I watch your Moments of Torah on Facebook and they help me. Thank you. I am not Jewish but I’d like your advice. I grew up in a very strict and literalistic Christian setting, and that put a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve tried going to more liberal churches, but they leave me a little empty. Truth is, I just can’t connect with organized religion. I still have some of my past in me. I like Jesus and want to follow his example as best I can. But I’m not so sure about Christianity and organized religion, at least for now. My friends tell me that I am “spiritual but not religious.” I think they mean that I’m interested in spiritual things, like love and wonder and justice, even as I’m not religiously affiliated. I want to ask you two things: Do you think it’s OK for some people to be “spiritual but not religious” in this sense? Is the God in whom you believe at work in people like me, too? Thanks again, Rabbi.
* Dear Deborah,
Thank you for reaching out and for having the courage to give voice to thoughts that many people carry with them in silence. Caring about love and justice, cultivating a sense of wonder and joy, these are fundamental human needs that transcend any particular culture or set of beliefs. At their best, the world’s wisdom traditions are attempts to bring mindfulness and sustained focus on these worthy goals. But not infrequently, those same traditions get distracted by their own doctrines or practices as ends in themselves. And we all know the bloodshed and marginalization that can accompany even the best of ideologies when applied with excessive certainty and zeal.
So you are not wrong to hold to a love of spirit while at the same time having a level of ambivalence or distrust for the very religious traditions that attempt to catch the light of spirit in the prism of practice, liturgy, and scripture. Can we just take a moment to appreciate your courage and your heart?
You ask me two specific questions: is it okay to be spiritual but not religious. My first answer is a simple yes, but it’s a bigger yes than you might have asked for. I think it’s okay to be human in lots of different modes. I think it is okay to be religious and not spiritual, spiritual and not religious, neither religious nor spiritual, spiritual and religious (I strive for that last category). Good people come in all sorts of combinations and categories. So the first and deepest answer is yes, it is fine that you tend toward spiritual but not religious.
But you already told me that you watch my podcasts, so there is at least part of your spirit that is open to enjoying religious stories and forms. That’s because it’s not so simple to separate the two. Perhaps what you are resisting is bad religion: religion that thinks it owns the truth, that condemns any other sincerely practiced faith, that pours its energy into condemnation and anger rather than training its adherents to fight their own inner battles for greater peacefulness, joy, and justice. Often when people say they are not religious but they are spiritual, they mean that their energy goes toward decency and gratitude, rather than toward dogma or judgmentalism. If that’s what you mean, then I’m with you in not really being much interested in that kind of religion.
Does God work in people like you? Deborah the real question is does God work in those other kinds of people too. But the Bible is filled with people swelled by false certitude, or inflamed by their own fears and sense of inadequacy, so who all kinds of atrocities in the names of their own religion. Yet God works through them to bring about greater love, justice, compassion, and deeper engagement with each other and the world.
But here’s the paradox: if you can find a community of like minded people - spiritual, skeptical, ethical, kind - then hold on to them and know that together we can achieve levels of growth and social progress that is impossible when we’re alone. That’s why spiritual people often drift back into religious settings. They find places that work on practicing good religion, and that lets their spirits soar.
Let God sit in your doubt and your discernment. Let the Divine fill your heart without worrying about the heresy hunters. Let the Holy One work with and through you to craft a community of real fellowship and covenant.
God loves us all, and delights in diversity. And God loves you.
בברכת שלום Brad Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson Roslyn and Abner Goldstine Dean’s Chair Professor of Philosophy