Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

Read. Discuss. Imagine.

 
  • Print
September 2, 2011

Amy Thompson Sevimli: The 'spiritual but not religious' starting point

I know about the discomfort of getting on an airplane and telling the person sitting next to me about what I do. Compounded by my age and gender, it’s almost always an awkward moment. So when I read about Lillian Daniel’s similar experience, I was sympathetic to her situation. What I was surprised by, and not terribly sympathetic to, was her reaction to the person sitting next to her on the airplane. She seemed especially put-off by those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Now, that phrase confuses (and annoys) me as much as the next pastor. Although I have actually spent time looking for and talking to people who describe themselves that way, I still don’t fully understand the phrase (Daniel is probably right about it being the spiritual heritage of self-centered, American individualism), and from my conversations with people who identify that way, my sense is that they don’t always understand it either. What I have found, however, is that the phrase is almost always a gateway into a deeper conversation about their spirituality (even if it is about sunsets). It is an opportunity for them to talk about their faith and their experience of the church -- which, by the way, has usually been negative. The results of these conversations vary, but more than once I’ve found people are willing to go back to church because someone was willing to talk with them about their spirituality instead of dismissing it.

There’s a degree of hubris at play when we Christians expect those outside the church to enter our congregations, “get” us, and then be like us, if they even brave entering our congregations at all. For a community of people who believe in the God that comes to them in Jesus Christ, we can expect an awful lot of people to come to us. We forget (or may have never known) what life bereft of church community is like, taking for granted the church’s theological framework we have to practice faith and spirituality together. We forget, in this sense, what it’s like to be “lost.” Instead of fully engaging those outside our churches, we sit back and wonder why the mass of spiritual but not religious people don’t walk through our doors. But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?

I firmly believe that the best way we can connect people with God in Christ -- and with the way we worship that God in church -- is by first listening to their spiritual story and only then telling our own. Often, they are more willing to listen to us than we are to them, usually not bored by us but fascinated by our faith and our willingness to give voice to it in a day when many are not. Spiritual but not religious is not an impediment to that conversation but an invitation if we are willing to accept it.

Amy Thompson Sevimli is ordained in the ELCA and currently serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod.

8 Comments

"I am spiritual not

"I am spiritual not religious."

A translation: Greetings, Christian. I am either an atheist or an agnostic. I do not believe in your religion or your concept of God. However, I am aware that as an atheist or agnostic, I am among one of the most hated groups in America. Since you are of the dominant, possibly-hating-me group, I would like to find some form of common ground and explain that I have a concept of the spirit, of meaning in our shared humanity. So there's no need to hate me. And by the way, if this flight gets choppy, I'm here for you.

And no, I don't eat babies.

All who wander are not lost...

I've been fascinated by the degree of arrogance of the comments I've heard around the net related to this issue of "spiritual but not religious."

Evidently no one sees any possibility that the reason someone might identify as "spiritual, but not religious" is that the "people of God" have treated them as unclean, untouchable, or automatically-damned because of their upbringing, background, sexuality, or some other characteristic.

The Church is very, very good at quoting Deuteronomy when they want to beat homosexuals with Scripture. They tend to forget that Old Testament laws addressed the entire community and established structural supports to protect aliens from poverty and abuse. The Israelites, in fact, were to see themselves as strangers and to not forget how it felt to be a stranger.

As a Christian who has felt the deep desire to run away from "church" and all the dysfunction it can bring several times, I understand the desire to distance oneself from "religion."

I'd just encourage a little tolerance whenever you hear "spiritual, but not religious." You may be surprised at the amount of pain and injury that may be on the other side of that phrase.

As a representative of "Church," you might then decide whether to be part of furthering that judgment or injury, or whether instead to be part of possible healing or reconciliation.

Spiritual but not religious

Yes, empty-headedness is common in the "spiritual but not religious" camp. However, also common is a lack of any experience with religious community. So is feeling turned away by one's religion.

For 30 years I've been working in IANDS, a nonprofit association building reliable information and resources about near-death experiences (NDEs). Clergy constitute the smallest group of professionals in IANDS membership.

Inconveniently, very few NDEs are described in terms that accord precisely with Christian scripture or doctrine. Too many pastoral responses fall between horror ("Satanic deception") and a blank stare ("I have nothing to say about that.") Also inconveniently, few congregations can live up to the unconditional love that NDErs come looking for after their experience.

