“Not spiritual, religious”…

April 7, 2011

… or so said my friend Keith, an Episcopal priest, a couple of years ago on his Facebook profile—in the section asking for one’s “religious views.” I know what he means. “Spiritual” implies ethereal, insubstantial, incorporeal, non-physical. It’s always at least a few feet off the ground. It doesn’t get its hands dirty. It doesn’t sweat or bleed or feel pain or make love. In other words, it’s something we can ignore most of the time. After all, we don’t live in a world of ideas (although some of us live in our heads more than others!); we live in a material world. And we mostly enjoy living here.

While Christianity has many forms of spirituality and spiritual practices, it is intensely concerned with the physical. The resurrection of Jesus—and our own future resurrection—whatever else it may be—is at least physical. God loves this world, this good Creation, these bodies. And God intends to save them.

Christianity’s emphasis on the physical posed an apologetic problem for early Christians venturing into a culture infused with Greek philosophy. For Plato, for instance, bodies were a problem that needed to be solved. Our future hope of life after death meant being liberated from these things that held us captive. This was a compelling message to most people. Therefore if you were inventing a religion from scratch, you wouldn’t claim that the religion’s founder had been bodily resurrected from the dead. That would be a hard sell, to say the least.

This is why the apostle Paul ran into trouble at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. He was making a nicely “spiritual” argument for the Christian faith to these sophisticated Athenians and foreigners who, Luke tells us, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (v. 21)—nice work if you can get it! But then Paul mentions resurrection in v. 31: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed…”

I think C.S. Lewis said that our life in heaven will somehow be more real, more physical, than life now—if it’s possible to imagine something like that. Needless to say, we won’t be angels floating on clouds and playing harps—or whatever caricature of Christian hope is out there.

As Bishop Will Willimon reflects on this week’s “word” from the cross from John 19:28 (“I am thirsty”), which I’ll be covering in my sermon this Sunday, he writes the following:

And with Jesus, there is something about us creatures that wants to make Jesus God uncarnate. Here is Jesus—a great spiritual leader, a marvelous teacher of high wisdom, a purveyor of some of the most noble notions ever uttered. That way we can keep him high and lifted up, floating somewhere above the grubby particularities of life. He can mean as much to us as Plato. He can be exclusively spiritual and therefore irrelevant… ¶ On campus, “Don’t you think it’s wonderful that there is so much interest these days in spirituality?” ¶ “I wouldn’t know about that, certainly wouldn’t be excited about that. I’m a Christian. We’re not spiritual. We’re into the physical. Can you say incarnation?

In the spirit of this post, I’ll leave you with this wonderful George Harrison song from his underrated Living in the Material World album. As a Hindu, of course, Harrison understands that the material world is a problem, and on this point Christianity agrees: Without redemption, as it currently stands, this world is a problem. Fortunately, God won’t see fit to leave it that way.

P.S. One of the material world’s problems is copyright laws. EMI won’t let you watch this movie directly in this post. Click the video and it will take you to YouTube, where you can watch it to your heart’s content.

William Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words From the Cross (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 51.

2 Responses to ““Not spiritual, religious”…”


  1. Now I have the Madonna song stuck in my head.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks a lot, Shannon! Somehow that song didn’t cross my mind. Harrison’s song is a bit more edifying. I also thought of that great Police song “Spirits in the Material World.”


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