Reflection: Spiritual but Not Religious

Published May 30, 2011

God is everywhere, in “the wonder of eternity, written in the gentle waves, the glory of the sky and the peace of that quiet moment. ” Photo: Patrick Wang

When I was a parish priest in San Diego, a woman called me and asked if she could come to talk. She had been to a funeral in the parish several years before and still remembered the sermon. She was having some difficulties and thought perhaps I could make a referral.

She was in her mid-30s, divorced without children, looking for work and feeling depressed. She talked. I listened. She told me she was spiritual but not religious. By that, she meant that hiking in the mountains, listening to music while jogging or reading on the beach were ways for her to get centred. I asked if she took time for some kind of prayer. “Oh, no” she answered. “I’m not at all sure I believe in God. In fact, I may be an atheist.” She said that life had raised too many questions for her to be able to believe in God. When her sister’s newborn died after suffering in the hospital for several days, she had stopped believing in God. She then cited Voltaire, who said that all we can do is tend our gardens and live as best we can without believing in or clinging to something more. But then she went on to say, “The trouble is, I feel so empty right now. I want something more in my life, but I don’t know what it is or where to find it. Can you help me?”

Perhaps you know or have met people in a similar predicament, someone who may not believe in God but is struggling to find meaning and purpose in life. Have you ever wondered what to say to them?

St. Paul encountered such people. In Acts 17, he meets some of the best citizens of Athens-educated, thoughtful people-and religious, very religious! Central Athens had a religious shrine on every street corner. And every street had temples and altars. Most were dedicated to Greek gods and goddesses-Zeus and his friends and consorts.

Paul doesn’t attack these Athenians for never meeting a god they didn’t like. In fact, he affirms their religious instincts. He points to an altar dedicated to an unknown god and says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

Paul takes this altar as a demonstration that the Athenians have a sense that their religious lives are not quite complete. They have an intuition, a feeling of something more and of something missing. But they can’t name it. They can’t explain it. They can’t quite make sense of it. So, they build an altar to an unknown god.

Several years ago Harold Mumma published his remarkable book, Albert Camus and the Minister, which reported on the conversations the French existentialist had with an American Methodist minister. Camus, who by this time had become famous for such novels as The Plague and The Stranger, admitted to his minister friend, “I am searching for something I do not have, something I am not sure I can define.”

Whether Camus ever found that “something” is problematic, but the book suggests that in his last years Camus came very close to becoming a Christian, and admitted to the minister, “I have been coming to church because I am seeking. I am searching for something that the world is not giving me.”

On April 18, the Globe and Mail published an article about David Suzuki, arguably one of the greatest environmentalists of our time. David Suzuki loves this planet and everything living. And yet, as he nears what he terms “the death zone,” he admits to being an atheist who hates “the thought of dying.” He goes on to say, “But it gives me a bit of comfort to know that my body was created out of atoms that don’t disappear. I emerged out of nature and I will simply go back to it. I am someone who doesn’t enjoy the idea of disappearing forever.”

What I think David Suzuki is referring to, though he doesn’t say so, is a yearning for transcendence; that life does not end with our death but is the beginning of some new way of being. We want to believe that our life is not in vain, that we don’t exist by accident and that there is some deeper purpose behind our being.

Some of us may remember the United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1961. After his death, his private journal titled Markings was published. Since first reading it in high school, I have never been able to forget these haunting lines: “I don’t know who-or what-put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some point I did answer Yes to Someone-or Something-and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender, has a goal.”

Dag Hammarskjold said “Yes to Someone-or Something,” and from that moment his life felt meaningful. Just what is this “Someone” or “Something” is the great spiritual quest of our time. From the New Age to Eastern sages to Christian mystics, from Deepak Chopra to the Dalai Lama to Pope Benedict XVI, there is a search for that which makes our lives significant and lasting.

What about you? Do you ever feel like there is more to your life than you can really name? Maybe you have never been to church except for a funeral or wedding. Maybe you have never read the Bible or been baptized or tasted the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

But your baby is born, and you hold her for the first time, and your heart beats fast and a lump forms in your throat and tears pour from your eyes. Unimaginable love! And where does it originate?

Or your spouse dies and you discover you have a depth of strength, more than you have ever experienced. And you wonder from where it comes.

St. Paul would say this is God working in our lives, God manifesting and revealing his presence, God drawing us to his embrace. You see, God, who made the world, doesn’t live in a temple in Athens, or a cathedral in London, or even here at St. James Westminster Church. God, says Paul, is “not far from each of us. For "in him we live and move and have our being.” God is constantly with every person, in every situation. God, by whatever name you call this holy presence, is with us-all the time. And God’s love is for everyone; it’s already ours-whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not.

Francis B. Sayre, Jr. was for many years dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In one of his sermons after he retired, Dean Sayre told a story about a woman from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. She had been twice widowed, and now spent much of her time as an artist. She attended church occasionally but, she admitted to Dean Sayre, she could no longer believe in the teachings of her youth: that Jesus was God, or that he was born of a virgin, or that he was resurrected after he died. “Do you believe these things?” she asked him.

“Yes,” Dean Sayre told her gently, “I do believe all those Christian things, and so do you! For they are not literal, logical, fact statements, like two plus two equals four. Rather, they are symbolical, allegorical, poetical descriptions of realities far deeper than two plus two. They express the reality of life, of this spirit and its kinship with eternal truth: miracle and mystery in all ages and climes.”

Dean Sayre went on to preach: “It is not for me, or any priest, to attempt to clothe the creedal insights with the simple arithmetic of everyday; that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But it is rather to share the living wonder that surrounds all things-planets and galaxies, the trees around us, and your soul and mine…. Look to yourself, dear lady of Martha’s Vineyard, not to me, for the gift of peace-call it Christ if you can-which lies within you and between all people.”

You, too, know this God. As you gaze upon the stars and see the immensity of space, as you ponder the complexity of life and the miracle of birth, as you walk among the trees or along the lake, as you give the gift of love or receive that love from another person, we have a sense, each of us, that life is miracle and mystery, and that upholding it all is a divine presence that we call God.

Oh, I know…believing in God doesn’t mean all your questions answered. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? Why couldn’t God have created a better world than this? We will never know the answers to these questions in this life. And yet, at the heart of Christian faith is the belief that the power and wisdom behind the universe is love, and that this love will triumph against all the evil and suffering that come our way. Believing in God may not make your cancer go away, but it can give you the sense that in times of difficulty you are upheld by everlasting arms.

Bishop John Coburn, in his marvellous little book Grace in All Things, told a story about being on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Evening was falling after a long and gruelling day on patrol. As the sun set over a calm sea, there was this thrilling tropical colour that engulfed the ship. It was a moment of indescribable peace. God was around us, Bishop Coburn recalled. No one spoke-for, in the midst of war, there was this wonder of eternity, written in the gentle waves, the glory of the sky and the peace of that quiet moment.

Believing in God, trusting God-it may not turn your life into a picnic. But if you feel that strange religious impulse, you have already taken the first step in the search for God-the first step on your journey home.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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