Laughing with Lillian – 3 – Kind Words for the “Spiritual But Religious” (Bruce Epperly)

Lillian Daniel has raised important concerns about the growing prominence of the "Spiritual But Not Religious" movement in her new book When "Spiritual but Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church.  She voices a certain amount of impatience and skepticism, which to a large degree I share, about a movement whose reaction to and even rejection of religious tradition (of any form, but especially Christian), seems to lead to a rootlessness that may not lead to true spiritual growth and engagement.  Some may see her response as overly harsh, but is there merit to her concerns?  While Bruce Epperly understands Lillian's concerns he also believes that the church might benefit from some sympathetic conversation with the SBNP, and so he offers his response in this, his third and final engagement with Lillian Daniel's  book, suggesting that to do so the Church needs to gain greater stature, affirm a deeper spirituality, and respond creatively to and affirmatively to the pluralism in our midst.  I invite you to join in the conversation, offering your own responses to the question of how to respond to those who are SBNP!  


Laughing with Lillian – 3 – 
Kind Words for the “Spiritual But Religious”
Bruce Epperly

Reading Lillian Daniel’s When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough is like sampling one by one a box of spiritual Godiva chocolates.  And these Godivas are nutritious and not just tasty, words that are wise and not just witty.   I am grateful for her humor, insights, and energy.

Of course, diversity is essential to reality, pluralism is the source of possibilities, even among those whose work gives us life and hope.   So, let me suggest an area of contrast between Lillian and myself – the evaluation of those who self-describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious (SBNR).”  Yes, often their spirituality appears to be inch deep and theology chaotic and undisciplined, happily Emersonian in its embrace of apparently conflicting positions.  Yes, those self-described as SBNR could creatively benefit from the community, history, tradition, and care of the church, but I believe that the church can also benefit from a humble dialogue with SBNR persons.

Studies note that a majority of persons under 30 have negative perceptions of the church – intolerant, anti-science, homophobic, anti-woman, and more interested in guns than little children and being right than loving – and sadly, often they are right.  Of course, we often confess the imperfections of the church, but let’s not enhance our imperfections by our actions today!  Creative evangelicals, moderates, and progressives need to placard on our marquees that divine wisdom is alive in science, medicine, literature, religious diversity, and ethnic, gender, and sexual diversity.

In response to the SBNR community, diverse as it is, the church needs to claim: 1) greater stature, 2) affirm a deeper spirituality, and 3) respond creatively and affirmatively to the pluralism of our time.

The SBNR community calls the church to claim greater stature – we need to be a living organism, not a lifeless corpse.  This means willingness to welcome diversity and embrace people wherever they are on life’s journey.  Our business is not to enshrine age-old but lifeless “traditionalism” but aspire toward a faith that evolves and emerges.  We need to boldly affirm the gifts of science, including the Hubble telescope, broad spectrum interpretations of the theory of evolution, and joyful affirmation of new models of the universe.  Sing the grand hymns, say the creeds, but let a thousand flowers bloom!  Let us learn from those who find God in sunsets and seashores, and the wise words of small children!  In fact, let us put sunsets and seashore and redwoods and oaks on our liturgical adornments as we learn to “love God in the world of the flesh.” (T.S. Eliot, For the Time Being)

SBNR’s often admit that they find greater spiritual insight on Sunday mornings, reading the New York Times and drinking lattes.  We shouldn’t blame them.  For one, most SBNR couples and singles find Sunday morning as the one moment for rest and relaxation for themselves and their children in an overscheduled life.  Their absence should be a call for transformation – to explore alternative times for worship, casual worship and coffee moments, child-friendly services, and to bring the Spirit into the church through moments of meditation.  We need to become laboratories of healing and spirituality – two areas of great interest among SBNR folks.  Does your church have an introduction to global spirituality and meditation class?  Does your church take healing seriously – joining prayer and yoga, scripture and reiki, meditation and Tai Chi? (For healing and spirituality, see my Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus and Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel.)

We need to ask ourselves the following: Does your church – itself or in partnership with other congregations – offer courses on creative use of time, children’s spirituality, caring for aging parents, and balancing rest and activity?  All of these outreach efforts joining inner and outer journeys welcome SBNR’s and provide them with guidance, wisdom, and care.

Finally, the church needs to embrace the global spirituality of our time.  A living faith is diverse and evolving.  When someone claims to represent “orthodoxy,” I typically respond, “Which one are you talking about?”   Our faith embraces many Christianities and not just one: we are a bigger, more welcoming to SBNR folk, when we see our faith as diverse, growing, evolving, and emerging.  Let us give the SBNR folk and our own people, bread and not stone; let us give them deep spiritual nurture, meeting them where they are and inviting them to share in the diverse spiritualities and practices of Christianity – from centering prayer and Sabbath to social justice and service to the poor.

I live in a world of SBNR folk, many of whom are contemporaries of my son, many of whom I coached in basketball and baseball nearly two decades ago.  They are people of good faith, sincerity, care for the vulnerable, and often simply trying to balance the many demands of family and professional life.  Their experience need not be judged or patronized, but rather accepted, affirmed, and addressed in their own words, listening to the deepest desires of their hearts, and open to the spirit’s sighs too deep for words moving their experience, even when they never show up in our churches.

So, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome. Whether you find God in sunrises, sunsets, beaches, icons, hymn books, eucharists, soup kitchens, or playing with your children, you have a home, something to share, and partnership with divine wisdom in our place and time.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary and  He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.  His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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