Religious but not…

Or is it the other way ’round?

I went to a local talk group a few weeks ago, a few retired ministers, a couple of Wiccans, rather a lot of Unitarian Universalists actually, about a dozen people there in all. The group gets together and talks and listens about the sort of thing you’d expect a group like that to talk about. That night it was Spirituality.

It was a good conversation, and, for me, the most interesting part was the absolute inability to agree upon what we were discussing. After affirming general agreement on an initial idea that spirituality is a personal experience, and that when a number of people find meaning in a given interpretation of such experience, they might form a religion about it, the closest we came to agreement on terms was we all thought Doug Muder was on to something in his recent post at But there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm to really commit to that formulation.

I’m not going to rehash the discussion; we didn’t really uncover anything anyone hadn’t heard before, after all. But we listened, and maybe each came to see a little bit more deeply into the question of what spirituality means, or might mean for some people.  And to see a bit more deeply, into the heart and mind of both another and oneself is really the point at that group, I think.


There’s a lot of talk about being ‘spiritual but not religious’ around the American scene in… oh, probably forever, but it seems to have gained a lot of energy in recent years (the last fifteen, maybe, or maybe that’s just my age talking without doing the research). I think what’s often meant by that is something along the lines of

I believe there’s more out there than just me, and it’s something big, powerful, and wondrous, but I can’t get to it if I join a church

but this seems, oh… potentially missing something really important about being human.

I’m about to gnaw on the bone of the free-range UU thing again, here.

I don’t want to back away from my idea that free-range UUs make sense as a concept, and I still like the sound of A Congregation of One, though I don’t know what I mean by that. But I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how free-range works conceptually for a covenantal, non-creedal religion. Since, to be UU, one doesn’t profess certain beliefs (I’ll come back to the 7’s in a moment, briefly), a free-ranger is left with the covenant.  Typically (or simplistically), a covenant is an deep agreement between two parties. Similar to, but not really the same as, a contract–a mutual promise.

Humans are, after all, social individuals. I’m me, and you’re you, and we have to do things ourselves–but we can’t do alone everything we need as individuals.

Who is the other party in the free-ranger’s covenant? There doesn’t have to be a particular person, like a personification of UUism (an idea which would be pretty retrograde). There might be a particular person, like a close friend, though. Can one covenant with oneself? The 7’s bind UUA member congregations together, but primarily they reach over to individual UUs and the people of the congregations in groups (distinct within the corporate body of the congregation), but also individuals and people outside of any congregation. Only one of the seven (Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations) even seems to be exclusively congregational in thrust, and I’m not 100% sure it is exclusive.

I’ll wrap up with a quick return to that block quote up there. For the person who means something like that when saying “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” I wonder if they might have a pinched notion of what religious is. A religion is, at core, a community, bound by agreement about that bigger thing, and working to help people get to the bigger, powerful wondrous thing.

(Note about old UU posts.)

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