“I don’t go to church – I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”
It’s a phrase often heard and it’s being heard more and more. Research from the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) found that 44.6% of respondents to the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes believed that there is something beyond this life that makes sense of it all. Of this, 24% have no religious affiliation.
So what does that mean exactly? As Dr Val Webb, theologian and author, explains, it’s a little hard to define – mostly because the term ‘spiritual’ is so full of baggage.
“It’s a difficult word,” she said. “It’s got really bad history in Christianity.”
Val explained that while the ancient Hebrews accepted God as an unknown mystery, as time moved on Greek thought introduced an image of God as a man in the sky – something ‘out there.’ Spirituality over the centuries has often since been seen as separate to our human lives and an escape from this world.
“People talk about their life as a spiritual journey, as opposed to life,” she said. “The idea that spiritual means going somewhere else, not being a whole person.”
Alternatively, Val said that “spirituality can be, not being somewhere else, but deep within us.
“There’s plenty of biblical evidence that talks about the God within. When you think that way you don’t have to have the idea that we have to escape the world.”
While Val said that spirituality has its origins in religion, these days it can be seen as separate from it.
“We’ve got a situation where spirituality is seen as something that’s not religion,” she said. “Religion gets to be seen without any depth and spirituality becomes isolated.
“Spiritualities’ – plural – might be better,” she continued. “It suggests that there’s a variety out there.”
Spirituality can mean many things for many people. This certainly is one reason that Michael Pellegrino, massage therapist from Perth, says he doesn’t believe his spirituality needs to be defined or organised by a religion.
“I don’t have an organised structure,” Michael said. “I just feel that we’re all equal and we’re all connected.
“I’ve found that religions are covered by men’s emotions and their own personal agenda’s interfere with spiritual growth.”
Raised as a Catholic, Michael felt that the church wasn’t there for him at a time in his life when he needed it. But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to explore the deeper meanings of life.
“I’m questioning why I’m here and how we can make it better,” he said. “I describe my spirituality as a connectedness with everything alive. I feel that there is a power that connects all of it together and I communicate with that higher power which I believe comes from a love and a light, instead of hate and darkness.
“I talk to this being in my day. In my bad times and my good times, I communicate.”
Val feels that these reasons for not wanting to be part of a religion – too much structure, being let down by the church and having an undefinable sense of spirituality – all have validity and are not uncommon thoughts these days.
“I think it comes out of the history of religious institution. The people are disenchanted – all these church scandals, rules that you have to obey and the church not always having done the right thing,” she said.
Add to that a generation that now feel they don’t really need religion, for a lot of reasons. Back in the day, church was the hub of a person’s life. All their friends were there and their pastimes were often connected with the church.
“The church was once the whole social life,” Val said. “The younger generation have got plenty to do and they don’t need church for their social life.”
The traditional format of church also doesn’t always make sense to a postmodern generation who are taught everywhere – but in the church – to question.
Val’s book, In Defence of Doubt: An invitation to explore, has recently been published for a second time, the original published in 1995. In her book, as the title suggests, Val encourages Christian doubt as a healthy thing. With all the progress made in science, theology needs to keep up.
“Doubt is what has led the world forward in everything,” she said. “Unfortunately in the church it has become a negative.”
She explained that if you’ve been in the church all your life you might be forgiving of church language which implies a doubtless faith. But if you’re new to church, the language doesn’t make sense and you’re not going to swallow seemingly impossible stories of a resurrection and virgin birth. Instead of being encouraged in these thoughts, however, people are often told that these doubts are wrong, which means instead of exploring the meaning of life through a religion, they find their own way to do it.
Even amongst church goers doubt is not uncommon. According to the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 41% of religious respondents think we should question our beliefs, while 30% were undecided. But sometimes the church doesn’t know how to respond to this in a healthy way.
“I think doubt is very healthy,” Val said. “Doubt is one of the healthiest things we’ve got.
“I think the doctrines and the church need to be more willing to move with the times and the way they look at everything.
“Doubts are seen as challenging the authorities. It’s changing now because people just walk away.
“Is God only found in the church?” Val asked. “People are saying, ‘We don’t have to be in church to find God.’ And I think they’re right.”
Of course a drawback of this for our wider communities is that without a church or faith community people can be less connected, so finding a place to share spirituality is important.
“A lot of people in the church say they stay in the church because of the community,” Val said. “There’s really nowhere else you find community like you do in the church.”
This connection doesn’t always have to be through a religious institution, which is one of the reasons why organisations such as the Sunday Assembly are popping up all over the world – including in Perth. The Sunday Assembly describes itself as a ‘godless’ congregation which helps people to live better, help often and wonder more.
The church indeed still has a lot to offer our communities, but Val says it also needs to move with the flow of progress of knowledge and time. The church needs to understand that just because it did things one way 50 years ago doesn’t mean it still needs to be done the same way today. In fact, that approach is alienating people.
Instead, Val believes that the church needs to be in more discussion with the wider community – and perhaps its members might learn something along the way too.
“Maybe down the road church will become small groups of people talking about the meaning of life over a glass of wine,” she said. “People who say they’re spiritual are saying, ‘I’m working something out for myself but I don’t want some person to tell me that I’ve got to think about it this way.’”
“I think we need to be more helping people celebrate being human – who they are and what they do in the world.”
After visiting Albany for speaking engagements over the weekend of 4–6 April, Dr Val Webb will be speaking at the Adventures in Faith conference in Perth, organised by the Perth Progressive Network WA. Hear her speak on Saturday 12 April, 9.30am at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. On Sunday 13 April she will preach at Wembly Downs Uniting Church, 9.30am, followed by a session on ‘In Defence of Doubt.’