A View from the Back Pew -- A Response to a Review

I recently offered up a review of Tim O'Donnell's book A View from the Back PewAs I read it, I saw in the book a representative voice from within what many call the "spiritual but not religious" group.   Of course the "spiritual but not religious" is not a cohesive movement, but simply a way to describe those who wish to claim the spiritual without aligning with institutional forms of religion.  I also saw in the book signs of frustration with the institution (Roman Catholicism in particular) and signs of gnosticism.  Tim has offered up a generous response to my critque, and I am posting it below.  My hope is that this can provide a forum for conversation between those of us still within the "spiritual and religious" community and those who find the religious part problematic.  So, I invite you to read and respond to Tim's response to my review.


Hello Pastor Bob,

I come to you here for two reasons: one, you seemed to invite this feedback and I do not want to ignore your call; and two, your review was very powerful to me.

First though, I want to thank you for the time you devoted to reading, considering and writing such a thoughtful review of A View from the Back Pew. Yours is among the most intelligent and meaningful commentary on the book to date; comments that have me thinking a great deal to be sure.

But while I'm here now I want to acknowledge a few of your very insightful and illuminating points.

First, I thank you for being big enough to get past critiquing my (lack of) formal theological training. You'd whip my butt in that arena; you know it and I do to. It takes a very secure and intelligent person to elevate the discussion to where I hoped to take it to begin with. A debate can become circular if it's simply tit-for-tat. You say you didn't want to appear defensive - I doubt you would have but you gain much respect from me for seeing bigger issues to take me to task on - good for you! And, I think good for the discussion.

Your criticism is fair that after my conclusions about Catholicism were drawn, I might have investigated Protestantism more intensely. I didn't get much into this in the book - true, but in reality, had I written more about this, the book would have gone in another direction entirely and frankly, there are many books examining the schism and narrating conversions one way or the other; I would probably not add to the discussion. In retrospect, I at times grouped "Christianity" and "Catholicism" in the same big box and to a learned theologian such as you, I see how it might have aggravated you. But still, I detect patience on your part - maybe because you understood this, maybe you're just giving me a pass or maybe you still had your eye on a bigger fish to fry. (I suspect the latter and again, you demonstrate tremendous patience and insight)

Now - Gnosticism. I state in the book "I'm not a modern day Gnostic or anything like that". You suggest otherwise and I accept your point as valid. Although I wouldn't describe myself as such, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily right. In layman's terms gnosis is knowledge from within - agreed? And, I do think certain spiritual truth is found within us all if we're open to finding it - so, guilty as charged. However, the reason I do not ascribe the label of "Gnostic" to myself is because I believe every human has the capacity to discover this knowledge through the individual connection we all have to God. I do not think there is a "select" and special elite group who possess such knowledge as the ancient Gnostics believed.

I take Jesus at his word when he claims the "kingdom of heaven is within" and I believe he invited us all on a journey inside to find our own divine connection. One other point I'll make on this topic is that the Gnostic Gospels did not influence me. Although I read them and quote them in the book, my contention that we can find truth from within is very organic. As you'll recall, I began to move in this personal, internal direction long before I ever encountered the Gnostic Gospels. They did serve to confirm some of my organic belief about gnosis, but I reject Gnosticism based on its elitist tendency, as I believe Jesus to be the ultimate egalitarian. However, your point is well taken.

As you know, my thesis is that Jesus preaches heaven as a "state of being" and not a "place of being". But, you're not the only person to accuse me of being a Gnostic so I must consider the implication of the charge. (Here again, we get into labels and languages, which you also know, are problems and limitations I point out in the book.) At any rate, I accept your criticism as honest and without malice. You've made me think.

I think your larger commentary is about the "spiritual but not religious 'movement'" of which you sort of make me an ad hoc or default leader of. Again, you make me think. Although this is not what I set out to become, if it places me in a discussion with intelligent, open minded leaders of institutional belief systems like you, I'd be privileged to carry that torch.

I assume you understand that the evolution of divine and/or spiritual articulation is what I believe modern man craves and I can only (at least in my first book) point to the lack of overall theological evolution as the culprit. Simply put, I think we have the capacity to comprehend deeper theology than that represented in two thousand year old doctrine (and dogma). I'm not suggesting God evolves (or that truth is relative) - only that we are evolving and our theology should be too.

(I understand too, that you might say, "Protestantism reflects evolution of Christian theology" and offer examples of differences; I might then say, "yeah, but not enough" and offer examples of lack of differences and we'd be on that circular path that leads nowhere. This is why I appreciate your decision to not nit-pic. Your angle keeps the dialogue intellectually straightforward - the only direction that offers progress. There are certain points along the way to a bigger understanding that we can agree that we disagree.)

I'm honored, touched and impressed by the last two paragraphs of your review. The maturity you display about actually looking at why people might "strike out on their own" is the type of enlightened leadership that gives me hope that it isn't too late. If I were speaking for this "movement" I'd say "Hooray for Pastor Bob! We need to include him in our discussion!"

(The reality though Bob is that it is unlikely that any "movement" is afoot as yet. Why? Paradoxically, lack of an organization! Yes, I see the irony. This is great fun - no?)

