Ethics & Christian living

Rigorous religion or sloppy spirituality?

In his book Faith, Hope and Carnage, singer Nick Cave shares some fascinating insights into how faith has influenced him and his music. He says:

“The word spirituality is a little too amorphous for my taste. It can mean almost anything, whereas the word ‘religious’ is just more specific, perhaps even more conservative, has a little more to do with tradition…Religion is spirituality with rigour, I guess, and, yes, it makes demands on us.”


It’s a fascinating corrective to many of the messages which surround us, especially on social media. So often the spirit of our age, the zeitgeist, celebrates the nebulous, the ill-defined, the uncommitted as more ‘authentic’ than anything associated with the traditional or conservative.

But often, the zeitgeist is a shallow and populist illusion which fails to nourish us.  Often, we need to conserve or re-discover the traditions, disciplines and practices which re-orientate us in healthy directions. 

And I think Nick Cave is right: we need disciplines and commitments which make demands of us. We need ‘spirituality with rigour’.

‘Sloppy spirituality’

Every day I use a pattern of liturgy, songs, bible readings and reflections from an American book called Common Prayer. Today, in the introduction to October’s readings, it said:

‘For many of us, the judgemental, arrogant, legalistic Christianity we knew growing up has created a suspicion of discipline and order that can lead to a pretty sloppy spirituality. Reacting against the institution’s sickness, we easily find ourselves with little to help us heal from our own wounds, create new disciplines, and carve out a space where goodness triumphs. People who are afraid of spiritual discipline will not produce very good disciples.’


There is no shortage of evidence from history and contemporary experience about the corruption of religion. This is what makes some deconstruction valid and necessary.  Let’s not forget, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, not to mention Jesus himself, did plenty of deconstructing hypocritical religion. 

But we need to acknowledge that nothing is easier in today’s culture than criticising institutions. On social media, there are Likes and Shares aplenty for those who can angrily condemn organisational failure. So whilst much deconstruction is understandable, it will only takes us so far.


For faith to be transformative, we need to re-commit to discipline in our daily lives.  And we need to play our role in collective activity which gathers, builds and organises for a shared Christian purpose.

In short, we cannot escape our need for the discipline of private prayer and the commitment to public worship.

Wholeness, hope and change, whether in individuals or community, are not generated by themselves. Faith will always be central to this task, as the words in Common Prayer continued:

‘The longing for community is in all of us. We long to love and to be loved.  But if community doesn’t exist for something beyond us, it will atrophy, suffocate, die. Discipline and disciple have the same roots, and without discipline…we easily fall short of God’s dream to form a new humanity with distinct practices that offer hope and good news to the world.’


It may be unfashionable to say so, but personal or community transformation does not come without discipline and commitment.  The fruits of faith require a rigorous spirituality.  The vine requires a framework to grow on; the new wine requires new wineskins.

It is easy to project our pain onto institutions. But this often increases bitterness and disillusion, rather than generating real hope.

But the gospel of Jesus provides both a deep enough affirmation to heal us and a deep challenge to share this love with others. This is captured in this powerful prayer from yesterday’s Common Prayer:

Lord, keep us from making crosses out of the splinters of discomfort in our lives. Help us recognise the true crosses you call us to bear, those whose weight lends to the freedom and provision of others. Amen.

Demanding love

God’s grace and truth revealed in Jesus Christ is demanding. It took Jesus to the cross and calls us to follow him on this path. 

I started off by quoting one musician, so let’s end with another.  Three hundred years ago Isaac Watts ended his famous hymn about the cross of Christ with possibly the best words of any Christian song:

‘Love so amazing, so divine

Demands my soul, my life, my all’  

I would highly recommend Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals collated by Enuma Okoro, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claibourne

3 thoughts on “Rigorous religion or sloppy spirituality?”

