Spiritual or Religious? Walking the Language Tightrope

When I served as president of the board at my Unitarian Universalist (UU) church years ago, I commenced one board meeting with the check-in question, “Spiritual or religious? Church or congregation? Worship or service?”

These were actually one question, the dual poles of which are reflective, I think, of a (mostly) healthy and perhaps eternal tension among and between people who profess to practice a religion and others who have fled organized, overtly theistic religion but who retain an avowed “spiritual” orientation to serve as a North Star in their lives.

.In the case of UUs, I had to include the “church or congregation?” snippet because some members resisted calling what we did there every Sunday and most all the days in between “church,” despite the entire setting and context and rituals being pretty much indistinguishable from what that word has always meant to people across the religious firmament over the eons.

Speaking for myself, the standard religious vocabulary used the world over has historically been a stumbling block in free-flowing communication with both secular atheists and others of more, shall we say, “literalist” persuasions regarding the divine (Even that word “divine” requires some unpacking, referring as it does to all manner of phenomena ranging from the creator of the universe to the taste sensations begotten by crème brûlée.)



The standard query “Do you believe in God?” has most often begotten a Clintonian, “It depends on what you mean by the word ‘God,’” response from me, as I hem and haw and parse definitions in an effort not to be confused with any camp that has literalist believers in it spouting smug certainties along the lines of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Joel Osteen.

That said, I identify more than a little with the late Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Forrest Church in growing weary with the need to walk a tightrope when discussing religion in general and my own religious-spiritual sensibilities in particular.

Church was the longtime (and appropriately named!) minister and liberal theologian at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and author of some 20 books. The second-to-last of them, “Love and Death,” was a compilation of essays that included letters he wrote to his congregation after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died in 2009, a day after his 61st birthday.

Here is Church in one essay:

“Over the years, I have traveled the long road from religious skepticism to abiding faith. Back in the 1970s, even once I began preaching, I avoided invoking God almost entirely. It embarrassed me. Above all, I didn’t want anyone mistaking what I might mean by God for the tiny, anthropomorphic God of so many true believers. I believed only in things I could parse and therefore comprehend. I approached the creation as a taxidermist, not a  worshipper…I soon discovered, whenever I wished to soar a little higher into the mystery of the heavens or dive a little deeper into the unfathomable sea of being, I lacked the vocabulary necessary to describe such a journey.”

First, a side note in memory of Reverend Church: “unfathomable sea of being” ain’t half bad vocabulary, my friend…

Be that as it may, Church here reflects the squeamishness many “spiritual but not religious” people experience when faced with overtly religious language. However valid the roots and reasoning behind that stance, it also can feel like an encumbrance, all the more so to anyone cottoning to the UU inclination to emphatically and even eloquently proclaim there are many paths to the transcendent dimension, many ways of creating beloved community, and many words for God.

What we sometimes forget, or get our knickers in far too tangled of a twist about, is that one of the words for God is…let me think…oh, now I remember: “God.”


Yes, when my evangelical relatives use that word, the picture in their heads no doubt differs substantially from mine. Just as when they say, “I’m praying for you” as I’m encountering some challenge, they’re doing so in a far different manner than I am in saying, “I’m holding a good thought for you.”

But are those all that much different, really? (See here for a long-ago post on those phrases.)

Setting aside for the moment how differing perspectives on the divine can lead to vastly different actions in the political arena, at the level of everyday human interaction, is my saying “I need to think long and hard about this” or “Let me meditate on this” fundamentally different than a believer saying, “I need to take this into prayer.”? (And yep, even that word “believer” is fraught with implications, because I am quite the believer myself, and when exactly did that word get hijacked and associated with only the narrowest literal theologies?)

Words, words, words…

As did Reverend Church, I have found myself more readily using and being able to hear overt religious language over the years without getting all jumbled up inside. My comfort level has eased and some of my allergic reactions reduced when encountering terms such as “God, church, worship” and “prayer.” I continue being less inclined to try to be so darned careful about it all.

Officiating a wedding for a young couple last week who had expressed, upon my query, a preference for some but not wall-to-wall religious language in their ceremony, I found the word “God” rolling off my tongue with ease, unconflicted, unqualified, unparsed.

Symbols, mysteries, fingers pointing to the moon. Words as the specific, local currency reflecting a universal language of love and hope we all strive for, all wish to experience, express, and live by.  Let’s start there.



