Spiritual and Also Religious

photo of a stone church with a cross on top and a belltower to the side

Americans increasingly identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or “SBNR” as I once heard a priest phrase it. Wikipedia says that people who identify as such do “not regard organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.”

I do not identify as spiritual but not religious. I do think organized religion is the most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. My challenge, however, comes in the next step: which religion?

I was raised and confirmed Catholic. I chose to attend Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college, and I did a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I also spent a year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program, where I volunteered at a Catholic seminary on the weekends. I am deeply formed by and attached to the Catholic tradition.

Jesus, however, is another matter. I agree he’s a cool guy, but faith in Jesus, belief in the resurrection, and a personal relationship with God do not come easily to me. Those are not gifts of mine. This is part of why I love Catholicism. Although Jesus is central to the Catholic faith, the Catholic tradition is so rich and varied that even given my Jesus-ambivalence, there is still so much in it that I find nourishing.

But I also love Unitarian Universalism. I’ve attended services at six different Unitarian Universalist churches, although I’ve never been a regular attendee. In my experience, Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition that is rooted moreso around shared principles than around shared beliefs. For someone like me, that’s perfect. There are few places where I feel so welcome, or so able to be so honest about my spirituality.

But there’s another religious tradition that has shaped me as well. In college, one of my professors was a Zen teacher. (She was also a Catholic.) She led weekly meditation sittings that I frequently attended. I still meditate regularly, and Zen Buddhism has deeply informed my personal spirituality.

I also love Quakers. In JVC, I lived a few blocks away from a Quaker meeting house, and I occasionally joined their Sunday morning services. I felt very close to God sitting in those pews.

These days, my partner and I have claimed a United Methodist church as our own. My partner was raised as a non-denominational Christian, and this church feels enough “like church” for her to make her happy. Meanwhile, it still feels traditional enough to content Catholic me. And we both love that the church is a “reconciling congregation,” one which is inclusive of queer relationships like ours.

For me, religion is a “select all that apply” sort of thing, a matter for checkboxes rather than a radio button. But that doesn’t mean I’m a strong religious pluralist. I don’t necessarily think these faith traditions are all equal in value or in truth. Sometimes I’m honestly quite torn between them. That said, three of these traditions — Unitarian Universalism, Quakerism, and Zen Buddhism — are relatively modest when it comes to metaphysical claims. They don’t necessarily contradict each other the way that other religions might, so my lived experience has been that all five of these traditions can coexist peacefully for me and can complement each other quite well.

I am spiritual. I am religious. But after that? That’s where it starts getting fuzzy for me. There are a number of faith traditions that I am shaped by and drawn to, yet I don’t easily or cleanly identify with any one. Most of the time, I am torn — quite happily — between these traditions, although I do admit that some days it can feel like more of a struggle.


Photo by Damien Dsoul on Unsplash

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. Their poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Eye to the Telescope, and Polu Texni, and their academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. Cam reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and blogs about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality at The Ruined Report. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on their website or on Twitter @camncoulter.