Religious but not Spiritual

The following is my homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.

One of my favorite things about college was staying up late for philosophical conversations. You know, after a few… “grape juices”… talking about life, faith, it was great. It was a time that I encountered people of other faiths, and it was the first time that I heard someone claim that they were “spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion was oppressive, all about man-made rules. They didn’t need to go to Church, to follow rules, to be a part of any institution. They just needed Jesus, a spiritual life.

As Catholics, we of course know how false this is. At its best, religion is a guide. It provides a community, helps us stay on the narrow path, reminds us that we do not need to go at it alone because we “bind” ourselves together. We hear this “spiritual but not religious” stuff all of the time, and it just makes no sense to us.

In reality, it’s much more likely that we struggle with the opposite problem; for those of us who come to Church on a regular basis, engage in the rituals and follow the rules, there is a temptation, sometimes of being religious, but not spiritual.

Take a look at the Pharisee today. He is about as religious as you get—says his prayers, fasts, gives alms—he follows every law to a t. As a Pharisee, he is quite literally the symbol of religion, the keeper of it, the instructor of the law. To the people of his day, he would have been seen as a very upright individual, a model citizen—he’s always in the Temple, always following the law, always doing what God wants.

And yet, Jesus is not impressed, is he? How shocking it would have been to hear that a tax collector—a traitor to the nation of Israel, someone who stole money from his own people to give to the evil Romans, who stole from his own people to become rich himself—yes, this man, this awful man who knows nothing of religion, leaves the Temple justified and the Pharisee doesn’t.

When we look to what the Pharisee says, it’s no wonder why. The Pharisee follows every rule, fulfills every requirement, yes, but appears to know nothing about God. His prayer, Jesus says, was one that he “spoke to himself.” He says God, but he’s not talking to the living a true God in heaven. He’s talking to himself.  He spends half his time bragging about himself and the other half bad-mouthing someone else, which, when you consider the fact that God identifies with the lowly, that God hears the cry of the poor, probably wasn’t a good call. It’s sort of like gossiping about someone to their best friend. Not going to get a lot of sympathy with God on this one! Maybe most striking of all is what he doesn’t say: All throughout, he never praises God, never apologizes, never even asks for anything. His prayer is not a means of relationship with someone else, but rather a way of convincing himself of his own self-righteousness. He shows in his prayer that he doesn’t need God. He’s good enough on his own.

Yes, the Pharisee is immensely religious… but seems to miss the whole point of religion. What is meant as something to make us more humble, to guide our life so that we can become more like God, to depend on God… serves to only make him more like himself. He uses religion not as a means of growth, not as a means of transformation… but as a means of justifying who he is and what he wants to do.

This… is religion gone bad. This is religion stripped of the very thing that brings it truth: a relationship with God. Whereas many in our day find themselves to be spiritual but not religious, the Pharisee was religious but not spiritual. He engaged in empty practices with no sense that they actually did anything.

Being religious but not spiritual is not something that anyone would ever claim for themselves, not a catchy title that anyone would actually use, but it is problem—especially as Catholics—that we should all be careful of. We are a people with a lot of rituals—stand here, sit here, say these words, make these gestures, don’t eat certain foods on certain days, follow these rules that the rest of the world finds weird. It’s very easy to get caught up in the externals, very easy to get all of the rules while forgetting the reason for the rules, forgetting that they are ultimately leading us somewhere. All these things we do—prayers, songs, rules—they are not ends in themselves. It can be very easy for us sometimes to go through the motions, [bored “amen” and sign of the cross], do the little rituals, and be no different than we were before. Just showing up, just saying some words and following rules is not enough.These things lead us to something else. Religious is the guide, the lines on the street. It is helpful for getting us somewhere but insufficient in itself.

Even this Eucharist—yes, even this sacrament of salvation—it is the true body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ… but it is not the fullness of Christ. Really, how could it be? You cannot have a conversation with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is but a taste of what we hope to receive in heaven. In heaven there will be no eucharist, no remembrance of Jesus, for we will have a relationship with the real person.
Even this Eucharist, this amazing part of our religion, is not a complete end in itself. It is a vehicle, a guide, a path forward. It leads us to a greater relationship with Christ, a greater relationship with each other and the world.

This week, the Catholic Center was blessed to have a Franciscan named Fr. Jim come visit to talk about the liturgy. He spoke at Ignite and at Arch and shared but a simple message: our ritual actually does something. More than just some empty ritual, it transforms us. In coming to mass and participating fully in it, not just going through the motions but giving our entire lives to what we celebrate,
our fear is taken away—fear of failure, fear of the world, fear of loneliness, fear of death—they are no more when we receive Christ. When we humble ourselves before God, God can transform us. For what? To care more: for each other, for the world, for what God wants. Unlike the religion of the Pharisee, we come here not to justify ourselves, but to realize how reliant we are on God.

Some in our world want to say that they are spiritual but not religious, and we know this to be foolish—religion is the road that gets us where we’re going, that keeps us where we need to be, that binds us together for support. Others live as highly religious people but know nothing of spirituality, going through empty rituals but knowing nothing of God. We know that this is equally as absurd—our spiritual lives in Christ, being transformed into a new person is the reason for religion in the first place. For us, we know that they are two sides of the same coin. It is religion that brings you here today, but it is your contrite heart, your desire for Christ that will send your out a transformed person. And isn’t that religion at its best? We are brought in one person, and sent out another.

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