Piel: Don’t disregard healthy, authentic religion in spiritual search for answers

Our neighbor George recently participated in a (somewhat heated) discussion group concerning whether one was “spiritual” or “religious” or maybe both.

The purpose of the discussion group was to help both sides (religious and spiritual) better understand each other. It turned out debating which one was more meaningful for the contemporary human and which was better for society as a whole.


Those who hold to the phrase “I’am spiritual but not religious” are growing in numbers especially with those who are millennials. Some have labeled those who claim no religious affiliation are “nones.” One person said it is a phrase that describes people who want to live a faithful life but don’t need organized religion to do it.

Some who say they are “spiritual,” added George, in the discussion stressed that those who claim to be “religious” hold arcane doctrines which not only do not allow you to think for yourself (you become a “tool of a religious institution, thus becoming narrow minded) but also “stifling the growth of the human spirit.”

Rather than being “either/or” I believe I am a spiritual human being while at the same time I have lived out my spirituality through organized religion. It is how I grew up and how through the years (uncomfortable at times) I have found it meaningful not only in my personal spiritual search but in how I am called to relate to others.

Before we go any further I need to affirm a negative word about religion. I admit that much of the hatred and many of the wars have been caused by religion. Too often we have stressed fear (thus promoting violence) rather than love. Rather than bringing people together religion has often divided people into differing warring camps. Too often we have accepted doctrine and dogma without using the creative mind given by God to ask “why should I believe that.” Far too often we have allowed our religious faith to make us narrow minded rather than open to the Spirit which we claim is powerful in our lives.

At the same time faith-based congregations have been leaders in the civil rights movement, stood up for the poor and needy, the rights of women, medical facilities and health care, minorities and immigration rights, the power of healing love in a divisive world, given their lives for moral values, challenging racism wherever it is found and the list goes on. Rabbi Harold Kusher wrote “Belief exits inside a person. As such, it has the power and the tendency to separate a person from his neighbors who believe differently. But authentic religion connects people rather than separates them into the elects and the misguided, the saved and those who walk in darkness.”

On the other side I have some deep concerns about the phrase “I am spiritual and not religious.” What is often called “Burger King spirituality” is troublesome when you search for meaning in various places discarding those things that you do not find meaningful all in an attempt to find your own food of inner happiness. One writer calls it “have it your way.” Does this border on “egotism?” Does it have the ability to move you to self-centeredness and away from concern for others? "If it’s just you and God and no prophetic voice that challenges you to go beyond doesn’t it become a little narcissistic? Will my search for personal meaning and truth stand the test of time? The best seller list has been full of books that remind you that you are number one — look out for yourself — and they come and go and the search goes on. I am seeking something more permanent and find my spirituality in healthy organized religion in what, for example, is simply called the “great commandment” — to love the Creator and to love the creation, including my neighbor.

The relationship of my personal spirituality to my authentic religious faith for example often raises the issue — are we spending too much time and money keeping the institution alive while missing the real reason we exist? I often turn to the prophetic voice of Amos that calls me to accountability (and makes me feel uncomfortable) which was written almost three thousand years ago: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals. Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Some place along the way I came upon this quote — not sure of the author but it speaks to me. “Most of us are sane, sincere people who are trying to translate our spiritual experiences into a life that embodies those experiences and organized religion gives us a grounded and healthy means to do so.” Many people today, like those of you reading this article, especially younger people, are spiritually searching for answers to the meaning of life in today’s society like what is truth and where do you find meaning? Disregard sick religion but please don’t give up on healthy and authentic religion. Even organized religion when it is healthy accompanied by a spirituality that is always seeking and searching may well be a good path to take.

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think in these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.