The Shortcomings of Spirituality
by Rev. Jim White
Fly-fishing, which I do,* has spiritual dimension. So do many other outdoor activities—hiking, star gazing, sailing. While gardening, a poet contends, “one is nearest God’s heart.” These pursuits often open up men and women to what may be beyond, underneath, or above. “Awareness of Otherness” or mystical presence is often attendant in out-in-nature doings. This is all to the good.
Let us not, however, deceive ourselves: such spiritualities are not Christianity. Though folk say, “I am closer to God on the river than in church” —which may be true—that experience is not Christianity. “Awe” born of nature does not constitute the fullness of Christian faith or any world religion. Sense of the nearness of God on a mountaintop or by the seashore, while wonderful, is, at best, an
of a thick religion. Such numinous moments, however precious for the individual, lack philosophical underpinning, can’t handle questions of ultimate meaning, come up short in social relevance, and have little or nothing to say about ethics.
Too often we hear, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” To me the bromide is vacuous, usually meaning,
“I eschew organized religion with its services, rules, practices, hypocrisies, time commitments, phony clergy, and, especially, calls on my money. Give me freedom to relate to God and the world—or not relate—in my own private way.
” This is what sociologist of religion professor Robert Bellah calls Sheliaism—“I am my own religion.”
Consider what might be missing in most spiritualities but found in religions
one such being Christianity: caring community, education for children and adults, attending to and debating sacred texts, sustenance by ritual and ceremonies (e.g., confession and absolution or those for “hatching, matching, and dispatching”), praying with the saints, chanting/hymn singing, going on a work project, sermons which comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and other institutionalizations: “Pass the offering plate, please.” Spare me from people who are more spiritual than God, who know nothing about incarnation—the Spirit becoming flesh.
Happily, the “fleshy” Body of Christ, to which we may belong, exists to nurture, instruct, correct, and motivate the individual to wholeness in a faith,
of his or her own making. Spiritualities, free-floating without deeper theological and ecclesiastical grounding, too easily end up going with the flow of whatever is the drift in culture—consumerism, twittering, and entertainment consumption, sports absorption, hero-following (as of a Donald Trump), or patriotic militarism.
In any these things—including the best spiritualities (fly-fishing?)—I wonder if we haven’t shortchanged neighbor, the world, God, and ourselves.
*See my book,
Fly-fishing the Arctic Circle to Tasmania: A Preacher’s Adventures and Reflection
(Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2019) from which this devotional has been extracted.