In my post last week on what we should do if we truly wanted to spread the gospel more effectively, there was some discussion in the comments on being spiritual vs being religious.  Is one possible without the other?  Is one “better” than the other?  Is there a difference between the two?  And, if so, what is that difference?  To examine this, I first want to give examples of each attribute, then discuss what that means for us.  The two examples: The Pharisees and Bono…

The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that existed before and after the time of Christ.  They had many distinguishing characteristics which separated them from other sects, including socioeconomic class structure, political beliefs, religious beliefs, and family ties.  One aspect of their belief system which is discussed at length in the New Testament is their level of interpretation of  and extension of the Law.  For example, “the  Torah requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple. The Pharisees washed themselves before Sabbath and festival meals (in effect, making these holidays “temples in time”), and, eventually, before all meals…” They extended the law in myriad ways.

What was Christ’s response to how the Pharisees interpreted the Law?  It forms most of Matthew 23, which is often called the “Woes of the Pharisees”.  Christ said that the Pharisees taught about God, but shut up the Kingdom of God to themselves and others.  They valued swearing on the gold of the temple more than the temple itself.  They paid tithes with spices, but ignored justice, mercy and faith.  They focused on the outward appearance, but inside were corrupt.  They did works to be seen and praised of men.  The followed the Law with exactness.

So, what did this make them?  They were arguably very religious people.  They had and followed a long list of rules, laws and standards.  But were they spiritual?  I’m sure there were some whose religious observances caused them to be more spiritual, but in general, Christ denounced them for being “whited sepulchers”.  I would interpret this as them not being very spiritual on the inside but not very religious on the outside.

Now move forward nearly 2000 years, to Bono and U2.  They are arguably one of the biggest bands currently touring (and have been amazing on each of the 7-8 times I have seen them over the past 2 decades).  They have been on the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, and just about every other magazine.  Through performing and wise investments, Bono is worth nearly $1 billion.  So where does he fall in all this: Religious?  Spiritual?  Both?  Neither?

Many people don’t know it because of their popularity, but U2 started as essentially a Christian band.  Bono and 2 of the other members were part of a fairly intense Christian group when they were younger, and as they started getting more successful, nearly broke up out of concern for the “lifestyle” of being in a rock band.  Yet they stayed true to their principles and have succeed enormously.  And in all of this, Bono has maintained a deep spirituality.  He talks about God and Christ in interviews, and writes both subtly and overtly about his beliefs in his lyrics.  Consider the song “Until the End of the World“, which is Judas talking to Jesus in the afterlife:

Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold, just passing time.
Last time we met it was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom.
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time except you.
You were talking about the end of the world.

I took the money, I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think.
You led me on with those innocent eyes
And you know I love the element of surprise.
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart.
You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.

Or consider the song “40”, based on Psalms 40 and with which U2 ended all of their concerts for a number of years:

I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song…

You set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and hear.

I will sing, sing a new song…

Or one more, “Yahweh“, about having God reach down and make something of the wretches we are:

Take these shoes / Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes /And make them fit
Take this shirt /Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt / And make it clean, clean
Take this soul /Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul /And make it sing

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Take these hands / Teach them what to carry
Take these hands / Don’t make a fist
Take this mouth / So quick to criticise
Take this mouth /Give it a kiss

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahewh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Still waiting for the dawn, the sun is coming up
The sun is coming up on the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?

Take this city / A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city / If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart / Take this heart
Take this heart / And make it break

And in interviews, Bono is even more open about God and Christ.  Some quotes from a book of interviews with Michka Assayas:

  • Christ teaches that God is love… I don’t let my religious world get too complicated.  I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is.  God is love, and as much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion.  Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love.  Now, that’s not so easy.
  • Religion can be the enemy of God…  A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit.  Discipline replacing discipleship.
  • The true life of a believer is one of a longer, more hazardous or uphill pilgrimage, and where you uncover slowly the sort of illumination for your next step.

