“I am spiritual, but not religious.” It has become the fastest growing religious affiliation. So popular is it, that it now has its own acronym—SBNR. Its appeal is that it supposedly frees its adherents from the trappings of organized religion so that they may become more “spiritual.” What it means to be more “spiritual” remains a mystery because any formal dogma or Creed would signal its death knell. Usually it is about “connecting to God within.” Although the popularity of SBNR has grown, it is not something new. In fact one could say it is the second oldest religion in the world, beginning when Lucifer decided that he too would spend eternity as spiritual but not religious.
Ultimately the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a permanent refusal to have any obligations towards God. The eternal cry of the demons is “non serviam”—“I will not serve.” They desire to be like God, but shun religion. Although their fall was instantaneous, many of the adherents to SBNR slide in the same direction—many not realizing what they are agreeing to when they recite the SBNR mantra.
What is Religion?
Without a doubt, some of the issue has to do with vagaries surrounding the word religious. The English word religion is derived from the Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up or treat. First and foremost, religion is the moral virtue that consists in giving to God the worship and service He deserves. It is part of the virtue of justice which consists in rendering to each his due. Because He is the Creator of all things and has supreme dominion, God in a singular way has a special service due to Him. This service is worship.
Herein lies a source of confusion, namely why God creates us and then commands that we worship Him. This is worth investigating because it is often an obstacle for the SBNR congregants. We offer worship to God, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, not for His sake but for ours. We cannot give to God anything He doesn’t already have. Instead He creates us as rational creatures not just because we manifest His goodness or glory, but because we, among all visible creation, have the capacity to appreciate it. In other words, we worship to both show our appreciation and to grow in the pleasure that His goodness brings to us.
The SBNRer may willingly concede that they do owe something to God in terms of worship, but they prefer to connect to God privately “in their souls.” This ultimately stems from a denial of what we are as human beings. As body/spirit composites, we are capable of both internal and external acts of religion. In a certain sense the internal take precedence, but these internal acts can never be wholly free from the external and must be guided by them.
As human beings, our bodies and our spirits act in unison with each other. That which is in the mind, must first have been in the senses. You cannot perform a wholly interior act without also affecting the exterior. Just the very thought of God or Jesus, invokes an image in our material imaginations. We worship both from the inside-out and the outside in. Our external acts of devotion effect our internal acts of devotion. One is more likely to have increased devotion in their heart to God kneeling (an external sign of supplication) in front of a Crucifix than if they are staring at a blank wall sitting on a bed.
The implications of this are obvious. There are some external acts that are better than others at increasing devotion. This is certainly true in the subjective sense—we all have our favorite environments in which to pray—but it is also true in the objective sense. God is equally present in the bathroom as He is in the chapel, but it is the chapel that has been consecrated (i.e. set aside) as a place of prayer that is objectively better than the bathroom. This is why praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is called Adoration. You can adore God anywhere in spirit, but in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament that Adoration occurs in “spirit and truth.”
SBNR and Organized Religion
As you probe more deeply into the motives of the typical SBNRer, you will find that really what SBNR means is that “I am spiritual, but I loathe organized religion.” They view religion as something wholly personal and subjective. But if it is really true that we owe God worship and that certain forms of worship are better than others, then a loving Father would teach us what those forms are. The history of mankind outside of, first Judaism and then Christianity, has been man groping for these forms. Some of the forms were innocuous like offering incense to the local god, while others commanded human sacrifice. God commands definitive forms of worship to keep us from falling into two equally dangers traps—one of defect and one of excess.
There is the trap that once we realize that worship is really for us, we will worship in a way most pleasing to ourselves. This has not only led to the Non-denominational denomination with their mega-churches and “praise and worship services” worthy of a pep-rally, but also the pop music masquerading as liturgical music in Catholic churches. The second trap is that of excess. The truth is that no form of worship will ever feel adequate because no merely human form of worship is. So we keep upping the ante so to speak leading to some of the religious atrocities we still see in certain cults and Middle Eastern religions. We need God to tell us what is acceptable and what is not.
God does not merely tell us, but He comes and shows us. Through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows us the most pleasing form of worship—the one act that is enough. He gives us the power to make that sacrifice our own—both through Faith (subjective) and through the perpetuation of that same Sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass (objective). The One True Religion is the one that offers that Sacrifice because it is not just any organized religion but the Religion organized by the Holy Spirit Himself.
The Catholic Response to SBNR
SBNR is really a protest movement against religious tolerance. Properly understood, religious tolerance assumes that there is a true religion and that we are willing to tolerate some people who hold only part of that truth. Tolerance respects human freedom to discover the truth. But religious tolerance has come to mean that all religions are equal. If all religions really are the same, then why should I have anything to do with any of them? But, if one of them is different because it is true, then it does matter. As the One True Religion is only the Catholic religion that can lead the SBNR away from sliding down the Luciferian slope.
This claim to be the One True Faith may seem arrogant, but it is no more arrogant than the claim that 2+2=4. It is a statement of truth and it is a truth that has been handed down to us. I am not the inventor of my religion, but its grateful recipient.
The Inventor died to give this religion to me. Before dying He deeded it to its caretakers. As proof, notice the first time that Jesus mentions His suffering on the Cross—it is only after setting up the Church upon Peter the Rock that He tells of His redemptive death (c.f. Mt 16:18-21). Those same caretakers wore martyrs’ crowns rather so that the Faith was passed on to me. Thousands upon thousands of martyrs and confessors boldly preached that religion so that I would have it. Now it is my turn and your turn to pass it on to the next generation. We cannot hide our light under a bushel. We should not apologize for being Catholic, but we should apologize for not being Catholic enough. Only we can show SBNR what it means to truthfully and joyfully be spiritual AND religious.