years or so, I’ve heard it many more times, more and more frequently. And so I started asking people to tell me what they mean by that, rather than just assuming that I knew what they meant. And in those conversations, it really brought up that there are various reasons that people are not attracted to religion. What attracts people to spirituality is when they say “spiritual,” what they mean is, “Well, I’ve had some sort of transcendent experience. Some sort of experience that touched me more deeply than any material pleasures or any material success. And I liked that. It resonated deeply with me, and I value that and I’d love to have more of that type of experience.” So when they say “spirituality,” they’re talking about “my experience of transcendence.” Transcendent meaning—true, good, beautiful—all the things that lead us to God, right? Unfortunately, because of various reasons and the history of our culture and in people’s lives, many people think that religion is actually disassociated from that transcendent meaning. So, when they think of religion, they don’t think of someone who is spiritual; they think of someone who maybe follows some rules, someone who is very judgmental. So, they don’t associate the two things; there’s this divorce, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people will continue to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
TRACI GRIGGS: I wonder if many people make their judgment about religion, especially Christianity, without ever having delved in or look deeply at the beliefs there.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, and you know, it does happen still. People will pick up the Bible or people will walk into a church and something strikes them, something of the beauty, something of the truth. And people are still converting, joining the church, experiencing God, growing in holiness. This is still happening; it’s not a complete wasteland. But I think there’s certain prejudices which are often subconscious that people have against their traditional religion, which usually happens to be some sort of Christianity, right? This ties in with one of the reasons why they think religion doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality: they have maybe had experiences of people who are very religious but don’t seem to be very spiritual. In other words, they meet people who are very faithful to the norms of the church, to the teachings of whatever church they belong to, but in their daily lives they don’t seem to have that sense of joyful purpose, that sense of adventure, that “I’m seeking to discover more of the meaning of life.” And so they think it’s kind of spiritually dead or dormant. So, if that’s how they think of religion, then they’re going to have this prejudice. Even if they pick up a Bible, they’re going to say, “Oh, the Bible, that’s what made so-and-so the way they are. And I don’t like the way they are, so I don’t want to read the Bible.”
They can have these prejudices I think, which will keep them from really opening themselves up to the spiritual dimension, which is at the heart of religion. And the sense of search, right? Even we who are believers—we have the answers to life’s deepest questions—but even though we have the answers, we can continue to discover all the richness of the truth and goodness and beauty of God. Those answers, the truths as expressed in the scriptures, those help us along our journey. But the journey to holiness, to deeper communion with God, is something that doesn’t stop on this side of heaven. And many times I think we forget that and we think that, “Well, I’ve got to have all the answers so I’m supposed to be complete as a Christian.” And so we lose that sense of dynamism and our own spiritual growth. And so that’s where I think we can sometimes, without realizing it, communicate a certain deadness to our religion, a certain static, like a static type of religion rather than a dynamic religion. And people who have experienced some spirituality and felt moved by some experience of truth, goodness, and beauty, they want more so that they have a sense that I’m still searching; they have a sense that the spiritual life is dynamic. If we recognize that and can dialogue about that, then I think we can connect with these people and really build some bridges.
TRACI GRIGGS: Wow. That just makes me sad for believers. If that’s the case, there’s a sense perhaps in their lives that this searching and wrestling is not appropriate.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah. But I think it’s there and I think some people sometimes actually even feel a little bit guilty if they have some questions: “I’m actually a believer; I practice my faith, I pray, so I’m supposed to feel satisfied and joyful all the time.” And so they might even have a tendency to silence some of the questions, some of the struggles, and that’s unfortunate. I think we need to create kind of forums as believers, where we can actually really be sincere and honest. And even, I’ve noticed, sometimes people don’t feel free to actually be completely honest in prayer. They’ll say, “Well, I can’t complain to God because that would be a sin.” Well actually not necessarily! If you look at the book of Psalms, which is the prayer book of the Bible, right? You know, a third of the psalms are complaints. They’re just cries of the heart: “How long Lord?” “Where are you?” “Why have you abandoned me?” The whole drama of the human experience is still part of our lives as Christians. The difference is that we know where we’re going and we don’t engage or kind of endure that drama all by ourselves. We have God; we have the saints; we have each other; we have the sacraments. So, I think that the drama is important for us to give ourselves permission to experience that ourselves. And then we really can connect with those who are experiencing the drama without knowing what the right path is.
