In his first ecumenical and interfaith gathering as Pope, Francis spoke to the fastest growing religious demographic: the “nones” and atheists. He said that atheists and the “spiritual but not religious” can be allies with the faithful for good.
(Francis) also reached out to those who don’t belong “to any religious tradition” but feel the “need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God.”
Francis echoed his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, saying that the “attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity” has often led to catastrophic violence.
But Francis, who has set a humbler tone to the papacy since his election on March 13, added that atheists and believers can be “precious allies” in their efforts “to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.”
Which is different from another approach, where Rabbi David Wolpe says that being “spiritual but not religious” is by definition incomplete and selfish. This, judging from the comments, really touched a nerve.
Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations; as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a column in the New York Times two years ago: the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not Save the Children or Care, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group.
Aid organizations involve institutions as well, and bureaucracies, and — yes — committee meetings. There is something profoundly, well, spiritual about a committee meeting. It involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference. I have found too often that when people say, “I stay away from the synagogue — too much politics,” what they mean is that they did not get their way. Institutions enable but they also frustrate, as do families and every other organized sector of human life. If you want frictionless, do it alone.
To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others.
This is a conversation we must have. How would you approach it?