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Spiritual But Not Religious: A Mystical Approach

“I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s an increasingly common way for people to identify their relationship to spirituality (as a system for personal growth) and religion (as an institution that requires membership, conformity, and submission). The younger you are, the more likely you will agree that this statement describes you.

It’s ubiquitous enough that it’s recognizable simply by its initials: “S.B.N.R.”

Other ways of describing this is “spiritually independent” and “the Nones” — a delicious pun that can describe anyone who, faced with a form that asks your religious identity, replies “None.”

Meanwhile, churches are facing a membership that is both aging and declining. Every year, it seems that fewer people are adhering to the traditional trappings of mainstream American religion: membership in a local church or synagogue, regular participation in weekly worship along with other activities organized around fellowship, education or service, and adherence to an ethical code that stresses personal morality and conformity to social norms.

S.B.N.R. people usually have thoughtful reasons why they say “no” to traditional religion.

Many people may reject religion precisely for spiritual reasons. They see religion as an obstacle to seeking truth (“If I’m a member of a particular church, I’m told I don’t need to be learning about the teachings of other religions”), or the institution as itself inherently corrupt (“I don’t want to be part of an organization that has covered up the crime of sexual predators”).

Some may recognize internal contradictions within religions that they simply cannot reconcile: for example, churches that pay lip service to “loving your neighbors” and yet tacitly promote a culture of disrespect for queer people or for others who may not “fit in” with the religious group’s identity.

Others might prefer a more scientific approach to questions of truth and meaning, and chafe against any religious idea that “we have all the answers.” In other words, they prefer the possibilities of not-knowing to the closed-system of dogmatic pronouncements.

But not everybody has chosen to be S.B.N.R.

Many people — of all generations — still remain actively engaged in religious observance, and some even resent the idea that, just because they are religious, that somehow means they are not spiritual — or not as spiritual as their non-religious peers.

A Metaphor For Understanding the Spirituality/Religion Divide

As someone who writes about topics like spirituality, mysticism, and contemplative practice, I continually ponder this question of how religion and spirituality relate to one another, both for each of us as individuals and for society as a whole. I’d like to suggest a new way of thinking about the spirituality-and-religion question, hopefully in a way that is positive to both, while acknowledging the real changes that are affecting how people relate to both institutional religion and embodied spirituality.

Here’s a metaphor I’d like us to consider: religion is a chrysalis, and spirituality is a butterfly. This has both personal and collective implications. On a personal level, to be human means to seek to grow: to make that transition from caterpillar to butterfly. On a collective level, perhaps we are at a pivotal point in history where the “butterfly” of mature mystical spirituality is emerging from the “chrysalis” of institutional religion, and preparing to fly.

My own religious/spiritual identity is Christian — interfaith-friendly, to be sure, but still Christian. So I’m going to explore this metaphor using Christian ideas and language. But I believe this could be as easily adapted to any other religious institution or tradition.

Where We Come From: the Chrysalis

Before it becomes a butterfly, the butterfly is a caterpillar. The caterpillar happily conducts its life, munching on leaves, until it reaches a point when it begins to transition into a pupa — a stage of deep interior transformation. The chrysalis is the “shell” of a pupa; on the outside it appears to be inert, while all the action is taking place deep within. Eventually, the newly-formed butterfly emerges out of the chrysalis like a chicken hatching from an egg. After a short period in which its wings emerge, unfold, and dry, the butterfly is ready to fly.

Without the chrysalis, the caterpillar will never become a butterfly. Likewise, if the butterfly does not emerge from the chrysalis, it will never fly.

Religion, at its best, has a social function: to help pass on spiritual wisdom from generation to generation. This is why so many churches also operate schools, or at least “Sunday Schools” or other forums for religious instruction. Indeed, some adults choose to opt out of religious observance for themselves, while still making sure their children get exposed to religious instruction at their neighborhood place of worship (that may have been more common in decades past; I imagine nowadays most people who decide religion isn’t for them don’t feel the need for their kids to be exposed to it either).

Religion “works” when it effectively helps us to evolve from our caterpillar-state to our butterfly-state. And religion fails whenever it keeps its members spiritually stunted, locked in perpetual caterpillar-hood.

When religion-as-an-institution becomes more invested in protecting its own institutional interests than in truly helping its members to fly, it has, in effect, become a dead chrysalis. No longer does it promote life, but rather it has become a spiritual dead end.

And that’s precisely why so many people, especially young people, are opting out of religious observance in our day.

We have access to so much information that even our grandparents could not have imagined. Between the internet, mass media, and even books being more available than ever before, we do not need a local institution (like the church) to provide spiritual education. We do not need the neighborhood church or synagogue to provide us with a community of like-minded believers or a place where we can be of service to others. All these traditional functions of the neighborhood church/synagogue can be found in other ways.

In short, more and more people realize they don’t need the institutional church to make the transition from caterpillar to butterfly.

What Does This Mean: For Religion, and For Spiritual Seekers?

I certainly understand why many people opt for spirituality-without-religion. At the same time, I worry that this can sometimes mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

It’s one thing to reject how institutional religion can foster anti-intellectualism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or can tolerate racism, prejudice against immigrants and refugees, and hostility toward people of other religions. But it’s important to remember that these are institutional problems, and that religion is more than just an institution.

In Christianity, for example, the heart of the religion is the wisdom teachings of Jesus and his followers, the saints and mystics stretching from New Testament times to today. I worry that people who reject the institution because of the institution’s failings might also, unwittingly, be cutting themselves off from a rich and glorious tradition of spiritual wisdom.

