Are We Religious or Spiritual?


by Frances Stebbins

Recent polls on the worship habits of Americans show that fewer are committing to membership in a formal faith group such as a church or synagogue; some students of current attendance trends think the number of truly committed members is as low as 20 percent.

Younger adults especially are not taking commitment to a faith community with the seriousness they once did.

That’s alarming to long-time folk still active in their congregations. Leaders of many of our valley’s religious groups are trying to make changes such as various attempts to introduce contemporary music, wall screens from which to sing hymns and informal attire in the hope that these will bring back the indifferent younger members.

But another interesting fact has emerged with the polls. Many folk, older as well as the young, call themselves “spiritual” even though they have no formal connection to an organized congregation.

So what is the difference between “religious” and “spiritual”? Until recently I considered them the same.

Not long ago I spent several hours at a local medical facility where the Hospice Foundation of America ( HFA) presented a four-part computer seminar, “Spirituality and End-Of-Life Care.” Attended primarily by health care professionals, the program is an annual event in which a half dozen specialists in the fields of medicine and social service offer updates on the latest trends in care of persons nearing the end of their lives.

The presentations have now gone digital since there is more flexibility in time and place for persons to attend, and naturally costs of sending speakers to various places is reduced.  The DVD was produced in cooperation with a number of organizations and businesses concerned with end-of-life care. Its moderator, who developed the theme by talking with six professionals, is Frank Sesno, a noted Washington journalist in both print and broadcast media.

The hospice folk gave a new and broader definition to spirituality because, the panelists agreed, it is such an important part of bringing a “good death” to those whose time in this world is nearing an end.

Basically, “spirituality” refers to what makes a person tick. It can be called “a ground of being” or perhaps “the Holy Spirit.”

It is what makes life worth living, several elderly persons still in good command of their faculties, told the panelists in the DVD. It’s distinct from “religion” because that is generally seen as adherence to a body of beliefs such as those professed for centuries by Roman Catholics,  Baptists and dozens of others.

If you’re religious,, you’re probably spiritual, for by committing to membership in a congregation you will be exposed to the doctrines and teachings of the particular group that you may or may not have inherited from your family of origin. Being “spiritual” is much broader in its definition. Using this yardstick, a person may indeed find God on the golf course or while fishing in the Roanoke River.

Such a broad definition naturally doesn’t sit well with religion professionals such as clergy or lay people committed to strengthening the organized church. Those of us who are religious by this definition hate to see our friends or relatives reject the community that may mean a lot to us. The Roanoke Valley currently is full of graying congregations, some clearly as much on their way out as the elderly people who discussed their spirituality in the DVD.

Hospice people, as revealed in the DVD, grow to see meaningful “spiritual” life in those who are too old or frail to be part of a congregation. Occasionally they see in young children dying of cancer a glimpse of God hardly connected to attendance in religious school. It’s a lot less definable than being a member of a congregation, but relationship to God is clearly there.

It’s found in reminiscence, the panelists noted, and in the smiles that light up the faces of dementia patients when music or a pet is brought to the home or nursing facility. Spirituality is a kind of spark of life which may be seen to the very end.

Living with dying patients of any age is a rewarding, if heartbreaking, experience. There is often much that should be said to reconcile families, and skilled medical people learn to listen and, above all, not try to force their own beliefs about God on their patients. It’s an especially tricky situation when families differ in their hope that the patient will die in a state of grace, the panelists pointed out.

But as death approaches, who is to say that the person is not reconciled with God?