Spirituality is not a good thing…

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 2, 2004

I’d like to share a quote from God is Not…, edited by D. Brent Laytham. The following is written by William T. Cavanaugh in a chapter titled, “God is Not Religious.”

Religion seems to denote crabbed dogmatism, bureaucratic sclerosis, and dead ritual. Spirituality on the other hand, seems to offer freedom, vitality, and a direct encounter with the divinity of one’s choice without the intervention of any other person…

Nevertheless, I have no intention of confirming the common wisdom…In fact, I think spirituality is just an extension of what is wrong with religion. And what is wrong with religion is not that it is organized, but that it, like spirituality, has been used to turn faith in God into a consumer item for our private consolation and amusement…When I claim that God is not religious, I mean to say that “religion,” like “spirituality,” has been used to privatize Christian practice, marginalize it from common life, bury God deep within the confines of the individual self, and thereby turn the individual over to the disciplines and designs of the nation-state and the market.

When I read these words, my heart lept. Cavanaugh’s take is insightful and provocative. Much of what is wrong with recent attempts at “doing” church boils down to its unreflective affirmation and reinforcement of they type of spirituality Cavanaugh highlights. We, as disciple’s in the Body of Christ, must learn to order our lives around our shared faith in Jesus Christ. The seeker-sensitive impulse that still drives many “emergent” churches undermines this aim. Many emergent churches are different from the mega-churches that they reject only because they are sensitive to a different sort of seeker. For these churches, the postmodern shift means that we must cater to a different type of people.

So, here’s the question I’d like to pose: What should churches do in light of the recent growth of spirituality? How do we respond?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They are expecting their first child in April.

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5 Responses to “Spirituality is not a good thing…”

  1. andy gr on October 2nd, 2004 1:30 pm

    beautifully put. a spirtuality that is true to the Spirit will be deeply subversive, and represent a radical challenge to the powers that label us as consumers and nothing more. a spirituality that is simply a privatised attempt to feel happy/God/comforted will just keep us busy so that we won’t have to change the world.

  2. Chris B. on October 2nd, 2004 6:10 pm

    I think you raise good points, but I’d like to make the case that the word ‘religion’ has gotten a bad rap. I know what people mean when they say that they aren’t really “religious” but more “spiritual.” They’re trying to make the same distinction you’re making. But if you take the word “religion” to stand for all our attempts to explain God together, I think it necessarily takes on good AND bad connotations. We can never adequately describe God of course, but our attemtps do not go unnoticed by God. Sometimes we make mistakes and put God in a box in order to feel safe, but I think that saying “religion” is all bad is too monolithic.

  3. Van S on October 2nd, 2004 6:45 pm

    Chris, that entirely depends upon how one defines “religious”…unfortuntately, I am using it as defined in the chapter I reference. Essentially, he posits that “religion” was used in a specific way in the past, but around the time of the Reformation, it began to be used in an increasingly specific way–as a way of differentiating different “religions.” As its useage became more common, “religion” began to be known as a specific set of PERSONAL beliefs and was set in contrast to other spheres of life. So, then, the way Cavanaugh uses the word “religion” is in the modern enlightment sense of a particular set of rituals that one uses in the private sphere of personal religion–privatized religion. It is this idea he rejects. And it is this idea that provides the context for my post.

  4. Chris B. on October 3rd, 2004 1:16 am

    Yeah, I understood how you were using the word religion, but I was just disagreeing with Cavanaugh. Even if religion has been “used to turn faith in God into a consumer item…” it doesn’t mean that we should throw the word out all together; religion is supposed to be a good thing.

  5. Van S on October 3rd, 2004 1:25 am

    It’s not the way I’m using the word, its the way he uses the word. Cavanaugh takes pain to define the way he’s using the word earlier in the chapter. I think you’re reading a broader definition of the word than he is using, so I don’t think you disagree with him at all. He lets the reader know that there is a broader use of the word that is good–he’s merely arguing against one common way of understanding “religion.” Unfortunately, I quoted the chapter without providing this background.

    The word has become used in a very specific way, and it is that useage that he is combatting. Your are right that religion is a good thing, if properly defined. But he isn’t talking about the broader sense of the word.

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