The “crisis of legitimacy” surrounding traditional beliefs in God, religious practices, and communal identity has contributed to a generalized discontent with religion as it is institutionally embodied. Bass considers the “Spiritual But Not Religious” claim to represent a dissatisfaction with the way things have been and a corresponding hunger for a new way of living faithfully. She points out that any real transformation must begin with a sense of discontent strong enough to energize the needed change. The energy and hope comes in the growing use of “spiritual” as an identifier among people who also call themselves “religious.” In two polls, one taken in 1999 and the other in 2009, the major shift in identity was from people identifying as “Religious only” to identifying as “Both spiritual and religious.” The institutional crisis, as one pastor is quoted as saying, “is that the Presbyterian Church [you could name most any denomination here] has emphasized too much of the religion side without the spiritual side.”

That pastor wasn’t me, but it could have been. Like many congregations, ours is pretty ambivalent toward “spirituality.” We have an energetic and imaginative Spirituality Committee, but it can be hard to see just how much impact they make on the wider congregational life. Our Food for Thought group norms resist any emotional or intimate expressions of “spirituality,” and even the group members who would call themselves “spiritual” often have trouble deciding what to do with that word. In part this is because we are decent, orderly Presbyterians; we are generally well-educated white-collar Americans; and we’re Minnesota-nice enough to be cautious about imposing our views on others. In part, though, I think it’s because we just don’t quite know what we mean by “spirituality.”

Perhaps we could turn outside the world of faith to find a sense of what we could mean by “spirituality” in our intellectual flavor of Christianity. In an interview for On Being, philosopher Alain de Botton discusses the spiritual life, or the soul, of an atheist:

It means an allusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers.

If we talked about spirituality as depth, acknowledging that members of our congregation experience that depth in different ways and articulate it with different words, perhaps we could find more useful ways to share that reality with each other. I’m not opposed to traditional theological understandings and ways of talking about our faith, but there’s a very real sense in which our traditional language about God suggests that we have all the answers and that reciting the correct answers is the way to be part of our club. I think we need to let God out of the box we’ve built with our language and find ways – institutional ways, because for all its flaws there is so much value to the institution – of responding to the mystery that surrounds us.

What does the word “spirituality” sound like to you? What useful, communal (Minnesota-nice) ways have you found of practicing and expressing your spiritual depth?