Numbers reported today by Charles M. Blow of the New York Times confirm what I hear often in my classes – more and more young people today affirm being “spiritual,” but not “religious.”

Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago that Americans – informed by a spirit of equality – would find “forms” to be unbearable. Forms – whether as “formalities,” as boundaries, as rule-based distinctions, as disciplines – would be rejected as largely arbitrary limits upon the democratic freedom of individuals. He predicted that “formal” religion would decline in adherents, but that “exhalted forms of spirituality” would spring up to take their place, ones that would be noteworthy for their expansiveness, their absence of boundedness, their resistance to limits or chastening, and would manifest themselves as a kind of fanaticism. Moreover, he noted that this kind of “spirituality” would not be in contradiction to modern forms of materialism, but would exist comfortably alongside materialism.

All this is to be expected. Americans dislike most “formalities.” Most of our contributions in the culinary area have been to transform every food type into ones that can be eaten by hand, on the run. Increasingly the use of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” have disappeared from the vocabulary of our young. Etiquette more generally has ceased to be a subject worthy of inculcation. Architectural forms have increasingly sought to incorporate design features that reject classical formalism, lines and features that were meant to accentuate the reality of the natural world. In universities, formal curricular criteria have been abandoned for amorphous “distribution requirements,” and at some institutions have been altogether eliminated. The “formalism” of the Constitution has been rejected in preference for the idea of a “living” document that is subject to evolutionary change. In all these instances, “forms” restrict our freedom, and as democrats, we naturally bridle against them.

Spirituality is another kind of reaction against “forms” – this time in the religious realm – but, as with these other kinds of “informalism,” exists in order to overthrow the strictures and limitations that “forms” demand. As Blow reports, one woman arrived at spiritual “peace” by taking a vacation to Costa Rica, where she was able to overcome the “moral strictures” of her youth. Spirituality becomes the means to liberation, even dissipation.

Tocqueville argued that democracy would need forms, though it would seek their evisceration. Forms are necessary especially because democracy needs to inculcate the capacity for self-government, and self-government is achieved through an habituation in self-discipline that the forms provide. In so many areas of life today, it is obvious that our problems derive from our incapacity for self-governance, in the formal discipline of self.

What we need today is not a generation that is “spiritual, not religious.” I would argue that what is needed is the studied capacity to be “religious, not spiritual.” Let’s make that the new buzz.

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  1. Patrick,

    I am in the process of reading “The Narcissism Epidemic” by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Except for some quibbles when they get off topic, I would say that it’s a highly worthwhile read, and well-connected to concerns of Front Porchers, esp. about spirituality, meritocracy, and societal narcissism.

    Jonathan Watson

  2. Spirituality has been hijacked by the “Oprahization” of American culture, but let’s not jetison the word quite yet. I would argue that what is needed is both religion and spirituality, not a gnostic one, but Spirituality with capital a S as in the Holy Spirit. Religion enflamed with a true spirituality would cause a real buzz.

  3. Patrick:

    I must forward to The Porch the opening line of a review by Villanova’s Eugene McCarrahar, writing in Commonweal Magazine a few years ago of some book about the subject of American spirituality. He began the review as follows:

    “I think of myself as religious but not spiritual. Partial to the sensuous, communal and cerebral forms of ritual and text, I’ve always considered “spirituality” too ethereal and invertebrate a way of being.”

    Just so….

    Philip Bess

  4. Philip,

    I believe I read that review to which you are referring (I will have to hunt it down myself now), and must have forgotten that I had encountered that wonderful formulation there originally. All due credit and praise to Gene McCarraher, my favorite Augustinian Marxist (or is it Marxist Augustinian?).

  5. Dear Prof Deneen,

    Sometimes it seems that the ‘spiritual’ frame of reference is the self. Not sure where I read it but someone mentioned the popular W.W.J.D. rarely goes beyond what would I do? Our morality is not grounded in God or the eternal. Somehow, and I do not really have the space here to clear my thoughts, it seems as though we’ve replaced God with the self. Spirituality is little more than feeling good about oneself and alleviating personal discomfort and/or displeasure. Yes, there is more to it, I know.

    Does Democracy require this purge? Unsure. Perhaps I am wrong, as is often the case, but mystics of all stripes point to the realization that we, the ‘I’, are very little indeed. The ‘I’ without reference/grounding in the eternal is adrift and stands little chance.

    An interesting post. Thank you.


  6. Another form architecture has taken is creating a faint imitation of the hazards and complexity of natural forms. Where our building arts once elevated the need to protect one’s self from the elements via an art and craft of skill meshed with beauty, architecture must now be enclosed in scaffolding and warning tape so that folks walking by the polygonal extravaganza will not be murdered by falling ice, jetting off the titanium compound curves. Then there are always the gashes and tears of disjointed forms in much of the new work, monumentalizing injury. Not to mention the tilted planes because just why would anyone want to sit or walk in something level? Who needs nature when one can feel ill at ease in a building? The forms are seductive but the entire “theology” of the domus is abandoned in favor of mere sensation.

