Enjoy our interview with Fr. John Bartunek, author of the new book Spiritual but Not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World (TAN Books, 2019).
When people say, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” what do they mean?
Every person is different, and every person’s inner journey is different, but trying to make a clean separation between being spiritual and being religious usually indicates a couple common insights and concerns. Some people feel an urge to find deeper meaning in life, but they have for some reason been turned off by their experience of organized religion. They undertake this search for deeper meaning, therefore, outside the walls of any type of church or religious community.
What they sometimes fail to realize is that at the origin of every “organized religion” is a powerful, existential experience of the very same deeper meaning they are looking for. In the book, I explore some of the origin stories of these religions, and I also explore the inherently religious overtones of the deepest human yearnings.
Why do so many religions, or religious people, seem to lack an authentic spirituality?
Let me start by saying that anyone who is authentically religious is also living an authentic spirituality. If you find people who are religious but not spiritual, you have found people who are not living their religion authentically. They may be stuck, perhaps because of a lack of generosity or courage on their own part, or perhaps because of some difficult life circumstances, and religion is simply a place of belonging and familiarity for them, but it has lost its power to satisfy the deeper yearnings of the human soul.
Also, there are religious people who lack authentic spirituality because they are, to put it bluntly, hypocrites. Their religion is one of the products they use to promote their own status, their own plans of personal conquest. This is a sure way to stifle authentic spiritual experience and growth. This ties in to the question of human nature, which is divided — every human person is capable of great evil or great good. This is an important topic in the book.
In the end, aren’t all religions really the same — like the old fable of different people touching different parts of an elephant in the dark: they are all talking about the same thing (an elephant) but it seems like they are talking about something different because they are all touching different parts?
Yes, all religions are the same; and no, all religions are not the same. It’s both yes and no. This is one of the key distinctions that I explore in the book. Every human culture — and, in a sense, every human person — has to face at some point the existential questions about meaning, true happiness, good and evil, where we come from and where we are going, time and eternity, etc. The questions flow spontaneously from our nature as spiritual beings (squirrels don’t write poetry — they are not spiritual by nature). So the questions are all the same, for every culture and every tribe and every person in the human family, from the dawn of history until today. Religions provide answers to those questions. So the questions at the root every religion are the same (all religions are the same in that regard).
But when we look honestly at the answers given by the different religions, we see that those answers are substantially different — not just superficially different. They have different answers to the most fundamental questions. So the answers given by different religions are different — all religions are not the same. The book goes into this in great detail, because unless we understand this distinction, we can never truly respect people who don’t share our own religion or non-religion.
Why do you refer so often to works of art in a book on spirituality?
That goes back to squirrels not writing poetry, and dolphins not building movie theaters, and chimpanzees not creating laboratories where they study humans. There is something qualitatively different about the human experience of this world, something that sets humans apart from every other species. One of the most universal and powerful expression of this extra dimension of human experience (the spiritual dimension) is art. To make a work of art is to give expression to this mysterious spiritual core at our center.
A great work of art somehow captures a valuable insight into the deeper meaning we yearn for, and it communicates that insight in an experiential way. In contemplating that work of art, then, we advance in our journey not only intellectually, but existentially. A true encounter with a great work of art can change the course of one’s life. Actually, that’s what happened to me.
You mean, you became a Catholic priest because of a work of art?
Yes. Yes, I did. I mean, the path that took me off the life-road I had decided to follow as a young man and led me down a different road, where I discovered my calling to the Catholic priesthood, began with me standing transfixed in front of a sculpture by Donatello.
To learn more about Fr. Bartunek’s book, visit TANBooks.com.
About the Author: Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After spending time as a teacher, coach, and actor, he entered the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993 and was ordained in 2003, and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” His most widely known book is called The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He currently resides in Michigan, where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director.
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Copyright 2019 Mark Trometer for TAN Books