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12 comments to Spiritual or Religious? Walking the Language Tightrope

  • Jim Kellough  says:

    Good job. yeah yeah Makes me stop and remember moments in the safe space of U U Sundays when plain speaking people spoke their minds. yes yes

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yeah, Jim, you’ve got a pretty good bead on UUs there with “plain speaking people who spoke their minds.” !!

  • Mary Graves  says:

    Oh Andrew , I love this. Thanks for telling about the word “God” rolling off your tongue, for playing the wonderful God song, and for quoting Rev Church. Like many people my age, I miss God. I try to be cool and not talk about Him these days, but He is still there in my heart and mind, especially at Christmas.

    The righteous actions of otherwise nice folks have poisoned so many former churchgoers, so I do not blame those who left the church, I just miss Him.

    My oldest son and his wife tried to get involved in a local church and even had all three kids Baptized, but when they joined a Bible study group, the others could not help acting righteous and telling our kids what was right and wrong
    and gossiping about others. That was 14 years ago. They had not been back since.

    But this year, 14 years later on the first Sunday of advent, my son texted me:

    “Dustie and I are in church for advent one. The theme is to ‘prepare’ for Christmas, ie: prepare for good things to happen”.

    My heart was full. I immediately had the energy to get a tree, cover the house with colored lights and prepare to feel the richness of God in my life again. I was losing Him, but one sentence in a text from my 50 year old son while in church, reminded me that God is still here with me, we are just being quiet about it for a while.
    Merry Christmas
    love Mary

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Lovely anecdote and testimony, Mary, thanks so very much. Funny you should mention Christmas lights; I seem to have now become the crazy old guy in the neighborhood who drapes lights wherever the hell he can find bushes, trees, hedges and a nearby outlet that will assist in consummating the marriage of the male and female ends of all the plugs I’ve put into play. (Sometimes I wind up with the home plug from the wrong gender at the terminal outlet, and pending the arrival of intersex plugs at some future date, have to start over…) Takes me a few days, all in great fun, but dead serious about lighting up our little corner of the world in the face of winter darkness. So Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas to you!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Mark Twain once quipped, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” I think this analogy also applies to the tug of war between quiet spirituality and ardent religiosity. Frankly, religion tends to bite more. You may ask why I bring Twain and dogs together when generally speaking the twain shall never meet? It is through Brownie, my first dog, that my initial emotional response to “church” occurred. Brownie despised Sunday morning. My parents would pack my three brothers and me into our blue 1956 Ford station wagon and drive some sixty-miles to St. Louis where the closest Unitarian church happened to be. Honestly, I didn’t complain too much about the drive because on occasion we’d hit Musial & Biggie’s for lunch. I confess that I was more into “Stan the Man” than the “Man Upstairs”. Anyway, back to Brownie. For the first two miles, Brownie chased after us like a hound on a fox hunt. We constantly urged Dad to stop, but he never did. On several occasions, Dad would sarcastically preach, “I doubt if Brownie would appreciate an hour-long service on morality. Any sermon that quotes more Emerson than Jesus hardly qualifies as a religious experience.” That rationale never flew with my brothers and me; Dad was an atheist. Mom, on the other hand, was a bit more practical. She had all of us baptized Catholic. I think she saw it as an insurance policy. Nevertheless, I’ve never regretted my experiences as both a Unitarian Universalist churchgoer and an unconfirmed Catholic father of three confirmed Catholic children who all attended Catholic school. It’s been a thought-provoking and frightfully expensive ride.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      What’s this, Robert, no pit stops at the synagogue, mosque and temple to cover more (but hardly the entire) gamut of religious traditions? Oh well—the Church of Baseball is its own tradition of Universalism, so I suspect you’re in pretty good stead with the Almighty. As was Brownie, I’m sure—his obvious devotion being all the calling card he needed when he approached the Pearly Gates…

  • Harriet  says:

