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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Religious but not Spiritual

Some months ago UCC pastor (and CTS Trustee) Lillian Daniel wrote a delightfully provocative piece skewering the theological logic of those who proudly proclaim “I’m spiritual but not religious.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lillian-daniel/spiritual-but-not-religio_b_959216.html)  To those who announce, “I find God in the woods or the mountains or at the ocean or in the silence of my bedroom and don’t need or want to sully this experience with the messiness and hassles and imperfections of organized religious institutions,” Daniel responds that true spiritual courage for Christians involves encountering God in the midst of community, indeed that the deepest spiritual experiences and the most profound spiritual growth can only be found in community, which is to say, the church in its varied communal forms

Daniel’s blog elicited applause from many as well as shock from some who found her scathing critique intemperate and less than charitable toward those she described as “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.”  But she strikes a resonant chord with many pastors who dream of never having to listen to another word about the power of the latest sunset which, by implication, outshone last Sunday’s sermon. 

We do get it.  God is found in nature, in the sanctuary, in our homes, in the latest piece of music that made our eyes mist over, in the soft fuzz of a baby’s new hair against our chin.  Unfortunately, the God we know in Jesus Christ seems to have cast the divine lot with communities of faith, with institutions, yes, with embodied entities that we call “religious.”  “You are the body of Christ, members of it,” not “you are the spirit of Christ in your splendid solitude and isolation.”  Nevertheless, go for it, spiritual but not religious people.  Just because you can’t be both spiritual but not religious and Christian at the same time doesn’t make you a bad person.  We still love you, even if we sometimes get tired of listening to you!

That said the church probably has a bigger problem than worrying about the spiritual but not religious seductions.  I’m talking about the religious but not spiritual people who populate many of our pews.  These folk are also good people.  They are loyal members of local churches, generous with their time, their talent, and their treasure.  They keep these places going, show up with amazing regularity, support programs that care for neighbors near and far.  They can talk more or less articulately about God and “enjoy a good worship service.”  But ask them how they experience the profound, powerful, mysterious, transforming presence of God in their lives and they fall silent.  Ask them about their prayer life and they look either nervous or guilty.  They quickly scurry back to the social action committee to plan the next foray into the injustices of the world, or to the finance committee to see how the budget can be managed better next year. 

Howard Thurman describes the central fact in religious experience as “the awareness of meeting God.”  It is sometimes “an encounter,” sometimes “a confrontation,” sometimes a sense of Presence.”  I know many people who can testify to these kinds of experiences.  But I meet many more who cannot and who don’t seem concerned, who are unpracticed in the ways of the spirit, illiterate in the texts and traditions that open us to those encounters, inexperienced in the disciplines that place us in God’s way where encounter and confrontation and presence occur.  Worship services resemble pep rallies for good and neighborly living but lack the sense of mystery that hints as the nearness of the Holy.  Silence is filled with announcements of community activities – important to be sure – but drowning out the still small voice.

Does the spiritual but not religious ideology in the culture represent an existential threat to the church?  I doubt it.  Perhaps it would be better to say that these are the folk for whom we bear significant evangelical responsibility, finding ways to create hospitable and meaningful communities of faith to which they might be invited, communities that wouldn’t squelch their spiritual lives but deepen and broaden them.  But what I do worry about is the prevalence of the religious but not spiritual folk in our churches, people who have a hard time seeing the church as something more than one more good organization to support and maintain. Their loyalty is a rather thin thread upon which to suspend the integrity and vitality of the church of Jesus Christ, yet often it is all there is.

In many cases it’s not their fault.  We pastors have often failed them, rallying them to noble causes, wearing them out in endless committee meetings, praising them for their central role in keeping the place going but reluctant to talk to them about the yawning absence in their lives. Our sermons convey interesting information rather than good news.  Uncertain about the meaning of our own spiritual lives, we have little stomach for probing into the inner life of flock, substituting psychological self-help for the care of souls.  We cherish those moments when the Spirit bursts forth in the lives of one of our parishioners.  But before those who lack such spiritual connection and don’t seem to miss it, we often fall silent and helpless.  If the spiritual but not religious annoy us, the religious but not spiritual convict us.

Lillian’s blog and this piece admittedly paint with a broad brush.  The spiritual but not religious crowd may irritate us in their self-confident dismissals of the communities we serve, yet we are called to love them and yes, find ways to touch them.  We are also called to love the religious but not spiritual ones who sit in our pews, run our boards, manage our nurseries, sing in our choirs, staff the kitchen, even teach in our Sunday schools.  But if all we do is mine their institutional energy to fuel organizational needs, we are failing them in profound ways.  It might even explain why the being spiritual but not religious option feels so compelling.

John H. Thomas

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