Being Spiritual, But Not Relgious

A friend recently described himself to me as “spiritual but not religious.”  Having grown up fairly immersed in the richness of Orthodoxy, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that you can believe in God in some sort of nonspecific way.   


But my friend had interesting reasons for his beliefs and, because he’s far from the only young adult who thinks that way, they’re worth considering.  


He explained that he believes there is a higher power; he’s sure of it, in fact.  But he also feels that he has never been moved by any religious experience.  If anything, religion leaves him feeling like an outsider.


As I said, this belief isn’t unique; I’ve had this conversation with many friends over the years, and it’s fascinating to hear why they choose not to belong to a religious organization or church.  Their choice almost always stems from their perception that religions get in the way of spiritual experience.  


In short, people avoid organized religion because they don’t find God there.  


I mean, I get it.  I have those moments, too.


I don’t have a profound experience every time I participate in Liturgy.  Sometimes I’m simply sitting through the service, bored out of my mind.  And I see how those moments, when you think everyone around you is experiencing something incredible and special and you’re the only one who isn’t, can make you think you are doing religion wrong.  


I have those moments of doubt.


I’m really just an average Orthodox Christian.  I go to Liturgy on Sundays, I try to be active in the Church, but I sometimes struggle with my normalness.  There are times where I think that the immense faith I see in other people means that I’m not experiencing my faith deeply enough.  


I don’t get worked up by Byzantine chant in the way that some people do.  I’m not moved by the smell of incense the way that some people are.  


It makes me think that I’m doing something wrong.  And that fills me with doubt.


Should I be having a profound experience every time I set foot in a Church?


It would be nice if I did. It would be very reassuring to me if I had the sort of spiritually fulfilling moments other talk about, as often as they seem to have them.  Then, maybe, I would know for certain that I was on the right path.  


But I don’t.  And I struggle to remember that the way I experience my faith isn’t always going to look the same as it does in other people.  


My sisters and I were in Cyprus a couple of years ago, as part of Ionian Village’s young adult trip Spiritual Odyssey; it’s awesome, go.  We went to this beautiful little chapel in the mountains.  It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, on a perfectly clear afternoon.  The moment was peaceful and the chapel was filled with stunning iconography.  It was beautiful but I’ll admit, I appreciated it more as art than anything else.  It didn’t inspire a religious experience.


One of the icons included a bunch of fish that looked like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book.  When my sisters as I saw that, we shared a quiet smile.  And in that moment, something clicked in my heart.  God was there, in that remote chapel, just like He was there in my bedroom while I flipped through the pages of my Dr. Seuss books.  


It was silly, it was fun, it was weird.  And it was exceptionally beautiful.  


Even if it wasn’t what you would think a profound spiritual experience should look like.  


Like many young adults, I will always have my moments of doubt. Moments where I think it would be much easier to say that I was spiritual and not religious.  Moments where I would like to be able to pick and choose what parts of Orthodoxy I like and make sense to me, and which parts I struggle with.  Moments when I worry that I’m not “doing it right,” that I’m somehow the only one struggling.


But the struggle defines my faith.  It shapes, and even strengthens it.


This struggle is often resolved in unexpected ways.  I may not always find comfort in ways that we immediately associate with piety.  At times, I find it easier to see God in a beautiful sunset than in Church architecture or hymnography.  Just as we all speak different languages, our hearts may be touched by different kinds of experiences.  


But I disagree with my friend who’s spiritual and not religious.  Even if I’m not always fully connected with the Liturgy, I know that the God we worship in Liturgy is the same God who made the mountains, the same God who paints the sky every sunrise.  And it’s the same God who made me and my sisters smile in that chapel, by reminding us of a piece of our childhood.


By reminding us that He truly is “present in all places and filling all things.”


Some people experience God outside of Church, and that pushes them away from religion.  I experience God outside of Church and am reassured that we worship God, who entered the world and fills every bit of it with Himself.  I have to be religious precisely because I’m spiritual.


I understand why my friends identify as “spiritual, but not religious;” in fact, I share their experience.  But I interpret that experience in a totally different way.  I couldn’t fully appreciate the world without the Church.


Even if I don’t always experience Christ like everyone else does.  



Charissa is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM.  Charissa grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where she studied political science at the University of Utah.  She enjoys sunshine, the mountains and snowcones.  Charissa currently lives in New York City.