May 21, 2017 – Spiritual but not Religious?

I have a dream. Well, not like the famous King’s dream, but an actual dream that I dreamed one day. It has remained with me, inspiring and providing guidance throughout my journey. I don’t usually remember what I dream, but this one is an exception. I can still picture the vivid images in the dream. Every time I think about it I am in awe. My soul instinctively knows the importance of the message the dream conveys. In the dream there are lots of fish swarming through filthy water. They struggle to breathe and they try to jump into a puddle of clean fresh water. Those who are not able to succeed end up being stuck in the mud. The lucky ones that are able to hurdle over the gap end up swimming happily in the clean water. They experience a dramatic change from a place of agony to a place of exultation. They stay alive, and become vigorous once again.

I woke up from the dream, deeply moved with its powerful image. We have to live forward in order to understand what happened to us backward. Since that morning, I have been searching for meaning of that dream. I have been listening to what it has to tell me. I find myself observing how the dream is unfolding as I have continued my journey. I know that it will continue to unfold its mystery in its own times as it needs to. This is how I interpret the dream for now. The fish represents my soul. It has such a yearning to escape from a place of danger, to break through any barriers, and to be completely free. It wants to breathe easy. The fish can’t pretend to be what it’s not, like a bird in the air. It must find its way to know and live its destiny. The fish also represents the church. It struggles to find a way to get into the puddle of clean fresh water where it can be vibrant once again, and live up to its calling. That’s not an easy task as there is a barrier, a gap between where it is now and where it needs to be. What the dream teaches me is that whether it’s individuals or church communities the change we need always begins from within.

Church has been a huge part of my life. I was born and raised in a church where my grandfather was ministering. My home congregation nurtured me in a way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. It was always there for me and my family in all circumstances we were in. In my early twenties I left my home congregation, and started working in different churches as a minister. It didn’t take long to be disillusioned with the church as institution. I saw how it stumbled, and failed to live up to its calling. Just like we become vulnerable to those we love most, often it is those who put their hearts and souls into the life of the church who get hurt by its broken trust. Whether we leave or remain in the church, the wounds we carry leave us changed forever.
After coming to Canada, I have heard people say “I am not religious but spiritual” a lot. Some people put more emphasis on what they are not, saying “I am NOT religious”, while others put more emphasis on what they are, saying “I AM spiritual.” The same phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’ is used by different people in various contexts whether they go to church or not, whether they grew up in church or not, whether they keep up their own spiritual practice or not. What do they mean when they say “I am spiritual but not religious”? Ask yourself if you ever said so. Ask your friend or your child if she is one of them.

When I hear such a phrase, I think about the fish in my dream. They want to be free, and they want to breathe easy. Nothing can prevent them from jumping into a puddle of the clean fresh water; they are born with a vigorous spirit, by which they move and live and search. I hear between the lines. They express their disbelief in institutionalized religion, rejecting its set of rules or beliefs and doubting its hierarchical system. They also express their interest in spirituality which opens them up to a new connection. Indeed I have seen those who claim spiritual but not religious appreciating the meaningful connections they feel whether it’s their family, community, the divine within themselves or the universe.

I am not trying to generalize those who claim to be spiritual but not religious, because what the Spirit can do is beyond our expectation or understanding. I am also not trying to say that those of us who don’t make that claim belong to other categories such as religious but not spiritual or religious and spiritual or vice versa. I believe, however, that we can’t ignore such a phenomenon, and that we must engage with those folks. I wonder if Jesus was considered as spiritual but not religious in his own time; he broke through all the barriers, and showed us how to communicate with one another and with God in such a broad and deep way.

Paul understands such an inclusive and all-encompassing image of God. God is so present that in him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) God is so big that anything or anyone no matter how religious they are can’t ever fully grasp the depth and width and heights of the holy mystery. (Acts 17:24) Paul believes that the love of God, which was manifested in Jesus, will continue to be experienced among us, making us alive and vibrant once again, and making us one in Christ. We carry such love and it leaves us changed forever. We can’t pretend to be what we are not. We must allow the Spirit to open us up to a new connection day by day and moment by moment. For we too are God’s offspring with our sisters and brothers near and far. (Acts 17:28)