Now, some people will reply, “I faithfully attended church for many years, and nobody ever talked about mystical spirituality, or inner transformation, or the kind of alchemy that comes from direct intimacy with God.” Fair enough. The institution has, in many ways, failed to do its job, which is to transmit the spiritual wisdom at the center of the tradition. Because of this, we all have to choose: either to walk away from the institution, or to stay in the institution but fight for its reform.

I’ve chosen the latter. But I respect those who choose the former.

But no matter how you relate to religion, please think about this: a caterpillar still needs a chrysalis to become a butterfly. If institutional religion is dying, then we all have to work together to find ways to keep the wisdom alive, and transmitted from generation to generation.

If you identify as “spiritual but not religious,” my first question is this: does this mean you no longer are affiliated with institutional religion, but you still want to be engaged with authentic wisdom? I suspect most people will say yes.

If so, then I challenge you: where is your chrysalis? Where is your “hard shell” that will give your spiritual life the structure and formation it needs in order to undergo the interior alchemy that will make a butterfly out of you?

Christianity has traditionally taught that we need community in order to mature spiritually. One of the functions of religion has been to express spirituality in a communal way. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that worships individualism; so we need to be careful here: are we rejecting the broken institution, or are we just rejecting community? If we reject community because we find it inconvenient or don’t want to be challenged, then we need to discern carefully: are we making choices in the interest of true spiritual maturity, or are we actually resisting the kind of change that the chrysalis invites us into?

For Those Who Haven’t Given Up on Religion (Yet)…

Now, let me speak specifically to people who have chosen to remain inside the institution: you are active members of a church, faithful Sunday worshipers, and so forth. If that’s you, then you need to beware the temptation for religion to become a rote system of external observance that does not foster real, interior change in your life. Furthermore, you should be asking your church: “What are we doing to make our community a place where real spiritual transformation occurs? Where the emphasis is not on social conformity or tribal identity, but on authentic, interior spiritual unfolding, recognizing that this will look different in different peoples’ lives?” Furthermore, we all need to make sure that our church is not a place that unthinkingly fosters hostility toward people of other faiths, or toward the scientific pursuit of truth, or toward anyone who seems “different” — whether in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, economics, educational level, political party, or whatever. If your church only welcomes a certain segment of the population while excluding others (even subconsciously), then it’s not truly a church, it’s a religious club.

If you are going to remain part of the institutional church, you must be part of the solution that can restore church to its real mission: of helping caterpillars become butterflies. If your church tends to want caterpillars to remain caterpillars (i.e., it rewards conformity rather than authentic spiritual creativity), then something needs to change.

…And for Those Who Have Already Walked Away

And if you have abandoned the institutional church, then I also challenge you to be part of a larger solution: to make sure we still have cultural resources in our society to preserve wisdom and to pass it on from generation to generation. If the institutional church were to simply disappear, I am concerned that in a society where profit is king, that wisdom will quickly be relegated to dusty shelves on a library.

A world without religion may sound appealing to you (think of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”), but if that religion-less world does not have meaningful, mainstream ways to protect, preserve, and promote authentic spiritual wisdom — a wisdom that functions as an alternative to the relentless demands of the profit-driven marketplace — then I fear that we will have just traded one “hell” (the brokenness of the institution) for another — a world where wisdom no longer matters, which sounds like a world where might will make right, and goodness will be eclipsed by endless narcissism.

I’m not invested in the institution as an institution. If it needs to die, let it die. But I am invested in the wisdom teachings of Jesus and the mystics. So whether you are religious or not, I hope you will join with me in discerning how our generation can best pass that wisdom on.

A Future For Spirituality… and Religion?

I want to see as many of us become butterflies as possible. To the extent that I am pro-religion, I want our religious communities and institutions to be in the business of making butterflies.

Karl Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” I believe the Christian of the future — the truly mystical Christian — is the butterfly: spiritually mature, anchored in love, centered in relationships, and soaring to the heights of God’s radical mercy, forgiveness, and joy. Just as there are many different species of butterflies, there are many different kinds of mystics: not all are Christian. But for those of us who come out of the Christian religion, our butterfly-ness will be Christian in nature (even if it is also nurtured by wisdom from other wells).

Likewise, if your religion of origin is Buddhism, or Judaism or whatever, your butterfly wings will carry the color and shape of your religious background.

Many people today are “interspiritual” — their spirituality is nurtured by multiple religious and wisdom traditions. These are the hybrid species, and each has its own beauty.

When a butterfly leaves a chrysalis behind, it no longer contains life. Does this mean — pushing my metaphor to its conclusion — that the institutional church is destined to die?

I don’t think so, because there are new caterpillars all the time. Every new generation needs its own chrysalis experience, even as the previous generation emerges from their chrysalises to fly. So I think we all have an obligation to find ways to pass meaningful and authentic wisdom on to the next generation. Maybe the institutional religions can be reformed to more authentically transmit mystical and contemplative wisdom. Or maybe many new channels of transmission will emerge. Either way, the responsibility remains the same: what are we butterflies doing to help the next generation of caterpillars to find their way into the chrysalis of transformation?

So if you are a butterfly, do not resent the chrysalis. If you are a chrysalis, do not envy the butterfly. Each has its place in the life cycle. We need to embrace a holistic spirituality that includes it all: structures for helping our children to find deep spiritual wisdom, and to apply that wisdom to their lives, so that in the felicity of God’s grace, they learn to soar.

This essay was originally published under the title “The Chrysalis and the Butterfly.”

Would you like to read a charming children’s book that explores this metaphor? Check out Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus.

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