TRACI GRIGGS: When you talk about—in your book—the temptation for believers to be religious and not spiritual, is this what you’re talking about?
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah. It’s the temptation to think that the essence of religion is complying with certain rules or laws or formulas, and that’s not the essence. The essence of true religion, Christian religion, is a relationship with God. “And then Jesus said, ‘I no longer call you slaves; I call you my friends.’” The whole concept of grace is that we participate in God’s own life. We enter in to that joyful exchange of relationships, which is the Trinity. So, the essence of religion is always a relationship. When sometimes in different seasons of our life, if we get busy or we lose sight of that—or just even because of the spiritual battle that’s going on—sometimes we lose sight of that and we just reduce our religion to certain practices. And so then we can become a little bit like the Pharisees. Remember the Pharisees in the gospel? They were following all the rules, but they had really lost their capacity to hear the voice of God speaking to them in a relational way. So, they didn’t even recognize Jesus. And that’s always the danger for someone who is a true committed believer, that we can become more like the Pharisees and lose sight of that centrality of a relationship, that dynamic relationship.
TRACI GRIGGS: Right. And you actually wonder, don’t you, if believers who fall into that trap have stopped reading the word because those themes of grace and a relationship are all through the Bible.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah, I think that can definitely be part of it. Although, you know, the Bible never exists in a vacuum, right? You know, having contact with the Word of God and to be enriched by that and to be enlivened and continue to be guided, takes a certain context of living life in the Holy Spirit, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of skeptical scholars who study the Bible all the time and they might not even be believers, right? But they studied the text as kind of a literary work. So, it’s possible to have contact with the Word without it actually nourishing our heart. That’s why it’s important to continue to cultivate all the different areas of our lives as Christians, which are important for us to keep growing. Personal prayer, which obviously you can combine with the scriptures. And then fellowship—I mentioned that earlier—intentional growth in virtue. You know, how am I imitating Christ in my relationships in my daily life? And then also being engaged in the mission, responding to the inspirations of God to actually go out and help others find Christ. That’s an essential element of being a Christian. If we’re not doing that, we’re beginning to get a little arteriosclerosis in our spiritual arteries. We have to kind of be responsible and keep active in different areas of our lives in order to really live, leaning on the Holy Spirit. And that enables us to continue to receive from the Word of God all that God wants to give us.
TRACI GRIGGS: You know, that is a great checklist I think to look at that in our lives: personal prayer, fellowship, intentional growth, and engaged on mission. If some of those are lacking, I think that’s a good practical list for us to do some self-assessment. For those of us who know people who have family members that use this term, they are “spiritual without being religious,” how can we reach out to them? What are some unique ways that we can do that?
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: So that’s a great question, and that’s one of the reasons that I wrote this book Spiritual but not Religious. But bottom line, there’s two things we can do. One is, when you meet someone who would consider themselves spiritual but not religious, ask them sincerely to tell you about their spiritual experiences. Then listen really sincerely and try to get to know that, and try to even enrich yourself from what they’ve experienced. Because if they say that they’ve had some sort of spiritual experience, that’s been meaningful to them. So just hear that. And that hearing in itself can begin to build a bridge because they might know that you’re religious and then they see you actually listening to them, and valuing their own spiritual experience. Maybe that can help lower some of their prejudices. The second thing is, don’t be afraid to share your own spiritual experiences. You just help by witnessing to your own spiritual experiences, experiences of transcendent meaning, of truth, of goodness, of God’s beauty and how that has moved you. That can be a witness that can open them, can take down that wall of prejudice against religion and by listening to them share their experiences, same thing.
TRACI GRIGGS: We’re coming close to the end of our time here. Fortunately, we can go get your book and it’s called, Spiritual but not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World. Can you tell us more about how we can find that? .
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK: Yeah, sure. You can find the information about that book and my other books at our website, rcspirituality.org. It’s a great place to find this book and plenty of other stuff as well.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you so much, John Bartunek, author of Spiritual but not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World. Thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters.