There have been a lot of plaudits as well as a lot of Bronx cheers going around in response to the Rev. Lillian Daniel’s (to me) wonderful column lambasting some “spiritual but not religious” Americans for their sentimentalized sense of religion and their self-and-child worship. The longer article is here, and I unabashedly love it.
I don’t want to debate at length with the many offended people who have complained that Daniel seems to be insulting them, I simply want to make public my support and appreciation for Lillian’s article. I love that she is direct. I love that she dares to express her frustration with people who buttonhole her as a clergywoman and proceed to unload their grievances against the church –and to declare their emancipation from it — as a bold and original move that they presume will rock her little Christian world. In this article, Daniel lives into my vision of contemporary religious leaders as people who are honest and authentic, who refuse to function as incarnate straw men-cum-punching bags that “spiritual but not religious” types so love to construct in the clerical image and then knock the stuffing out of.
I should state right up front that I do not understand the motivations of my clergy colleagues who welcome the kind of testimonial Daniel derides. I think many of her critics are conflating “spiritual but not religious” as an identity that refers to openness to eclectic spiritual influences and practices with what Daniel describes: self-made and self-referential religion.
The sort of “sharing” Daniel describes as boring in her article is not the heartfelt confidences of a person who needs to talk about the ways that a clergyperson, church community or doctrine hurt their soul so that they can reach some sort of resolution. That is a conversation that I have had many times in which I have received such confidences with sadness and humility as a representative of the Church. What Daniel mocks is the cliched narrative of the person who has abandoned religious life for the life of easy, undisciplined, uncritical and unaccountable “spirituality,” defined as whatever fuzzy thoughts keep them happy, comfortable and self-assured. Central to that narrative is their spiritual superiority over the poor souls who still gather for public worship and the structure of traditional religion.
I am not at all offended by “spiritual but not religious” people. Neither does Daniel seem to be. What we both find objectionable is the (to use a favorite term of mine) sense of terminal uniqueness among the “SBNR” crowd who insist on enlightening clergy about their higher path.
I consider myself a teacher of church tradition and an upholder of it. I did not break my back for ten years of seminary education (I have earned both an M.Div and a D.Min), go $65,000 into debt at Harvard (and spend another $12,ooo or so later at Andover-Newton), leave a relationship and a beloved teaching career so that I could encourage people to invent their own personally pleasing religion. I am a trained theologian and expert in church practice, called by God and conferred the honorific “Reverend” by congregational ordination, and obligated by the Church to witness to its relevance and power.
Does a heart attack patient in the ICU, when the cardiologist comes to make her rounds, feel entitled to point out all the deficiencies in the medical sciences and then proceed to inform the doctor how he intends to treat himself? And does that patient expect the doctor to stand patiently in the door and nod in warm admiration and affirmation while he does so?
If you think you have everything you need to heal yourself, don’t go to the hospital. Don’t waste the doctor’s time. The doctor has other people to see.
Clergy have an obligation not to indulge those who have no use for tradition or for religious teaching. We should not be so proud that we have welcomed those who are spiritual but not religious and have allowed or even encouraged them to remain that way. It is our job to teach religion, not to merely listen supportively to the stories of what seekers have left behind. That’s why we call them “seekers:” they are seeking life more abundant than they can create by themselves. Presumably we have the tools to give them to construct that life, together in community.
Along with one of my closest spiritual friends in my congregation, I am quite fond of joking that I am religious but not spiritual. I am not sure what spirituality is except for fleeting moments of transcendence, granted by grace and recollected in tranquility and gratitude. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of commitments, faith claims and practices that I rely on to instruct and shape my character, mind and soul in accordance with my professed values. Spirituality is what I feel when I am fortunate enough to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Religion is what I do, whatever I feel and whatever I sense (or not) of the Holy Presence on that day.
I am not any more impressed by the designation “spiritual but not religious” than I am by the designation “Christian.” The “SBNR” person makes what I now assume are immature generalizations about religion and religious people (“What religion are you NOT,” I always want to ask), and the title “Christian” is equally as meaningless in the face of the multiplicities of Christianities in the world. I am not interested in hearing about the religion that you rejected (that you presume resembles my own) unless this is an actual conversation and not a pep rally for the church defector or rejector’s ego.
What Daniel says, in essence, is that she is bored by people who proclaim their uniqueness for rejecting of conservative doctrine and for exiting churches and finding spirituality in nature alone. As Daniel observes, there’s nothing unique about that journey, nor is there the slightest bit of a problem with finding spirituality in nature. Good Lord, of course we do. Who doesn’t find spiritual inspiration in nature?
Daniel’s critique, if I follow her correctly, is that (1) there’s nothing original about jettisoning church for homemade, vague “spirituality,” and she’s tired of people’s broad naivetee on this point and (2) the homespun theologies of reverence created by such folks is thin gruel, theologically speaking, and does not result in a sustaining faith that helps create deep meaning for life’s deeper and more painful truths. She reserves special ire for the ways that this childlike (and often child-generated) spirituality may spiritually starve children of well-meaning parents.
Having been one of those children, I deeply appreciate Daniel’s willingness to make this accusation. And I think it is this accusation that really rattles Unitarian Universalists. Do our children really need another exercise in self-referential wonder? Do they need another meditation on the beauty of the growing flowers? Along with Daniel, I answer “no,” or “probably not.” Cancer is also natural, Daniel argues. Yes, and bacteria and fungus and frontal lobe brain damage that apparently causes some human beings to commit the most heinous and sadistic of crimes. “Good luck with your homemade spirituality,” she is saying, “when those realities hit.”
I agree with Daniel that it is not the sharing of a person’s journey away from church that ever offends me in the telling of it, it is the narcissistic assumptions in the way that journey is communicated: as though it is amazingly original, an act of courage that will astound and perhaps convert me, the presumably sheeplike follower of established truths, to a new way of thinking. It is a conversation that doesn’t go anywhere because it doesn’t want to go anywhere. I have had dozens of such conversations and have found that those who initiate them in the way Daniel describes are quite committed to their rejection. They are not interested in my commitments to church, but are committed to reporting their exodus to me: the authority figure and (they presume) moralist who is still in thrall to the church’s lies and hypocrisies. The only pastoral response is to sigh inwardly and have this exit interview inflicted on me. I cheer Lillian Daniel for daring to say what this really feels like to one who loves and serves the church. It feels obnoxious.
To create another analogy, it would as if I entered into conversation with a civil engineer and described my own rejection of engineering after an experience walking across a bridge that crumbled. “I don’t like bridges as a result,” I might say. “I have never trusted them, and I don’t trust those who build them. I don’t think you all know what you’re doing.”
Can you imagine? “But I built a bridge in my backyard with my children and it’s AMAZING. It’s just our bridge, and it doesn’t go anywhere, but we made it and we love it although it doesn’t do what bridges are meant to do — which is to connect two places that would otherwise be inaccessible to each other — we prefer our bridge. Let me tell you how amazing our bridge is. How much time have you got?”
Here is the text of the shorter version of Daniel’s article that has caused such a contretemps in the religious blogosphere. What an exciting opportunity for dialogue her article has provided.
Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.
August 31, 2011
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Reflection by Lillian Daniel
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?
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
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? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.