A 2017 Pew Research article highlighted an interesting trend among Americans. Between 2012 and 2017, there was a decline in those who identified as both “religious and spiritual” (from 59 to 48%) and a corresponding increase in those who identified as “spiritual but not religious” (from 19 to 27%). Fast forward to 2021, and an Associated Press-NORC Center poll found an acceleration in that trend. Researchers found among respondents that “[a]bout 12% describe themselves as religious and spiritual and 28% as spiritual but not religious” with the plurality not associating with either religion or spirituality.
When describing the attractiveness of a more inchoate spirituality as opposed to a specific religion, one AP-NORC respondent said, “they’re not trying to tell you what’s true”, but rather “there’s always a spirit of curiosity and questioning and openness.”
I propose these data points in the wake of the Christmas season, when the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Christians join beleaguered and exiled Israel as their hope is fulfilled with the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” Births are often causes of great joy, and so the birth of God Himself, the birth par excellence, is understandably worthy of being a feast unto itself.
However, there’s a subtle but distinct catch to Christ’s birth that holds the interpretive key to the modern trend away from religion. Within the cute and innocent face of the Christ child is a threat. This may seem oxymoronic, as there is seemingly nothing quite as harmless as a newborn baby. But what exactly is threatened by the revelation of God’s face? To answer that question, we need to first ascertain one of the meanings of God becoming man, and that is that God is a personal God. God is not an abstract or impersonal being. In Christ, God has a human brain, arms, legs, a face, and a voice. And if God has a human face and voice, then God can look at us and tell us things we may not want to hear. Specifically, this God-man may tell us to take up our cross (Luke 9:23), to sell our possessions (Luke 12:33), to hate our own lives (Luke 14:26), and to sin no more (John 8:11). Therefore, this personal God threatens our ability to simply do as we wish, to make our own rules, and to decide questions that are within God’s purview.
When we understand the threat the personal God poses, then it should pose no shock that there is a rise in those who identify as “spiritual but not religious”. A bland spiritual force poses no threat to me and my own way of ordering my life. The “universe”, or an invisible higher power will not look me in the face and tell me that I must change or that I am wrong in my beliefs or my behavior. I can easily interpret “signs” from the universe that conveniently coincide with my own subjective feelings on things, but I can’t manipulate the personal God in this way. Revisiting the AP-NORC quote from earlier, an impersonal God is “not trying to tell you what’s true.”
I argue that those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” seem to be desiring the benefits of a non-material presence and the existence of a higher power without the threat and burden that a personal God would impose. They want a God that they can speak to, but not one that can and will answer back unambiguously. Ironically, there seems to be an inner longing for a personal connection with this impersonal God, as a simple Google search of “prayers to the Universe” yields dozens of results.
But while the existence of the personal God does indeed pose a threat, viewing this only as a threat would be grossly inadequate. The personal God may tell us what is right and wrong, and, thereby, challenge the definitions of those terms that we have come up with ourselves, but to view that as malevolent is incorrect. This personal God, who has made the journey from outside of time and space to our humble planet, has come a long way to tell us we are wrong. What would motivate this God to do this? I would propose that it’s not out of a challenge to our freedom, but, rather, so that our “joy may be complete” (John 15:11). This personal God has journeyed out of His way to tell us that there are dragons destroying our castle, and He has threatened to destroy them for our own benefit. The problem with us is that, far too often, we secretly like the dragons and have kept them around as pets. We don’t wish anyone to tell us that they must go, as much as we know deep within that their destruction is what is best.
As we celebrate Christmas, we come face to face with God Himself, the personal God with a face and a voice. This God will look us in the eye and tell us to “sin no more.” However, this challenge given to us by the Christ child is ultimately nested within a deeper, more joyful truth. My challenge for everyone, but especially those who have chosen to identify as “spiritual but not religious” is that when we trade in the personal God for the impersonal “universe”, we are sacrificing one of the deepest longings of our human hearts, and that is to be loved by another. Not loved arbitrarily and generically from an abstract spiritual force, but directly, individually, and personally. While Christ no longer walks the earth as He did 2,000 years ago, the way we contact this personal God today is precisely through religion and not a bland spirituality. We can hear the voice of Christ today through the Church, the Scriptures, the Saints, and the sacraments. Unfortunately, to avoid having our dragons threatened, we have given up the intense and loving gaze of the personal God who wishes to embrace us, look us in the eyes, and tell us, individually, “I love you.” In doing so, we are missing out on the greatest gift of all.