Monday, September 26, 2011

Small Sips Thinks You're Boring

You know who you are. Yeah. YOU. A few weeks ago, UCC pastor/author Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a reflection for the Huffington Post regarding the increasingly common, ever-innocuous phrase "spiritual but not religious." Hint: she's not a fan.
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.
A lot of my pastor friends on Facebook shared and debated the merits not only of Daniel's content, but also her tone. How would a self-identified "spiritual but not religious" person react to this article? It probably wouldn't be favorably, and I'd guess that many would immediately step in to clarify how they use the term (for my own part, that'd be incredibly helpful, as I'm skeptical as to just how many who use it know what they're talking about). Many comments I saw made a very good point about whether this article would foster any real dialogue or seem inviting to Daniel's intended audience. I'm guessing not so much.

However, Daniel does make several good points that the tone probably doesn't allow people to hear. First off, I agree that it's not healthy to be a spiritual island where there is no dialogue, accountability, opportunity for clarifying or refining one's beliefs. Second, if all the further you get when using this phrase is the sunset, then how deep have you really traveled?

I must admit a certain catharsis when reading Daniel's article. Some commenters suggest that her tone is due to the decline of organized religion and Daniel's personal stake being threatened. I, on the other hand, would love to meet "spiritual but not religious" people who are actively engaged in the pursuit of truth and living well, whether part of a church or not. In that sense, this was a call, albeit a very blunt one, to try harder.

Oh...oh YEAH? Well, I'M talking to YOU. Kate Blanchard, a religion professor at Alma College in Michigan, responded to Daniel's piece:
But if I step back and think more carefully, I see that it’s probably not fair to stereotype these folks as “bland” or “self-centered” or cowardly sunset people who are too weak for big-league religion—any more than it’s wise to characterize all self-identified religious people as “brave enough to encounter God in a real human community.” (It may surprise some readers that Rev. Daniel’s denomination is the United Church of Christ, which I have heard dismissively called “Unitarians Considering Christ” by Christians of more orthodox leanings who see the UCC as, well, spiritual but not religious.)

Some religious people do indeed exhibit almost supernatural patience and compassion for their fellows, and it often does require great courage to stay in a congregation even when there is conflict and pain and, most of all, disappointment to be found there. But I also believe that for many formerly religious people, the act of leaving their religious traditions, of opting out of the human communities into which they were born or which no longer felt like home, could itself have been a tremendous act of courage.

In my experience as a college professor, “spiritual but not religious” is my bread and butter; it is the very thing that drives many people into my classes. For better or worse, it is often the conventionally religious students who seem satisfied (sometimes smugly so) with shallow understandings of their own traditions—to say nothing of anyone else’s religion. Meanwhile, some of the spiritual students (though certainly not all) are those who work the hardest to figure out what they can believe in or sign on for, while still maintaining a sense of personal integrity.
Blanchard makes a number of good points, especially as she's had personal experience with the "spiritual but not religious" folks who do try harder, who are open and curious and actively searching.

Part of my journey toward spiritual direction has been a passion to help such curious people open themselves to a variety of traditions outside perhaps the one they actually know. Blanchard's students are the types that I'd love to meet. Near the end of her article, she suggests that the fact that one chooses to respond with that phrase rather than simply pop in the earbuds after finding out s/he is sitting next to a religious professional on a plane is due to such curiosity: they WANT to have a conversation about that phrase. They WANT to explore and question, and now that they have a knowledgeable captive audience maybe this is their opportunity. There may be some like the person Daniel describes as well, of course.

In other cases when you share that you're a religious professional, you may end up next to an atheist who squirms in his seat or a SuperChristian who wants to talk about the finer points of your doctrine. When faced with these situations, according to my seminary's president, you should order a double Scotch: the atheist will relax and the SuperChristian will shut up. I have yet to be able to test this wisdom.