    Organized religion often does the same kind of thing in a way, transforming itself into a Self-Help Seminar and Day Care Center, losing much of the humility of faith in the dust in order to prattle on about the wealth building possibilities of Faith with one’s fellow consumers. The droning incantations of traditional forms tend to lose their charms in the face of our Beecher wed to Dr. Phil and Oprah-Dale Carnegie show business Religion. Ten minute attention spans do not allow the participant to transcend the incantations and enter the animating spirit inside the liturgy .

    Me thinks that the youth are less reacting against form than they are reacting against the packaged formlessness of much of modern consumer culture.

    But then, I’m heathenish and have a bad attitude. Still, having just ushered another generation through one of the most patently absurd eras in human history, one in which hubris wed idiocy and had a love child named “Popular Culture”, I for one hope their remaining spirituality will stick around long enough to discover the safe harbor of august traditions…the lovingly caressed historic forms that have granted us the opportunity to suggest that there is something called humanity and it is transcendent.

  7. I first heard the word “spiritual” set up to contrast with “religious” about 3 years ago. My dentist told me he was not a religious person but he was spiritual. At the time he had been shaken by a serious health problem and had been seeing a therapist. I knew that he had been educated at an elite Catholic university roughly 30 years ago. It would have been about that time that sentimentality as a proper, perhaps worthier, substitute for religion was taking root. I suppose that it was never in the cards that adherents of the new practice would describe themselves as sentimentalists. As an aside, however, I believe that had Yehudi Menuhin, as an example, taken a spiritual approach to his instrument as opposed to a religious, his music, and his listeners, would have suffered.

  8. I distrust spiritualism far more than materialism. The later, after all, is finite, and mistakes tend to collapse in upon themselves. But the former knows no limits, and nonsense can be infinitely multiplied. Anything can be justified in the spiritual realm, and particularly any action.

    And as for architecture, check out Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month for February,

  9. “The forms are seductive but the entire “theology” of the domus is abandoned in favor of mere sensation.”

    Hardly suggestive of a Rich Inner Life.

  10. I agree with Mark’s comment above: we cannot get rid of the spiritual. I agree with a lot of Mr. Deneen’s observations, but I find in the conclusion of his post an imprecision of language that is unsatisfying. One cannot say we should be “religious, not spiritual” unless one is denying the soul in favor of a purely materialist existence. One cannot say we should be “religious, not spiritual,” yet continue to affirm worshiping God in spirit and in truth (read: spiritually and religiously).

    My Alma Mater has what they have entitled “Faith and Reason Lectures,” through which they hope to provide students with guidance on how to properly balance the workings of both. They do not reject one in favor of the other, but rather acknowledge both and harmonize them. The same must be true of the spiritual and the religious.

    It appears to me that the conclusion to Mr. Deneen’s post has an important deficiency: accepting the paradigm of those who say “spiritual, not religious” rather than imposing a better one. Countering a soundbite definition of one’s self with yet another soundbite definition of one’s self cannot arrive at any real understanding of the truth of things.

    By saying we should push “religious, not spiritual,” one would simply be using the same imprecise language one is hoping to counter, without actually making the connection to truth. In fact, it leads simply to a different falsehood. The fact is, everyone is spiritual and religious. Everyone lives these in differing degrees of balance and clarity, but both elements are always present, regardless. Even the anarchist who argues for no boundaries of any kind has just made one–there are no boundaries–and thus proved himself religious to the god of…himself.

    This is my take: I am most definitely open to counterpoints.

  11. A “religious” person is a “spiritual” person who has made himself/herself accountable to a community. A “religious” person is humble and wise enough to know that his spiritual walk will not be successful without the guidance and encouragement of others. This person suspects that his gauzy spiritual “insights” may not really be that significant in the grand scheme of things.

    Even the most personal spiritual experiences (meditation, prayer) need religious context. That’s why the works of the great Christian mystics are so devastating, while most New-Agey type spiritual narratives I have read are just plain boring. I don’t doubt that many “spiritual” (versus “religious”) people have genuinely “spiritual” experiences. I believe God works in every human heart. But I also believe that by failing to submit themselves to the discipline and love of a religious community, they are missing a big part of the picture.

    As an escapee from an overly emotional, revivalistic tradition (pentecostalism), I was very relieved when I finally figured out that God’s great work through his Church would continue regardless of how “spiritual” I felt on any given day.

  12. I guess I’m always puzzled what is meant when I hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” When I’ve asked, it usually means they’re open to just about any faith tradition, without getting too bogged down in details, and as long as that faith tradition isn’t one of those icky, mutually exclusive Christian traditions. I also suspect it is often used as a substitute for sensitive or creative. In other words, most of the artists I know would consider themselves spiritual, but I doubt they would grant, say, engineers, or police officers the same attribute.

