Nicholas Lash on ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’

‘When people say (as they do, it seems, with increasing frequency) that they are more interested in “spirituality” than in “religion”, they usually seem to mean that they prefer the balm of private fantasy, the aromatherapy of uplifting individual sentiment, to the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world. When church leaders are exhorted to concentrate on “spiritual” affairs, the implication sometimes seems to be that these things are different from, and loftier than, such mundane matters as proclaiming good news to the poor and setting at liberty those who are oppressed’. – Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 92–3.


  1. As a hospital chaplain, I have met many, many people who have been extremely hurt by organized religion. Sometimes they will trust me with their stories and sometimes they will hit out at me.

    I realize that this quote was taken out of context. I hope that, in context, it doesn’t come across as smug as it sounds standing on it’s own. It fails to take into consideration the many and myriad ways that the Church has hurt people and done gross injustice to them. And it fails to take into account that God is one of the most powerful weapons we can wield when we are hitting out at other people in pain.


  2. When I began reading this post, I wanted to be on your side, dear author. I was already routing for your point by halfway through sentence 1 (& after I’d seen the picture). I was hoping for a gentle, yet poignant argument for why lack of commitment can only get us so far.

    But the assumption that the life of one who does not claim allegiance to a particular, widely-accepted religious system — yet very much feels called to follow a path (of some sort!) — is devoid of “the hard work of thought and action, the common struggle to make sense of things, to redeem and heal the world” is far too harsh & too huge of a generalization about “non-religious” spiritualists for me to blindly accept.

    And yes, as Pam mentioned, the pain that many in our nation feel because of largely negative experiences with The Church is a pain that shakes deeply one’s foundation. Heavy disillusionment with institutions that offer a way to a deeper spiritual life is an all-too-common ailment with rattling effects. And the condemnation (or the sizing up against the committed ones) of those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” is part of the problem. It is what makes the religious appear arrogant and judgmental, when Christ calls us to be just the opposite.


  3. Thanks for your comments, Pam and Lauren. It is difficult, at one level, to disagree with you. Perhaps you are not part of the ‘usually’ people that Lash has in mind. For my part, I do not here read Lash’s anti-‘private fantasy’ statement as proposing anything like the hardline arrogance and judgmentalism that you suggest, but simply that the God who calls calls us into a community of strangers and into the service of the world. I agree that attitudes as you describe ought to find no place in those communities purporting to announce and live the good news of the divine humility.


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