  1. Great piece – reminded of an article by Jonathan Sacks in the Times ~10 years ago that resonated powerfully for me.

    ‘Yes, there is much positive about our search for spirituality, but there is also something escapist, shallow and self-indulgent. Just as street protest is the attempt to achieve the results of politics without the hard work of politics, so the current cult of spirituality is the attempt to achieve the results of religion without the disciplines, codes and commitments of religion. That is not good news.

    There are no short cuts to heaven on earth. To discover God within the soul is easy. What is hard is bring God into the world, with all its poverty, inequality, violence and terror and make it a home for His presence by celebrating His image in others. That takes real work, the long, hard, steady work of love in action, loyalty in deed, generosity to those who are different from you, and commitment to those who do not yet share your blessings. That’s what makes pilgrims different from tourists, holy days different from holidays, and commitment something greater than the search for experience. Religion starts in spirituality. What it asks of us next is where the real work of God begins.’
    – Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks ‘The Times’ August 24th 2002.

    Love Nick Cave and Jonathan Sacks (and you John) being on the same page

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was preaching on Revelation 21 yesterday and these posts on Gnosticism and spiritual discipline (and Nick Smith’s reply) resonate strongly. Indeed, If I repeat the sermon next Sunday, I have new material to draw on.

    Let me quote from what I said yesterday:

    Liz Bonnin is a passionate conservationist and broadcaster.

    She told the Irish Times
    “I see the gift that is this planet, this miracle, this paradise.
    I don’t know why people wait for heaven.
    Heaven is right here.
    How beautiful life could be here if we just tweaked our lives, we would thrive.

    “I have a sense of spirituality with respect to nature.
    When I dig deep into who we were and looking into indigenous societies now,
     it is a beautiful reminder of how intimately connected we are
    with the majesty of nature. That to me is my god, that to me is spirituality.”

    It is important to say
    that whether they have faith in God or not conservationists are saying some very important things. We need to take seriously all the evidence of climate change.
    I find fewer worms in the garden than I used to. Fewer flies on the windscreen in the summer and I wonder, are we fulfilling God’s command in Genesis 2.15 to work the land and take care of it to cultivate it, not destroy it?
    There is a line of thought among some Christians that it doesn’t matter what we do with the environment- sure it’s all going to be destroyed anyway all that matters is that we trust Jesus and have our souls saved and go to heaven.
    That’s actually a sub Christian thought. It’s like the argument which Paul refutes in 1 Corinthians 6. Some people were suggesting it didn’t matter what they did with their bodies sexually since their bodies would be destroyed. But Paul reminded them: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also”
    [1 Corinthians 6.15]
    It’s a false notion influenced by Greek philosophy to downgrade creation as if all that matters is something spiritual
    What we do with our bodies in this life matters eternally.
    What we do with the creation of God matters eternally.

    But what could we say to Liz Bonnin and the many like her who see the beauty and wonder of this earth as the only beauty and wonder?

    One thing we could try to say is that the new heaven and earth
    is not a denial of the present lovely and vulnerable heaven and earth
    still less a rejection of that
    but a renewal and perfection of creation.

    But it’s not so much about what we say to her as what we should say to God about her.
    I think of in the prayer of Elisha for his servant when he was afraid of the armies surrounding them. “Lord, open his eyes, that he may see” And then he saw the heavenly hosts around them.

    “Lord open her / their eyes; let her / them see a deeper beauty than the beauty of this earth”As we shall sing in a few moments

    Heaven above is softer blue,
    earth around is richer green;
    something lives in every hue,
    Christless eyes have never seen:

    We celebrate the beauty of this earth and this life because we know it is a foretaste of something better coming.
    Please don’t think of heaven as something twee and boring
    sitting on a fluffy cloud plucking a harp.
    It’ll be even better than the best we’ve known here
    and all enjoyed in the near presence of God and the Lamb
    Jesus God’s son whose death and resurrection made it all possible.


  3. ‘The longing for community is in all of us.’ Yes it is, but sadly a congregation is not necessarily the same thing. We need to find those communities, which may or may not exist within a congregation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s