Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SBNRs: When Is Spiritual Not Religious?

Yesterday, I wrote about the origins of SBNRs, suggesting that not all “spiritual but not religious” individuals come from similar backgrounds. Some just aren’t interested in religion, but others are actively staying away because the institutional church has hurt them in some way. Later in the week, I’ll look at how the church should approach SBNRs. Today, however, I’m interested in the difference between spirituality and religion.

Sitting in her office, the priest looks at the man who has come to see her and says, “Tell me about your faith.” He shifts awkwardly in his seat and replies, “Well, um, I don’t come to church very often—but you already know that, don’t you? But even though I don’t come, I’m very spiritual. I pray every day, and I try to be a good person.” As the conversation continues, the priest tries to assure the man that she isn’t worried about how often he comes to church and that, instead, she’s focused on helping him find the spiritual resources he needs to make it through the personal crisis he’s come to see her about. But, since they are in her office, meeting on her turf, it’s hard to separate the perceived expectations of the institutional church from the individual encounter. In other words, it’s hard for members of the clergy to talk about spirituality without sounding like they are talking about religion.

What is spirituality, anyway? In the context of SBNRs, it’s defined as something other than religion. It could be a practice or a philosophy or an attitude that guides an individual through life, but it is most definitely not a religion. Yet, for a priest like me, spirituality is an essential component of religion. For me, spirituality is the outward expression of a personally held belief. It is the physical manifestation of a way of approaching life. If one believes that peace should be valued, that person might spend time every day sitting in silence and seeking that peace.

For me, Christianity is my religion. More specifically, I’m Anglican, which, as an American, means I’m an Episcopalian. We can talk about what I believe, but that’s another series altogether. Instead, let’s talk about my spirituality. Corporate worship is important to me, and I exercise my faith by gathering with other Christians on a weekly basis (or more often for the über-faithful). Communion is central to my experience of faith, and, usually when we gather to worship together, we share a representative meal of bread and wine that allows us to physically engage multiple aspects of what we believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection and his call to gather in his name. I also exercise my faith through daily study and meditation. I sit alone every morning and read a prescribed set of scripture lessons. Usually, I use a combination of standardized prayers (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for the Day) and my own personal prayers. I sit in silence for a while, reminding myself of God’s presence. I write in a journal, searching for God’s work in my life. And I exercise—physical exercise. As I run or walk or ride a bike, I explore God’s presence in the world around me, and I manipulate my body in ways that internalize the blessedness that is my physical life. There are lots of other practices, too, like giving away at least 10% of my income and spending time with close friends. But that’s how I do it. That’s my spirituality.

So what does it mean to have a spirituality but not a religion? The authors that Mark Oppenheimer cites in his NYT article “Examining the growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’” suggest that it means a wide range of things. The Rev. Lillian Daniel, in her book When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (Jericho, 2013), wrote, “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…’ In the article, she said of such people, “[They] always find God in the sunsets and in walks on the beach.” Her attitude seems a bit cynical, but I can appreciate it. Nature—its beauty—is often a focus for the SBNR.

Courtney Bender, who teaches at Columbia, went looking for SBNRs and discovered that there are many manifestations of their spiritual practices. In an interview, she said that they “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes.” Where these groups come from is part of Bender’s focus. Although SBNRs reject a need to belong to a group that stretches back into the past, they seek shared expressions of spirituality that honor the present. She names alternative medicine (shiatsu massage and acupuncture) and the arts (painting and dance) as examples of movements that draw SBNRs.

But when does a shared set of values expressed communally become a religion? If you and I and thirty other people believe that the goal of life is to experience beauty, and we believe that such beauty can be attained by painting and then discussing our paintings, have we not started a new religion? What’s the difference? Well, religions have rules—at least most of them do. Who is in and who is out is defined somehow. As Mitch Hedberg said, “I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member.” Anyone who likes sandwiches made with three pieces of bread and cut into triangles can join. But, as he went on to say, if you like alfalfa sprouts, “you’re not in the f***ing club!” In other words, as soon as a spirituality becomes defined, it loses its appeal to the SBNR.

Several years ago, I was doing some premarital counseling, and the groom-to-be balked when I asked him to sign the canonically required document that the couple believes about marriage what the Episcopal Church believes about marriage. “I can’t sign that,” he said. “I’m an atheist.” (Hmmm, I wondered to myself, our four sessions just became six.) I asked a colleague about it—how do I get him to sign the document? Should I even marry them? He said, “Just tell him he’s an Episcopalian but doesn’t know it yet.” Good point. Sometimes the reason people aren’t religious is because they haven’t found the right religion yet.

So what’s your reason for being? What’s the goal or telos of your life? Do you love nature and think that the purpose of life is to be found outdoors? Maybe you should be a Wiccan (But do remember that Rowan Williams was made a druid before he became Archbishop of Canterbury.) Do you think that this life is about being a good person and that you will be rewarded if you follow the Golden Rule? The Baha’i faith or Zoroastrianism might have appeal. Enjoy sitting in silence? Find peace when you meditate? Why not bite the bullet and become Buddhist? Think life is best when you go with the flow? Taoism may be for you. Still not happy? Take a look at this chart and see what you can find.

For me, all of those religions and all of those spiritualities are expressions of the same (false) truth: you get out of life what you put into it. My religion and my spirituality are based on the opposite premise: that you are rewarded with something that you do not and cannot ever deserve. Christianity, it its various forms and denominations, is about believing and living your life around the principle that God loves you regardless of who you are or what you do. Christian spirituality is the reiteration of this fact. There are no deities to appease. There are no steps to complete. Everything is about remembering that you are loved undeservedly. That could involve yoga. It might mean meditation. You could incorporate nature and charity and peace and a whole lot more into it. But what makes Christianity distinct is that thing we call grace. In some ways, at its furthest point, it’s religion without rules. Maybe all Christians are really SBNRs without knowing it—or at least they should be.


Tomorrow, I’ll look at what happens when people become RBNSs—religious but not spiritual—and why RBNSs are likely what’s pushing people to become SBNRs.

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