If what you say is true about someone like me pushing the pendulum too far, I'd respond by saying real change never seems to happen in the middle of the road - especially with large, ancient institutions. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor but you've got me excited!)

Lastly, the biggest reason for hope is another point you bring up - community. Nobody really wants to strike out on his or her own - not totally. But those with integrity and the courage of their conviction (read stubborn) will sacrifice community for a stronger connection to God. To some, probably as you point out, an increasing number, the overpowering desire for a direct connection to God feels ultimately more imperative than the very natural human need for community. Community can be found in other parts of society. God can't. To those who believe God resides within, the institution as intercessor can be seen as an unnatural impediment to this personal relationship -especially if the doctrine of that institution rings ancient and not fully developed.

This opens up a whole other line of discussion that I'll save for another time. Plus, I think this is what your most interested in discussing so I'll leave it in your capable hands to move this part of the discussion forward if you choose.

I've taken up too much of your space here but it would be remiss of me not to respond to such an intelligent, thoughtful leader such as yourself. I hope your congregation feels lucky to have you leading them.

Thanks again for reviewing A View from the Back Pew - I'm truly proud to have you among the growing body of readers. This little book is striking a nerve - I (and the book) have been called many things in the month since it came out - some wonderful acclaim I do not deserve and some demonization I suspect I don't either. I'll gladly accept both if it makes people think and then begin a dialogue.

You represent equanimity and fairness that actually makes me think it could make a difference - I sincerely thank you for that. You are one of the good guys!  I hope to keep our dialogue alive.

Thanks again,

Tim O'Donnell, Author


Don Scrooby said…
May I make a few comments, and that's all they are.
Firstly, the graciousness you both display in your engagement with one another is deeply refreshing.It's this kind of engagement that goes a long way in building constructive and meaningful discussion. Thank you.
Secondly, I affirm that Tim's view of Christianity seems to come out of his dominant Catholic perspective, but let's be fair, there is much in Protestantism which is highly dogmatic and narrow. Some of the ingrained attitudes Tim struggled with in Catholicism are only too alive and well in Protestantism. Tim, your words, "Protestantism reflects evolution of Christian theology" I'm not so sure of that; In fact I sometimes note regression, but that's just my view.
Thirdly,I agree on the issue of the "spiritual but not religious movement." I cannot affirm any form of spirituality that does not flow out of community. Yes, there is the sense in which we have to at times "strike out alone" (for the sake of ourselves and always for the community as well) but even then there are those who are also striking out alone and we need to seek one another out and create community. This is happening in the church. There are those who are part and parcel of the larger church community but who are also part of those groups where a new and deeper expression of faith is being discussed and struggled with. Tim I would hope that you would also engage there. We need people like yourself to enrich our struggle for insight and truth. Again, thank you to you both.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thank you for sharing. I agree with you that Protestantism isn't really an evolutionary step beyond/out of Catholicism. It can be and often is not only regressive but rigid. In some ways Protestantism provides more options -- if we think of Protestantism as a whole. In reality there is no such thing as Protestantism -- it's simply a category that describes western churches that aren't Roman Catholic.

My comments about Tim's Catholicism is that his response to institutional religion is framed by that context (for good or not).
John said…
Hello Tim,

Thanks for joining directly in the dialogue. There is much I would say, and will say if the dialogue progresses, but for now I would observe that a relationship with te divine IS a community, and often can become a substitute for human community - such as when one feels shunned by communities, or feels the desire to transcend human community - for better or worse motives. But I think that those who abandon ecclesial communities for whatever reason, are missing out on the strength and the sense of belonging which a community offers. All in all communities give as much or more than they take.

I also don't think Protestantism (which is anything but monolithic) reflects an evolution in Catholic theology - in some cases it seeks to refine, in other cases it seeks to restore what it declares to be the roots of Christianity, and in others it simply vectors off in another direction altogether. Often, aspects of the two strands of Christianity have come to resemble each other more and more closely over the years. Nevertheless, for me the two stand as complimentary forms of Christianity which serve only to expand the invitation into Christian community. I fell in my heart that God speaks in many languages and invites worshipers to approach worship in many different styles. Perhaps it is just a matter of finding the style and language which speaks to the spirit within you.
Unknown said…
@John, I'm delighted to engage with Bob and his readers, thanks for welcoming me. I agree with everything you say - I guess I anticipated Bob's response about Protestantism representing evolution of Christian thought, but I'm learning not to assume anything about his views - he's a breath of fresh air to me.

I agree that God likely speaks in many languages and it is one of the core critiques I have of organized religion; most of the main religions claim their articulation of divine truth is absolute (I'm not limiting this to Christianity) and that all others are false. The depositors of faith - Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc., spoke contemporaneously about truth and once those ideas became theologies they stopped advancing.

Why doesn't the language of religion evolve as we evolve in capacity to comprehend? What type of language and allegory would Jesus utilize in expressing his "theology" were he preaching today? My concern is, as mankind's ability to comprehend continues to grow exponentially, ancient articulations will become increasingly anachronistic and the incidence of people leaving their churches will increase.