Many NDE people believe they can no longer consider themselves 'religious' and come to IANDS because they need a spiritual community where they can feel accepted.

But IANDS is not a church; it needs the understanding and support of informed clergy and church leaders who can help these folks understand their place within a genuine tradition. And that will take understanding and hard work on all sides.

Spiritual, not religious

Jesus said, "God is Spirit, and we must worship God in spirit and in truth.". Paul said the law was of the flesh, but of the Spirit, their is no law."

Jesus' primary fight was not with those who were unchurched or with any other condition considered unlawful or unclean by the prevailing institutional leadership. Jesus' fight was with the religious leadership that was focused on preserving itself at the expense of all others on the margins.

When someone says to me. "I am spiritual, not religious--both in and out of the institutional church--I understand them to be telling me that they are not subscribing to any particular law or doctrine of the institutional church, but are living by the Spirit, and according to Jesus, God Is Spirit....

Yes. The institutional church does hurt people. People that Jesus embraced, loved, and forgave.

I would encourage us not to

I would encourage us not to take the scenario Lillian Daniel paints here so literally. I would seriously doubt she would ever treat someone next to her on the plane like she rhetorically sets this up. Her point here is not a pastoral one; it is a prophetic one. She speaks in very strong language to make a very strong point: The Just-you-&-me-God, how-Jesus-&-I-feel-about-each-other pious privatized pablum that passes for "spirituality" in our culture is (pardon me, vegetarians) gospel milk & not meat.

As a working pastor, I deeply long for and cherish those moments when the Holy Spirit speaks out of our individual experiences in a communal setting. That, I believe, is Daniel's point ... not the dissing of the experiences of particular individuals.

"A translation: Greetings,

"A translation: Greetings, Christian. I am either an atheist or an agnostic. I do not believe in your religion or your concept of God. However, I am aware that as an atheist or agnostic, I am among one of the most hated groups in America. Since you are of the dominant, possibly-hating-me group, I would like to find some form of common ground and explain that I have a concept of the spirit, of meaning in our shared humanity. So there's no need to hate me."

Interesting. If only atheists showed such "tolerance" towards Christians. Though a cursory scan of the web shows some of the most hateful rhetoric I've ever seen directed toward those "flying spaghetti monster" believers.

"She speaks in very strong language to make a very strong point: The Just-you-&-me-God, how-Jesus-&-I-feel-about-each-other pious privatized pablum that passes for "spirituality" in our culture is (pardon me, vegetarians) gospel milk & not meat. "

If that. I wouldn't even say it's gospel milk - it's just feel-good nonsense from the PoMo generation that has been indoctrinated to reject anything that smells like a statement of absolute truth.

Thanks for the comments! I

Thanks for the comments! I find them provocative, though I am curious why they appear filled with bitterness towards people who don’t yet ( to continue the metaphor) eat meat. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered great passion behind this concern, but what I have never understood is why we meat eaters think that slinging a fresh slab of anger and bitterness towards metaphorical vegetarians is going to encourage carnivorous behavior. Anyone learning to eat has to move from fluids to solids—in fact, we teach children to move from milk to meat. My concern with Christians, especially we in the mainline, is that we expect people to come in and eat our meat when they are actually only ready for milk. Early eaters don’t start with meat, so we do we try to start early Christians with something too heavy? I think one of the problems with the mainline is that we don’t know how to feed people milk and then move them to meat. I, myself am a carnivore (literally and figuratively), and what I hope to learn is how to start people on milk and them transition them to meat.

SBNR

Great blog, Amy. I have been bothered by Rev. Daniel's article, too, but I wasn't quite sure what it was about her comments that didn't sit well with me. Part of the frustration I feel is that we are having to address two fronts in these cases - first, the "immature" spirituality of the SBNR, whether it's by inexperience, flying solo or just bad guidance; second, we are struggling to overcome the judgmental, exclusive, rigid and unChristian exposure our society has had to our faith by "evangelicals" or "Bible-believing Christians." As you pointed out, who in their right mind or heart would want to be part of that kind of church. Unfortunately, we all have been painted with that broad brush.

Post new comment

Comment Policy

* required field