I have been engaged in a most intriguing conversation with Tim O’Donnell, author of the book, A View from the Back Pew. In my review and in my conversations with Tim, I have placed him in that nebulous “Spiritual but not Religious” category. Being that I’m a religious professional, my critique of Tim’s position might appear to be self-serving. I need customers to pay the bills! In my conversation with Tim and with those who are of a similar position as Tim, I’ve raised several areas of concern, ranging from ethical formation to community. I understand why many people have chosen to abandon the church (religious institutions). I understand that they can be moribund places, where pettiness and even violence can be present. Even in the best of places there can be conflict, and so the freedom of living outside the institution can be attractive.
But as I attempt to expand the conversation I wanted to start with the issue of spiritual rootedness. If one doesn’t become part of a faith community, how does one become formed spiritually? How does one learn to discern what is good and what isn’t? Even if one is postmodern, where varying degrees of gray are allowed, not every belief is equal; is it?
Even as I was finishing Tim’s book, I was beginning to read Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward. This is an exploration of the path toward spiritual maturity, a path that is often not taken. But one of the key points that Rohr makes is that the first half of life is a time of identity formation. In order for us to be prepared to take the path toward spiritual maturity, we need help from what he calls the “perennial tradition.” That is, the traditions that have “held up over time.” He notes that life is too short for us to try to start the journey from zero (p. 28).
Rohr continues his exploration of this need for spiritual rootedness by suggesting that “law and tradition seem to be necessary in any spiritual system both to reveal and to limit our basic egocentricity and to make at least some community, family, and marriage possible” (pp. 28-29). My concern with those who seek to experience the divine outside what they would call the religious – institutional forms of religion – is that they are separating themselves from the kinds of places that can help provide a sense of rootedness that will enable them to grow beyond the basic foundations.
One of the comments that I made about Tim’s book is that even though he has left the church, he seems to have been given this foundation growing up in a Catholic context. I understand that many of his experiences were unpleasant and off-putting. I can understand why he might want to leave much of this past behind, but the fact is, he had something to build upon.
My concern is for that growing number of people who never had any formation at all. Now, seeking to experience the presence of God, I wonder, do they have the tools to discern what might be true and what might be false? Are they prepared to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of spirituality? And, to whom will they turn for wise guidance?