Taking People Seriously

Last year, I did a small series of posts about Lillian Daniel’s book, When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough, which can be found on the very excellent Lay Anglicana blog. I’ve also read, and pondered, the Time Magazine opinion piece by Rabbi David Wolpe on the topic.

I think it’s very important for religious institutions to attend to the rise in the number of people who self-identify as “Spiritual but Not Religious” (aka SBNR). It seems every week there is at least one article that comes into my field of vision on the topic. In the last 30 or so years, the SBNR are not a fringe, but according to Pew Research, they account for about a third of people who use the internet for learning about religious/spiritual matters, or for their own personal development in these areas. It’s silly, I think, to ridicule or dismiss them.

But that is exactly what both the Rev. Lillian Daniel and Rabbi David Wolpe do. Wolpe is more thoughtful and intelligent in his critique, but still treats those who claim to be on some kind of spiritual journey of discovery, but reticent about affiliating with institutional religion, as somehow inferior or even hostile to traditional forms of participation.

The critiques that both Daniel and Wolpe make about the SBNR can be summed up in the opening paragraph of Wolpe’s article:

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? Boosting your self-esteem no matter your competence or behavior? Then I’ve got the religious program for you.

As I’ve said, Wolpe is more intelligent and respectful in his writing than Daniel. But I think that both of them make several mistakes.

The first is that of claiming that the only outlet for a spiritual impulse is participation in, and assent to the obligations of, a religious community and its activities. Even for those who are members of some kind of church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, their spiritual path may lead them to serve others in ways that do not fall under the auspices of their religious institutions. Perhaps those they serve do not have the slightest inkling of their spiritual or religious motivations. I attended a church over 20 years ago in which there was a surge of “vocations”–not to ordained ministry, but to nursing. About six people, in a period of 18 months or so, made the prayerful decision to leave other occupations, undertake rigorous training, and begin lives of service to the sick and suffering.

Definitely spiritually motivated. But their work was not under the auspices of the parish where they were members–nor should it have been. The parish church did not have the competency or resources to direct their work.

For Christians, the question should be raised whether those who receive such service should even know if it is religiously or spiritually motivated. I’m going to put my head above the ramparts and say that I’m not at all convinced Jesus would wish it that way. Matthew 6:3 says that when you give to the needy, your right and left hands should not know what the other is doing. You’re not supposed to make a show of how “religious” (or spiritual) you are when you care for others.

And all kind of service to others can be seen as a calling from God, and a fulfillment of a spiritual imperative. Nursing and other healthcare occupations, but teaching, public service, engineering (it’s a huge gift to humanity that people who choose to build bridges and houses can do so without them collapsing)–all of them are worthy vocations.

Wolpe may be correct in his claim that “institutions are [also] the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions.” But must the “spiritual” have their actions perpetuated by specifically religious organizations? I think not. (Whether ideologies should be perpetuated unreflectively is another question for another time). Hospitals, schools, institutions of government, secular voluntary and cultural organizations are non-religious venues through which the felt spiritual imperative can perpetuate actions long past the participation of any given individual.

Yes, we need institutions to make a difference in the world. They need not be religious institutions.

The second major mistake is the way in which Wolpe begins his essay. It is dismissive of real people, trivializing their quest by reducing it to the desire to “feel good” without having to act on their feeling. What I’ve said above is indicates that I think such a claim is patent nonsense.

But at a deeper level, if people are searching for something that takes them beyond the ordinary experiences of everyday life, why would they turn to religious institutions whose avowed purpose is to make them feel like lesser beings?

We have enough of that noise in society. You only have to turn on the television and experience advertising that somehow indicates you will never measure up to some external standard–whether physical beauty, wealth, status–to feel like crap about yourself. You only have to go to work, school (or really just about anyplace else) to be told you aren’t meeting expectations, and someone else will be happy to take your place while you are tossed aside.

Of course people want to feel good. And 21st century western consumer society is designed to make us feel exactly the opposite. For Christians at least, who claim that God is love and (as the hymn claims), a “mighty fortress” (against what, we might ask?), it is nothing short of stupid to ridicule people for wanting a few hours a week to be told “your sins are forgiven.”

It’s not that the SBNR don’t know the wonderful stuff that churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like can offer–and if they did, they would reach out for it all without question or looking back. It’s that many of them do know what is on offer, and don’t find it adequate.

So, they take their spiritual longings into the secular world, and probably do an enormous amount of good. That should be celebrated. But it isn’t–it is treated as hostility toward religion, when it is anything but.

The enemy of religion is not unaffiliated spirituality. The enemy of religion is bad religion. And to denigrate the people whose dignity we have, in the baptismal vows, promised to respect, and to fail to seek and serve Christ in them–because they don’t participate in our institutions on our terms–is, I think, exceptionally bad religion.

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