    I always loved this song. But with your post it’s very poignant.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Very few songs strike me like a little lightning bolt the first time I hear them, Harriet. But I clearly remember this one doing so; makes me happy you took note of it.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I married into a large family that was raised Catholic in an ethnically mixed community on the east side of Detroit (my wife is the oldest of 10). Few of them, including my wife Dawn, are practicing Catholics but all are devoted believers in the power of prayer and all, except Dawn, invoke the word God in family prayers around the table. Prayer leaders are shared at family events and I have been called upon a few times to share a prayer. I always get the shaky walking-on-the-tightrope feeling regarding to whom/what I invoke the request for blessings and thanks. Dawn, as the oldest of the 10, is most often the leader and she calls to the “Great Spirit.” I’ve often wondered how the others feel about Great Spirit in lieu of God. It is the “tightrope” element that I truly wish did not exist. In reflecting on this post and spirituality the last few days a few words and concepts continued to come to mind. Space, breath, openness, capacity have been primary in my thoughts and feelings about spirituality. The anthropomorphic representation of God never resonated with me. Over time and through life experience it has seemed to me that the vastness of infinity, perhaps accessed by breath and quiet makes possible our capacity for growth and for holding space for contradictions, senseless tragedies and the awareness of our own mortality. To do all of this, in my view, requires access to something much more than human-conceived organizations with a man-image leader. Beautifully done, Andrew. And the Joan Osborne piece is a terrific fit for this post.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Love these real world dispatches Jay, thanks for ruminating on all this. Have also been thinking plenty more about this topic, especially around the issue of whether all religious-spiritual type language from any tradition ultimately, more or less, says the same thing. To which my current answer is kinda-sorta yes. And no.

      Certainly evangelicals talking about God’s specific plan for their lives leaves me pretty cold for all manner of reasons, so no, we’re not quite arriving at the same place with respect to our spiritual inclinations and understandings. That said, it’s probably much more accurate to say we’re TRYING to get to the same place—which involves a desire to make sense of this confounding and contradictory and beautiful world, to cope with the reality of suffering and death, and we take a dizzying variety of routes to try and reach that place. And all of us are surpassingly ignorant about the true nature of reality. Hints & guesses are truly the best we can do.

      Some takes seem more sensible and reality-based than others, but none of them are complete or the final word. That seems to me to call upon our generosity and humility much more than it does our acute theological critiques and condemnation of obtuse or fantastic takes on what people conceptualize as the divine. Long as others are not hurting anyone, we should call on our best selves to walk softly alongside their religious sensibilities—without soft-pedaling the observation that many “man-image leaders” (great term, thanks!) ala Falwell Jr. are selling snake oil, and we ought to loudly proclaim it at every turn…

  • kirkthill  says:

    Thanks Drew, for finding the words that detangle the word wide web we are in. I found myself betwixt God and Greed last night. My wife and I dress up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus and go around visiting children and spreading smiles and selfies. We were invited to a Posada and were to give out candies, Ho Ho Ho. We arrived early at a very small, modest home decorated with trinkets, tinsel and lights, waiting for the procession to arrive. Soon, half a dozen children in costume, a drummer, 3 women (mothers?, Sunday school teachers?) and a lay priest, came singing catholic church songs that I had recognized when I played bass with my two guitar singing friends at a couple of small churches. They came into the house, and the Priest starts talking about Jesus and Mary looking for an Inn (posada). There is a call and response song, and then the priest continues to talk about the real meaning of Christmas in a very somber, serious voice. He asks questions to the kids about love, faith, devotion, and the seriousness of Jesus’s journey. Ana (Mrs. Claus) and I realize the seriousness of the event and move to the back of the very small living room, realizing we are not even close to being the center of attention that we usually experience. So here we are, in these silly Santa suits, representing all of the greed of gift giving, having nothing to do with the birth of Christ, in stark contrast to this very serious religious event. At the close of the Posada I gave out the traditional bags of candy, took many photos with the children, parents and the priest, and engaged in pleasant conversation over coffee and cake. But I had, and am having serious doubts about my role as Santa. It is fun, and we make a lot of people smile, but we do so distract from what the real meaning of Christmas is all about. Thank goodness the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ is on and I can take a brief respite from my seriousness.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great anecdote, Kirk, a deftly drawn scene, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share it. Mulling this over, I’m inclined to urge you not to be too hard on either yourself or Santa. (I’ll bet the priest wasn’t!) I want to think there’s room for the Claus couple and the priest in that living room, no matter how small it was. Part of what makes the Christ child story so powerful is its multiple levels of meaning, one of which is surely the joy of generosity, of giving freely, in acknowledgment and love of others. Those Wise Men certainly practiced it as part of their religion, and they etched themselves and the whole concept more deeply into history and these traditions we practice today, which admittedly sometimes overdose and go all steroidal into commercialism.

      Besides which, I’m certain you make a great Santa, yes?

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