Religious But Not Spiritual?

The following address was delivered by Dr. David Eshelman at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Russellville, Ark., as part of their stewardship season:

When I think of my spirituality, this story comes to mind. My mother was at a vacation Bible school in Buffalo, New York, in the Presbyterian church I grew up in. The theme one evening was Noah’s Ark. Workers from the Buffalo Zoo came and brought endangered species. My mother called me when it was over: “I really liked how they brought the animals and talked about the environment. But, David, did they have to keep talking about the Bible?” This was Bible school, mind you.

Sometimes, in my communication classes at Arkansas Tech, we talk about cultural differences within the United States; and I’ve shared this story with my students. They stare blankly back at me. What’s the point of church if not to talk about the Bible? God? This tight-lipped Yankee spirituality is strange to my Southern students. And the significant thing to remember is that my parents did, in fact, go to church. They went all the time. Growing up, there were Sundays when I’d be at church almost eight hours. And, sometimes, four days a week. But talk about it? Heavens, no.

Especially in grad school, I’ve heard people say that they were spiritual, but not religious. Well, I have been known to say that I am religious but not spiritual. But that’s kind of an ugly way of putting it. Perhaps I am better off bringing up an old adage from the theatre. I am a playwright by training; and I have written musicals. An old adage from musical theatre states that what cannot be said in words can only be said in song; and what cannot be said in song can only be said in dance. To adapt this principle to my spiritual life, I would say that there are things I don’t talk about because they must be expressed in something other than words, because words seem inadequate.

Playwrights are taught to write actions, not words. While words are important, what matters most in theatre is what the characters do, not necessarily the speeches they make. Words, after all, are not always reliable. Actions, as we know, speak louder. As the Bible teaches, the son who helps his father is far more to be emulated than the son who promises in words, but does nothing.

In my daily life, I don’t always remember to pray, but I am particularly faithful about reading the Bible. I’ve read from it every day since I was twelve. Growing up in Buffalo, where 85 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, I decided that I would celebrate my Protestant heritage. So I did the most Protestant things imaginable: I taught myself to play “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on the piano and I started reading the Bible every day. Why? Well, it’s a good thing to do—certainly not a bad thing. And I’d just as soon not explain myself. When I try, the words—the reasons—sound false, less genuine than the actual practice. So I’ll just keep doing what I do, if that’s all right.

Our religious life is our actions—whether that be attending church services, helping out with one of the many projects at church or elsewhere, praying, reading the Bible, being kind. These are the things that we Christians do. And giving money is another of these things. We do it to keep the church going, to help the community—to do all those things that are so important but sound so tawdry when we are forced to explain them. But explain we must, I suppose. We must learn from the churches in Buffalo that are closing because parishioners like my family and myself cannot figure out how to use words to make the case for their continued existence. Occasionally, I suppose, we must make a case. Still, I think, the absolute best, most significant, and most genuine reason for careful stewardship is this: Simply because.