Encountering the “spiritual but not religious”

UCC pastor Lillian Daniel writes on the regular encounters with the person who, upon hearing she’s a minister, declares him/herself to be “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…

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.

Harsh? Probably. Funny and accurate? Oh yes: I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Rev. Daniel goes on to make her point:

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.

She has a point, but I would add a caveat: eight times out of ten, what the person telling me that they are spiritual but not religious is really trying to do is justify to me (clergy) why they don’t go to church. And behind that reason, usually, is either wounded (or turned off) personal experience, or world fed assumptions about religion.

In truth, they owe me no explanation: as Rev. Daniel said, the spiritual not religious viewpoint is “now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture.”

However, there is opportunity here. Engaging in the conversation is a great place to be interrupted by God. By asking things like “Can you tell me more about your Spiritual life?” or “How does it impact your daily life choices?”, I not only learn their language for God, but I actively help break the stereotype that clergy have (or think they have) all of the answers.

There is also the invitation to talk about the value of religious community.

After all, in the term “spirituality”, most people are referring to their encounters with the holy and divine. By saying that they are “not religious”, they are telling me that they are not part of an established way of understanding the meaning. I think this comes from an assumption that religion primarily defines rules for where one is to see God, what one is to believe, and how one is to live.

I think this understanding misses what religion is supposed to be about. Religion, at its base, is asking the “so what” questions that often comes from the spiritual encounter: what meaning does this have, what does this point to in terms of the world, how does it affect the way I live my life, and what does it say about my relationships to others.

Additionally, the word “religion” assumes community. Human beings grow and are challenged by the depth of their interactions with each other. Hearing the viewpoints of others (even if we don’t come to agreement) keeps us from wrongly assuming that we have the complete picture, and holds us accountable both to further relationship with others and committed to personal growth. Within the context of a “religious way”, we wrestle with not only the lives of other people living in today’s world, but also with the recorded struggles of peoples past.

It is worth remembering that “the Church” often fails to remember that the “so what” questions are far from answered, and that our offering to the world is the opportunity to explore the fabric of life’s meaning within the context of community (past, present & future).

And people might just discover the promise in being religious…

Past Posts