To your point - As you say, God speaks in many languages; I agree but wonder why we are taught to believe that divine articulation ceased in relative antiquity?
Unknown said…
@Don, thanks for your kind words. See my remark to John about Protestantism and evolution - I agree with you but I don't know that all denominations "regress". From my way of seeing it, in some areas, some churches do progress/evolve as in the case of the ordination of women as an example. I have a difficult time believing that Jesus intended his "flock" to be ministered to by celibate males exclusively. If one were to follow the rationale of the church that claims apostolic succession and theological superiority, (hint,hint) the only eligible prospects for the priesthood would be Jewish men as this was the demographic Jesus "chose" as his apostles. This church refuses women because supposedly Jesus did too. So I ask, why can they expand the recruitment policies to include gentiles for example when Jesu did not? Why do they still refuse women? So, yes some have evolved at least in this example.

Also, there is little doubt that we are hard wired for community. This is one of the reasons I admire Bob. He is one of the few members of the clergy who asks why people are leaving instead of chastising them for doing so.

I'd rather belong to a religious or spiritual community but find the ancient doctrine to be a real stumbling block for my spiritual tendencies. (This is largely what my book addresses) I detect a duality about Christian teaching that I don't believe Jesus was really teaching, i.e. "God up there, us down here".

That said, I recognize in myself a very real conflict that I think is representative of many - I actually miss the ritual, the sacramental aspect and especially the community I found in Catholicism. I do not fear this seeming "hypocrisy" in myself, I'm exploring it as deeply as I possibly can. (Well, maybe it scares me just a little.) It became hollow though, for me to sit in the pew simply to fulfill a sense of obligation or to satisfy my need to interact with other humans.

I began to sense the church was more of a toll booth (maybe even an obstacle course) in my journey to know God than a bridge that lead me to Him. (This may be a Catholic thing, but I think not exclusively so.)

At this stage of my journey I've become pretty good at asking questions, but I don't profess to know the answers.

Thanks agin for your thoughtful remarks.
John said…
In answer to you last inquiry, I think it has to do with consensus, more than anything else....but I think God invested something special in the texts we honor as Scripture. The fact that they are in narrative form leaves their interpretation especially susceptable to organic adaptation to new and different contexts and cultures.
Unknown said…
@John, It very well could be human consensus. But who was doing the voting? For centuries Christian scripture was only allowed to be consumed firsthand by the learned leaders of the church. Once Constantine empowered Christianity, it was forced on Europe and eventually spread to much of the world. (might need Bob to check me here)

I'm not sure anyone was choosing as we do today.

It is only relatively recent in human affairs that the faithful have been authorized or allowed to form such a consensus or to interpret.

However, Christianity remains the largest belief system in the world so you may be correct - since the faith is not being "enforced" maybe there is a type of consensus. Beyond that, more than 85% of the world adhere to some form of religion so yes - you're probably right - the vote of mankind is in and we do concur that an entity (we call it God) exists.

You'd think that in turn we'd conclude a universal doctrine of truth that reflects such a consensus right? Not really - unfortunately, not even close.

Me? I'm just asking (as usual).
John said…
So much to respond to....

“only allowed to be consumed firsthand by learned leaders of the church”

There was a genuine debate as to the content of canon, and the debate started long before Constantine, was narrowed to most of what we have today, and continued long after the death of Constantine - thus Protestants do not for the most part include the books of the apocrypha in their canon. The participants in that debate were indeed the learned leaders of the church - no one else could read and no one else had the training to evaluate the issues. As for who “consumed” Scripture, of course it was limited first to those who could read Latin (and Greek and Hebrew, etc) and then to those who were fortunate enough to have access to the codices - there were not many copies circulating for most of history. The question also had to be addressed as to which were valued enough to spend the resources (paper and labor ) to copy and re-copy.

“universal doctrine of truth”

It seems ironic that you would query after the possibility of a universal doctrine of truth. The idea of a fixed universal truth sounds rather anti-evolutionary with respect to content, and the notion of a universally imposed doctrine sounds rather draconian in terms of promulgation - both of which seem completely contrary to the tenor and purpose of your book.

And in my thinking wholly wrong headed - it’s not what God is about. I don’t know if there is a single universal human “truth” such as contemporary Western thought would define it. God is likely beyond such human limitations.

For me, I take the idea of God speaking in multiple languages and in multiple cultural contexts an in multiple idioms very much to heart. God is very personal and very intimate with those who were created in the divine image and likeness. God addresses us (if we will listen) in ways which make sense to us. We are not all going to perceive God through the lense of Roman Catholicism, through the lense of Quakerism, or even through a Christian lense, or even through an Abrahamic lense. But God is present, reaching out to us, speaking to us. It is for us to discover the idiom through which we can discern God and hear God’s voice and then we can begin the process of engagement.

The “truth” will be communicated between God and each of us, kind of like there is a special truth between a loving parent and each of his children. It says: I know you as you are and I love you as you are; I created you and you are part of me, the image and likeness and the very heart of me; you and I will always be linked with an unbreakable bond of love. At least that is what I hear in my communications with God.

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