by Pastor Doug Kings

I wrote this piece about ten years ago, but it dovetails well with last week’s Reflections. Today, as then, we need to listen to and learn from the “spiritual not religious”, rather than resent that they are not “one of us.”

I’ve come to expect whining and complaining about the decline of Christianity from religious conservatives and fundamentalists. But I was stunned to hear it coming from the minister of a progressive mainline denomination that usually epitomizes acceptance and involvement with modern culture.

Two pastoral colleagues shared on Facebook a short “devotional” piece by Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of a large nearby Congregational church. These two friends liked it (as did many of their friends in reply). I was appalled. The essay was titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Apparently Rev. Daniel does a lot of traveling and gets stuck with a lot of annoying seatmates.

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. 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 is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? 

Yikes! I pity the next person who sits next to Rev. Daniel on a plane, especially if they’re not an active church member. Perhaps she just needs a vacation.

I quoted most of her essay so you could get its tone, because that’s what I think is important. The content is primarily sweeping and unsupported generalizations, both about “spiritual but not religious” people (hereafter “SNR”) and about the church. On the Facebook forum where it first appeared, most comments were supportive, but a number were from people taken aback as I was. These echoed my thought that many are not religious specifically because of negative experiences with churches.

In her essay, Daniel presents an idealized, and even romanticized, conception of the church, especially as it’s expressed in actual congregations. Clergy sex scandals, moral judgmentalism, political partisanship, and the stories any Christian can tell of congregational fights and schisms surely provide ample explanations of why people could be alienated from organized religion.

I also can only dismiss as nonsense Daniel’s assertion that there is no challenge to “having deep thoughts all by oneself.” Oh, that more people would have such experiences! I hardly think we are over-supplied with deep thought. Nor can I accept her implication that the church is the only community where one can genuinely put spiritual thought to work. In fact, I think most spiritual work is hammered out in the crucibles of the family, the workplace, government assemblies, and the countless informal “non-religious” communities of which we are all apart.

I think most of this is so obvious it hardly needs explanation. That’s why I am left wondering what is really going on with Rev. Daniel, who ought to be aware of all this. While I joked about her needing a vacation, I do hear burnout, frustration and discouragement in her rant. She is not alone in this in the church, especially among clergy. But she has picked the wrong target for her venting.

Of course, SNR folks can be superficial and shallow in their thinking and behavior. Yet they are hardly unique in that, even when compared with religious people! Many of the SNRs I encounter are as sincere, thoughtful and socially engaged as the religious people I know. The reality which Daniel ignores is that the nature of religion is changing around the world. For those committed to traditional religious organizations and religious activity, this can be very hard to understand or accept.

Yet nothing in the world stands still, including religion. Recent scholarship has emphasized that Jesus lived in just such a cultural moment, with ancient religions increasingly unsatisfactory and ineffective. He accepted the Judaism of his time but was hardly committed to it.

Often, Jesus seems to be anticipating the end of traditional religion and the need for religious institutions to act as go-betweens for God and humanity. The kingdom of God is here and now, he says. Frankly, he would likely rail against the church just as he did against the religious institutions of his day.

The Bible shows again and again that it’s the religious outsiders who usually have the best insight into spiritual truth, not the folks invested in the success of religious institutions. For that reason alone, rather than lecturing the SNRs, we ought to be listening to them.

Blessings in your life and ministry.