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"Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not So Bad

Spiritual, not religious. One should not be too quick to condemn the “I’m spiritual, not religious” mantra of many students, for it may express a desire for more depth than they are being fed in mainstream religious education.

Two dimensions of Christian faith have deep appeal to many of these students. First is their discovery that faith is not the same thing as assent to dogma or adherence to religious duty. Religion in these senses attends faith but does not describe it. Rather, faith is the acceptance of the gift of God’s love in the person of Jesus. It is a relationality “more intimate to me than I am to myself,” to quote St. Augustine. When shared and communicated, that relationality establishes a community of faith. When students see it this way they are freed to focus on the heart of the matter and to appreciate the classical expressions of faith, like the creeds and council teachings.

The second dimension is the notion of God as mystery: God as incomprehensible, ineffable, endlessly knowable and lovable yet not possibly contained or summed up within a single doctrinal formulation. God is not an object alongside others. This too is freeing. It allows students to discover how their search for the spiritual dovetails with the deepest parts of their religious selves. The choice is not between atheism and faith but between simplistic formulations of faith and a journey through life into their own transcendent depths. Many students seek to be religious with spiritual depth.

- Paul G. Crowley, "Tomorrow's Theologians: A new generation imagines the future," America, February 7, 2011

Paul G. Crowley, S.J., a theology professor, is chair of the religious studies department at Santa Clara University.