By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
What is Faith for Someone Who is “Spiritual but Not Religious?”
If faith is not defined as a commitment to a personal God or to a belief system about the origins or purpose of the universe, does it even make sense to use the term “faith?” Since spirituality is not about having a particular belief system, it is necessary to look at the actual experience that we associate with spirituality—to attempt to understand not just what a spiritual person has faith in, but what faith might feel like to someone with a spiritual orientation.
I suggest that we look at it more as a faith in life itself and a faith that stems from an ongoing relationship to those aspects of life that embody the infinite quality that Tillich refers to. I understand that this view is ultimately subjective and may not resonate for everyone who considers themselves to be on a spiritual path.
The 23rd Psalm as a Metaphor for Spiritual Faith
I propose to look at the 23rd Psalm through the eyes of someone who is spiritual but not necessarily religious. This psalm offers a poetic description of the lifetime journey of faith that I believe captures the essence of certain aspects of faith better than any philosophical or theoretical descriptions. And by interpreting the 23rd Psalm as a metaphor rather than literally, it provides a basis for understanding faith in a broader, spiritual way—a faith in those qualities of life that offer peace and fulfillment, and when fully recognized, allow us to guide our lives so as to reinforce these positive experiences.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
In the years of reciting the 23rd Psalm in my youth, I had always considered it a chore and never was much interested in what it was saying. Now that I am older, the psalm has great meaning for me—in particular the phrase “as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” As we get closer to the end of our walk through the valley, and as “the shadow of death” looms larger and begins to feel very real, the concepts of faith conveyed in this psalm become particularly relevant and compelling.
So much of what is captivating about the 23rd Psalm is that it is not describing a world of safety, but rather one that is fraught with evil, enemies, and potential danger. It is about the power of faith in a world of certain death and in the face of the many other challenges and difficulties that we encounter along the way.
Faith in the Ability to Restore Our Souls
The 23rd Psalm points out that there is a right way to live. There is an answer that life itself provides. One might say that there is an experience of being alive at a deep level that is restorative. We don’t have to wait for an afterlife in order to reap our rewards; there are green pastures that we can lie down in, still waters that we can walk besides, and a “path of righteousness” that we can follow. We need not fear evil and we need not “want.” Instead of fear, emptiness or deprivation, we can experience peace and fulfillment, a place where our needs are more than met, where our “cup runneth over,” suggesting even the possibility of joy.
The 23rd Psalm is not simply referring to what makes us happy, but rather to something much more profound. It refers to what “restores our souls.” Unlike a shopping spree or professional success or winning the lottery or other more worldly sources of happiness, finding that which truly restores our souls may demand much more of us. We may first need to conquer some of our own demons along the way; we must be capable of finding, taking in, and appreciating those green pastures and still waters that are truly restorative. Being on a spiritual path begins with recognizing how life can restore our souls and what the path of righteousness means for us.
Faith in Wisdom and Strength to Guide Us through the Valley
In the 23rd Psalm, “the Lord” is the shepherd, the source of all knowledge, the one who leads, who knows the way, who guides us through the valley, comforts us and protects us from our enemies. If we are to look at it metaphorically, the Lord could represent our own faith and wisdom, the part of ourselves that knows at the deepest level where the green pastures and still waters are, the part of ourselves that is strong, that we can count on to protect us and that will help keep us pointed in the right direction, on the path of righteousness.
My response to this is that it feels right that I can be my own shepherd, but only to the extent that I can experience a connection or alignment with what I would call a larger dimension of goodness or wisdom—something beyond myself. Yet I am unable to draw any conclusions as to what that means; I know that I feel connected to and aligned with some bigger “something,” yet it is not a “thing.” By being in touch with this source of wisdom, I can feel guided and comforted.
This is the aspect of faith that we are “grasped by.” It is the emotional component, the experience of the sacred that gives us a sense of certainty along with the doubts that also accompany faith. Yet the term “grasped” should not be taken to imply that we are overtaken by faith in one ecstatic moment, like the Buddha who discovered the key to enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.
For most of us, the process of developing our spirituality or finding our way on our spiritual paths is likely to be much more subtle, a process that evolves over years or, more likely, decades. Often in spite of ourselves we finally learn to turn away from sources of gratification, excitement or comfort that ultimately fail to nourish us and and increasingly we look for a different kind of gratification, hopefully the kind that places us on our own particular version of the path of righteousness.
The Cognitive and Behavioral Aspect of Faith
As Tillich said, faith encompasses all the aspects of the personality, including the cognitive and the behavioral along with the emotional and the experiential. We must have knowledge about the route to take through the valley; we must have learned from our experiences and have translated that into a map of how to best proceed. This requires some sort of an intellectual commitment, even if we have not fully articulated it, to a certain kind of journey and certain ways of living. We sense that our maps are there, even if they are vague much of the time or, as can be expected, we fail to follow them consistently.
And there is also the behavioral element, the “tuning towards” that Tillich describes. Faith is about our journey. We don’t necessarily start with a great deal of faith, but our faith can be reinforced when we turn towards and prioritize those behaviors and life experiences that are truly rewarding and nurturing.
Of course, our commitment to our path of righteousness may not always win over other commitments or other temptations that move us in opposing directions. But we can always return to our sources of wisdom for guidance. The more we are turned towards these aspects of life, the more we renew and validate our faith, leading to what I call the virtuous cycle of faith. Faith is something that we must first experience, but also recognize, believe in, nurture and prioritize in our lives.
Surely We Will Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever
But what about the peace that would come from believing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever? The 23rd Psalm offers the vision not only of an existence where goodness and mercy will follow us all of the days of our lives, but also that we will find our place with the Lord after we die. If we look at the 23rd Psalm as a metaphor rather than as a literal statement about the promise of safety or of the existence of a heaven, the question then becomes, “What does dwelling in the house of the Lord symbolize?”
Interestingly, the 23rd Psalm does not specifically state that goodness and mercy will always follow us or that a heaven necessarily awaits us. Rather, it is describing the feeling of its narrator, that as one who has been led by the shepherd Lord, it seems only natural to conclude that, surely, goodness and mercy will follow me and that I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The word “surely” is key, since the narrator is acknowledging that there is no guarantee as to our safety in life or our status after our death, but that it feels right to conclude that we will ultimately be safe and protected.
A symbolic rather than a literal interpretation of the 23rd Psalm might emphasize these feelings of safety and protection that we experience on a spiritual path. We do not have to believe in a literal heaven or redemption or an afterlife for this Psalm to deeply resonate. If we know fulfillment in the present moment, if we can truly say, “my cup runneth over,” then that can be enough to give us a sense of peace about the future, whether in life or in death. What matters most is not whether we know the course that our future takes or what actually happens after we die. What is most relevant is how we feel about it and the peace that we experience in the present as a result.
When we are following our faith, when our souls feel restored, we need not focus on the past or fear the possibility of future pain or suffering. The experience of faith, grace, belonging or whatever you wish to call it, is so complete that it is somehow timeless. Faith in this sense is built upon something that we “know” in the present moment, rather than on a specific belief in redemption or a guarantee of life after death. In these moments of restoration, when our cups runneth over, the perfection and fullness of the present moment feels complete and the “now” feels eternal, as if we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.