And it goes on and on.  Bono is has a firm testimony of Christ.  And he puts his money where his mouth is.  He has spent countless hours and millions of dollars helping the less fortunate.  He is a very spiritual person, but he is NOT very religious in the sense of belonging to any specific denomination.  He doesn’t have much use for organized religion.  As he sang in another song, “The God I believe in isn’t short on cash.”

It is interesting that in the chapter just prior to the “Woes of the Pharisees”, Jesus teaches “Which is the great commandment in the law”  He answers: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  Bono certainly lives these two commandments.

So, it can be argued that the Pharisees were religious but not necessarily spiritual, and that Bono is spiritual but not very religious.  But which is more important?  What should be our goal?  I would quote several people.  First, Buddha who taught:

O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.

My teaching is not a philosophy. It is the result of direct experience…
My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship.
My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river.
Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore

In this, the Buddha taught that his teachings had a use, but they were only a means to an end.  Once the end was reached, there was no use for the teachings any more.  So how does this relate to us and being spiritual vs religious?  In General Conference from October 1984, Elder Ronald E. Poelman taught the following:

The gospel is the substance of the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation. The Church is the delivery system that provides the means and resources to implement this plan in each individual’s life… As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs.  Our lives become gospel centered.  Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies.  Occasionally, such traditions, customs and practice may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles.  Under such circumstances those who do not conform to these cultural standard may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy.  In fact, the eternal principles of the gospel and the divinely inspired Church do accommodate a broad spectrum of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity…

It is important, therefore, to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable, and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance…

When we understand the difference between the gospel and the Church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons.  Institutional discipline is replaced by self-discipline.  Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability…

May each of us continue to learn and apply the eternal principles of the gospel, utilizing fully and appropriately the resources of the divine restored Church…

And there’s the difference.  I would argue that being spiritual is much more important than being religious.  Being spiritual implies a personal and powerful relationship with God.  Being religious implies a relationship with a religious organization.  In the ideal world, being more religious will lead to being more spiritual, but, as in the case of the Pharisees, this isn’t always the case.

Some people say that being “spiritual” is a cop-out, or that it’s the “easy way out”, or that they don’t know what “being spiritual” means because it doesn’t fit in some little category.  While this can sometimes be the case, it depends on the person.  As Bono said, “The true life of a believer is one of a longer, more hazardous or uphill pilgrimage, and where you uncover slowly the sort of illumination for your next step.” And just because you’re religious, it doesn’t mean it’s “harder” – you can be a “cop-out” and still remain religious.  It is quite easy in the Mormon Church to “go through the motions” – to wear a white shirt, to give the correct Sunday School answers, to look the look.

At the end of the day, we are all unique.  There are billions of people on this earth, all scratching their way though life and trying to make sense of their relationship with Deity.  We all have different backgrounds and different life-experiences.  For some people , being religious and being a fully engaged member of the LDS Church makes them more spiritual.  For others, their path may life in a different faith.  For others, like Bono, their spirituality may not be based upon ANY organized religion.  And finally, for some, their path may still be wondering about God all together, yet they may still remain profoundly interconnected with the rest of us.

So, being spiritual isn’t a “cop-out”.  Being spiritual is THE GOAL.  It is why we are here.  Being religious can help us along the way towards being spiritual, but when all is said and done, it’s just a raft; it’s just a tool; it’s just a means to an end. Loving God and loving the rest of mankind are the ultimate commandments and goals, whether you are LDS, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Humanist, or whatever.  And on this hangs all the other laws and prophets…


  • – How do you define being spiritual?  Being religious?
  • Can someone be spiritual yet not religious?  Or religious yet not spiritual?  Both?  Neither?
  • Does being religious necessarily lead to being spiritual?
  • Does the LDS Church tend to develop spirituality or religiosity?  Both?
  • Which is the “higher” principle?