‘Religion Is Spirituality With Rigor’

A good friend posted that he’d just listened to an episode of the On Being podcast hosted by Krista Tippett, with the iconic Australian rock musician Nick Cave as her guest. The title of the episode is “Loss, Yearning, Transcendence.” The interview is important, said my friend, because “more than a few times I had to stop the recording when Nick would say something that knocked me for a loop.” That caught my attention, so I found the episode and listened. 

Cave’s life and story took a savage detour after his son Arthur fell to his death from a cliff near Brighton. Just seven years later his eldest son was found dead in a Melbourne motel. In the cascading grief that washed over Cave and his wife, Susie, something surprising surfaced—this shattering obliterated the protective shell of Cave’s life, exposing a yearning for God that had long been buried. Embedded in Cave’s circuitous and even precarious journey toward the heart of God, he found himself drawn to a particular church’s traditional (but life-infused) liturgical practice. He charts this unexpected path in a new book, Faith, Hope, and Carnage. Here’s a revelatory interchange between Tippett and Cave:  

Cave: I prefer to use the word religious rather than spiritual myself, but…

Tippett: What did you say [in your book]? “Religion is spirituality with rigor.” I like that.

Cave: It’s asking something of us, rather than [just] we’re all spiritual creatures, which of course we are… I find an acute feeling of the mystery of these matters in church. I know a lot of people have felt that it’s better to release God from the church and all of that stuff. But I have found, in the last year or so, a church in the U.K. that is cut off from the world. It feels no need to address the problems of the world. It’s a place that you go that it’s so beautiful. The singing is so beautiful. The music, the organ player’s off the chart… The pure drama of the narrative plays out in the church service. It blows away my basic skeptical nature in a heartbeat. It allows me the permission to be deeply connected to those people that I’ve lost. That’s what it’s about, essentially. By the time it gets to the communion it’s unbelievably moving, this service. In fact, this church has got a reputation of being the church for atheists, because it’s so beautiful that anyone can just feel these sorts of things.

Tippett: There’s the phrase, “spiritual, but not religious.” Something that I think is also coming back is “religious, but not spiritual,” which is what you represent.

Cave: When I’m in a church that doesn’t know what it wants to do, all my skepticism about whether God exists… and all of that sort of stuff comes rushing in. I become personally embarrassed to be in this place. And so there’s something to be said for the sort of deeply, for all its flaws, this sort of deeply traditional way of going about religion or navigating religion.

Here Cave is embracing the healing, centering influence of transcendental beauty. Earlier, he tells Tippett that he’s always been inexplicably drawn to the person of Jesus, even when his path in life took him far afield from the life of a follower. Looking back on his childhood, he could see that the life and heart of Jesus catalyzed a yearning in him—a yearning that was at once personal and universal…

Cave: Way before matters of whether God existed or anything like that, there was just something about this story that I found very strange. I still do find it very strange, actually. Based around this sort of tortured individual, literally, and I just found that compelling in some way. And I relate to it, too.

Tippett: Say some more about that.

Cave: Well, these days I relate to it more because there’s a sense, especially in the scene of Christ in the garden praying and a God that had withdrawn his favor. I relate to that. I find that a compelling story and very beautiful, too, and very human. The sense of yearning, the sense of being tethered to the earth but reaching beyond ourselves in some kind of way is the story, I think, of everyone in a way.

Lately I’ve been telling friends, and writing about, the ministry significance of inviting people to simply behold Jesus. By that, I mean to savor His beauty. And this, I believe, is our primary calling in ministry. To lead others to behold the transcendent beauty of Jesus. To invite them into the mystery, instead of trying to explain the mystery using shallow and inconsequential language. Cave’s experience of loss unblinded him—he can now see that the one thing binding all of us is loss, and the evidence of that loss is our yearning. And what are we yearning for? It’s obvious that it’s nothing we can feel or grasp or attain; otherwise the yearning would already be satisfied. No, we’re yearning for a beauty that is sourced in the heart of Jesus—in the “strange” story of His sacrificial restoration. The otherness of our invitation into God’s presence, made possible by the Spirit of Jesus in us.

Religion can be the dead expression of a people trying, but repeatedly failing, to climb to mountain of wholeness in their life. Or it can be a door cracked open to a beauty that beckons us the way Narnia beckoned the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’s classic series. Our calling as ministry leaders is to point people toward that crack in the door, offer them a glimpse of the beauty behind it, then invite them to enter…

If you would like help as you explore what it means to invite people into transcendent beauty as a congregation, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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