You’ve all heard about the “spiritual but not religious” revolution. Growing numbers of people, especially in the United States and Canada (as well as the rest of the so-called “West”) have declared their freedom from religion, which is usually defined in institutional terms. This group is included in those who’ve been given the name “Nones.” It’s not that they don’t believe in God, most do, they just don’t like the trappings of religion. And with all the scandals and such, it’s understandable that people would seek other ways of finding God to be present. For many in this group, a more eclectic vision of spirituality is sought. Indeed, many seek to create their own spirituality, picking a little of this and a little of that, combing Western and Eastern forms, and tossing it all together. You might call it fusion spirituality. But is such spirituality enough? Is it sustainable? Does it change lives?
As one who lives in the midst of institutional religion – I am after all a pastor – I have something at stake in this conversation. But perhaps, so do those whose spiritual tastes are “eclectic.” They, after all, often borrow from the religions they reject.
Diana Butler Bass has recently written about what Christianity might look like after religion, and she ultimately concludes that complete abandonment of tradition and institution is probably not wise or workable. At the same time, things need to loosen up a bit, so that the Spirit can move. With this conversation going full force, Lillian Daniel, Pastor of First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, takes up the challenge of responding to the purveyors of this new vision of dereligionized (is this a neologism?) spirituality in an aptly titled book: When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough. Daniel is, you might say, not especially impressed with the “spirituality” offered by many of those who embrace a dereligionized form. In response she wants us to be more aware of God’s presence in our midst, noting, as the subtitle suggests, that we can find God present in surprising places, “even in the church.” I realize that many have decided that the church is the last place to look for God, but maybe that’s not really true.
When “Spiritual but Not Religious,” is Not Enough, is a fast moving, story filled exposition of the ways and places God is revealed. My copy of the book is an “advanced reader’s” version, so page numbers might not be completely accurate. Still, the book in hand is composed of thirty-two chapters that range from two pages to maybe ten pages in length. These are organized around six sections: Searching and Praying; Confessing; Communing; Wandering; Wondering; Remembering and Return. Some of the chapters appear to have originated as sermons while others might have been brief blog posts. They cover topics that range from responses to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd to stories of ministry with parishioners as well as a moving chapter about teaching a group of men studying for ministry at Sing Sing Prison in New York. There are reflections on the challenges of ministry – including around those engaged in professional ministry. Many of the stories are personal, which shouldn’t surprise us since Daniel wrote a book on the value of testimony. Though few of these chapters are direct biblical reflections, Daniel weaves into most of them biblical stories, especial reflections from the life of Jesus. Most of the chapters are compelling and draw you in. They raise issues of importance and sometimes offer possible solutions.
Daniel is a liberal/progressive Protestant pastor, who fully embraces the Christian message. She respects and honors other faith traditions, but she makes it clear that for her everything starts with Jesus. As a progressive Christian she recognizes that her profession of faith isn’t always consistent. But, she confesses: “it is in the teachings and sayings of Jesus that I find myself so directly spoken to that I cannot imagine finding a spiritual home where he was not the center of it all” (p. 162). It’s not that she rejects the idea that others might share in relationship with God, but for her it’s clear that Jesus is the center, the core, of her understanding of the nature and purpose of God.
What frustrates Daniel most isn’t our inability to live fully into our faith traditions, but the idea that one can be privately spiritual, but not religious. Indeed, she finds the suppositions of such folk to be rather boring. She writes:
There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative as when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself (p. 128).
Many will find her expression of this frustration offensive, but is there not some truth to her complaint that the spiritual but not religious person is an expression of “self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religious dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. . . Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?” Her musings strike a chord in a person like me, who recognizes that the institutional church can resist the Spirit, needs reform, but at the end of the day it forms the context in which faith can be lived in ways that lead to growth and not stagnation.
In a book like this, not every chapter will speak directly to the reader, but that’s not the point. These are all, you might say, musings on encounters with God in the company of others. It’s a series of stories that call out our own experiences of God. Where they resonate, we might pause and ponder what the stories say to us. And then we can move on to consider another. This isn’t an anti-“spiritual-but not religious” diatribe, but it does raise important questions about the sustainability of spirituality with no roots, no traditions, and no authorities – beyond our own personal whims. Such a spirituality may sustain us for a moment, but does it connect us with others? Does it have a vocabulary that makes sense of the world and that shared and passed on to others? These are important questions for our day. And as for me, I resonate with the frustrations expressed in the book, but also with the joys of life in community that are also shared in this book.
It won’t take long to read, but it will cause you to think and perhaps return home – if you’ve been away – or appreciate the home you have. Enjoy the read.
(Note, release date is January 15, 2013, so pre-order now).