"Growing numbers of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious," says Robert Wuthnow in After Heaven, his assessment of American spiritual development since 1950.
It is a spirituality without truth or authority but filled with belief in the supernatural. It is a trend born of the modern fears of religion.
The powerful critiques of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche have penetrated our popular psyche. Freud saw religious performance as a way that guilt-ridden people cleanse themselves and force God to bless them. Marx saw religious principle used by one class of people to oppress another. Neitzsche asserted that anyone claiming to have the truth is making a power play. He asked the powerful: "Why do you call for love? Is it not just a way to keep anyone from revolting against your authority?" He asked the powerless: "Why do you call for justice? Is it not just a way for you to get on top?"
These critiques are powerful because they have the ring of truth. They're the reasons many who seek spirituality reject religion.
What shall we do then? We must address the real issues of self-righteousness, exclusion, and power-plays. The church must echo Jesus' own powerful critique of religion and visibly demonstrate the difference between religion and the gospel.
Right word, right time
First, we must do it in word—in our preaching and communication. Even more than Freud, Jesus condemned self-justification through moral performance, at one point claiming that religion was more spiritually dangerous than overt immorality.
Jesus gives us the classic picture of the failure of both religion and irreligion in his parable of the two sons in Luke 15. The elder brother represents the religious leaders; he never disobeys any of the father's laws. As a result, he tries to control his father and exclude his brother. In the end, he is the one who misses the feast of salvation rather than his profligate brother.
There could not be a more powerful warning: The elder brother is not lost despite his obedience to the father but because of it.
Jesus shows us that the problem is self-justification, the belief that we can win blessing through our virtue. In Luther's terminology, religion is just another form of works-righteousness, which leads to profound internal instability. We are never sure of our worthiness, yet we need to feel superior to those who do not conform in order to bolster our insecurity.
Following Jesus, we must agree with our critics about the danger of religion, but show them that they are wrong about their solution to it. Secular people see religion as a body of fixed doctrine and ethics that one must adhere to in order to acquire rights to blessing and heaven. They see how often religion leads to self-righteousness, exclusion, and oppression. Modern culture, however, wrongly identifies fixed doctrine (the idea of absolute truth) as the poisonous element.
Both traditional religion and the new spirituality are forms of self-salvation. ...