    Mike Wenberg

  13. Fair criticisms of my somewhat jokey conclusion – apologies to anyone who took offense. It was meant to be jarring to contemporary sensibilities more than anything else – it truly wasn’t meant to be a wholly worked out theology.

    That said, it’s provoked some excellent comments, both critical and clarifying. Let me say that I agree with Mark and Moonman in particular – spirituality, such as it is, needs “containment” within religion. I have benefited mightily from encounters with some of the greatest spiritual thinkers of my tradition, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. Such thinkers get to that “devastation” of human certitude to which Moonman alludes.

    I still like the phrase “religious, not spiritual” for its pithy reversal of contemporary trends, but in the end, I really mean “spirituality within religion.” Maybe that’s change we can believe in.

  14. It was back in the early-mid 1980s when I first learned to be annoyed by this “spiritual” talk. It was when the program notes for the Bach Festival choir in Kalamazoo referred to director Russell Hammar as a deeply spiritual person. What is that supposed to mean? I’ve disliked most modern usage of that term ever since, at least in cases where religious would be a more accurate term.

    Something that is spiritual can just as easily be evil as good. So if they just wanted to say Hammar was a nice guy they shouldn’t use that word.

    But I figured it was maybe a way of saying he was religious without all the ickiness of speaking of religion. Religion implies loyalty to an actual god, perhaps one who is a person who might actually approve or disapprove of choices, while “spiritual” can be just a vague, emotional thing.

    I have come to appreciate the materialism in the Christian religion to go along with the spiritual. In the Apostles Creed we say: “maker of heaven and earth” and “resurrection of the body.” In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “give us our daily bread.” Very materialistic. The sacraments use water, bread, and wine. More material stuff. We are warned away from the purely material that excludes the spiritual, of course, but the Christian religion is one (though not the only one) that is all-encompassing.

    It’s interesting that some of those people who do like to say they are spiritual then go off and make a religion out of the most material objects, like Mother Earth. Their religion not only encompasses material objects, but has a strictly material god. Well, it does until they start imputing spiritual properties to the material objects.

  15. Baue’s The Spiritual Society applies the cyclical theory of Pitirim Sorokin and finds, what much evidence suggests, that we are heading into a spiritual culture. Much of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism, along with the New Age sensibility, promotes this and welcomes it as a great change from a materialistic cultural orientation. As Mr. Medaille (sorry, sir, for the missing accent) notes above, this is not a good thing for orthodox Christianity. I think the chief task of the latter remains what it was, to go into the world and make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them (=doctrine). One thing for which we may all be thankful is the amazing availability of sound Christian writings, even as there’s been so much more unsound stuff pumped into the world too.

  16. Dale mentioned Pitirim Sorokin. Expanding Sorokin’s work, a former colleague of mine, Harold O. J. Brown, aptly described this “spiritual” culture as a “sensate” culture. It is a spirituality without authority that obligates and compels.

  17. Patrick,
    You have done a good job of pointing out how the “spiritual, but not religous”–or as I hear it in my realm, “I’m into Jesus, just not the church–is a reflection of the everybody-gets-to-decide-for-him/her/its-self that pervades our society. (In the above statement “Jesus” is a shell into which just about any philosophical/religious idea can be poured.)
    Dale S. Kuehne, wrote a book with considerable overlap with the thoughts of this post, and several of the comments, SEX and the iWORLD: I have posted some thoughts on the book at Scroll to Feb. 4.

    Several of the commenters spoke of a community of faith keeping one in line, so to speak. I can’t argue with that, if that community is holding to truth. What one believes (Amen to Corey) is more important than that one believes.

  18. Poetry is truth, science is accurate. To the degree that poetry is accurate it is not truthful, and to the degree that Science is truthful, it is not accurate. If you read poetry to gain a sense of accuracy, or if you read science to gain truthfulness you’ll be deeply misguided by your own imagination.

    Most Theologians in their conclusions are generally applying geometry to poetry, and scientists in their conclusions are generally applying poetry to geometry. We live in a time of cultural dyslexia where reading and TV has replaced feeling and thinking independently. Artists struggle through this cultural myopia, and tend to break from the larger cultural framework’s singular point of view. Fascism is simply a cultural’s collective view becoming singularly closed. It strikes both liberal and conservative with equal stupidity.

  19. I would also say one who believes in God is applying geometry to poetry, one who does not believe in God is applying poetry to geometry. Neither is correct, one gives foundation to the other, one does not define the other. There is therefore no validity to the belief or non belief in God both are a dyslexic fantasy that gives rise to a singular point of view incapable of grasping non linear concepts such as God.

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