Are you 'spiritual' or 'religious' (or both)?

I work as a chaplain visiting folks in their homes, and one of the questions I ask is: “Are you affiliated with a particular faith group?”

How a person answers this question tells me a lot about them and their ideas and feelings about religion. Many people these days say they were raised in a particular denomination but they aren’t active. Often it’s too hard to get out and attend services anymore, or they define themselves as “spiritual” not religious.

Others who use the word “spiritual” mean they are not, have never been, churchgoers, but they value qualities such as responsibility, love, harmony, tolerance, forgiveness and a concern for others.

As for “religious,” the origins of the word come from Latin for “ligament” or “to connect,” and the word is a relative of “to rely”. What we are connected to gives meaning to our lives and defines us. Faith congregations connect us, for example, to each other, to our faith (shared beliefs), to the mystical.

In this century, we have grown to see our faith as a connection which demands too much or even stifles us. We say we are too busy to set aside time in our week to attend worship. We want connections which are more tangible, possibly, more immediately gratifying and useful. We use the word “spiritual” to describe ourselves, avoiding “religious” because we no longer attend a faith group’s service regularly.

Yup’ik elder, Paul John, states in 1994:

“They say our ancestors did not live a religious life and that they knew nothing about God. But now that I am no longer young, as I look back and see how they lived compared to the way things are at the present time, I have come to understand that they were really quite religious. Unburdened by the presence of negative influences and modern-day clutter, they began each day from the moment they woke up conscious of the teachings of their forefathers, and they conducted each day of their lives dedicated to those principles. But nowadays, when we get up we are bombarded by an array of purposeless activity because nobody is disciplined by the ancients’ teachings or communing spiritually.”

Paul John points out that his Yup’ik ancestors were connected and had purpose and knew what gave meaning to their lives. Whether you are Yup’ik or not, a sense of this is harder to come by these days.

When we use the word spiritual, what do we mean? I think it is a word which points beyond us for meaning and may indicate we are searching for connection. Or it may be that we use the word instead of “religious” when we feel strongly connected to something other than a faith, like nature, our family, or our pets.

Christian theologian Paul Tillich believed we all search for meaning, or “ultimate concern,” and hopefully that concern points toward something larger than ourselves, seeks meaning in that which is, truly, Ultimate. If our sense of spirituality is a bit muddy and leaves us wanting more, we may want to revisit a notion of “religious” again for a sense of simplicity and of being grounded.

What are your important connections? Embrace them. On what do you rely? Practice gratitude for it. What gives your life meaning? Tell stories about it and share it with others while returning the favor – listen to their stories, too.

Bianca Rauch is an APC (Association of Professional Chaplains) board certified chaplain with many years of hospital experience and is currently working for Providence Hospice in Anchorage.