Are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) people “boring”? Are they shallow? Are they enjoying deep thoughts in the privacy of their homes, feeling spiritual while watching sunsets, yet avoiding church like the plague? That’s what pastor Lillian Daniel suggested a few years ago in her biting Huffington Post blog post titled Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.
But that’s not what I found when I interviewed hundreds of SBNR people recently. They are often genuine seekers, brimming with vital theological questions, pointers, and correctives that churches need to hear. Religious leaders like Daniel are missing an opportunity for deeper conversation by dismissing the SBNR as salad bar spiritualists or New Age nuts. Instead, religious folks need to talk with them — and to listen.
I’m not saying this simply because the SBNR numbers are growing exponentially (now nearly 25% of Americans). I’m not encouraging a dialogue primarily to convert them or because we need someone to blame for increasingly empty pews. Dialogue is necessary because this is no longer an “us versus them” situation. Quite simply, the SBNR ethos has become so pervasive that many church-goers – often unknowingly – share similar beliefs.
So what, exactly, do SBNRs believe about God? For one, they often refrain from using the word “God.” They surmise that the Christian God is a mean old white guy in the sky who is unfair, unpredictable, narcissistic, and could just as easily smite you as help you. As one interviewee said: “I don’t have to believe in some ‘clown in the sky’ to make my life complete or to give me help.” SBNRs say they find the sacred in many places, such as in nature, other people, and themselves. They say we should approach life with a sense of wonder and awe, that we should respect the mystery of life and not demand or even trust concrete answers. Many posit some kind of universal energy source or higher power but think it’s immature to expect personal attention because this source is impersonal, not self-conscious or intentional. Instead, it is benign and always available if we plug in, “center ourselves,” and listen to our inner divinity. When we do this, they suggest, we will find all the answers and power that we need.
When I asked interviewees what it means to be human, every one of them said: “Each of us is born good.” They did not like the idea of sin and especially original sin. To them it sounded like the Christian God was sadistic and unfair. As one said: “I don’t want someone to tell me I’m born fallen and God is punishing me for it. I believe everyone is born good and has the right to seek their own self-fulfillment. No one has a right to tell me how to live or express myself.”
These are just some of the perceptions SBNRs have of Christian beliefs, which one might argue are stereotypes or misconceptions of Christian doctrine, and in some cases contradict it. Christians do believe that sin, or estrangement from God, is an important feature to take into consideration about human existence. But, we also need to acknowledge that Christianity is responsible for some of these misconceptions, such as an image of God as sadistic and unfair. (After all, even those SBNRs with almost no experience of church had to get these ideas from somewhere.) Examining our own theology and how we communicate it is crucial. Depending on your stance, Christian proclamation has tended to become either rigid or vague, and we must take that seriously.
So how do we move forward in dialogue? Instead of pointing out all the areas where SBNR theological understanding misses the mark, we can begin with areas of agreement. We can agree, for example, that the sacred dimension is a mystery and not completely knowable. We can agree it is something like energy, all around. We can agree we get a sense of the sacred in nature, in others, and even in ourselves. We can agree that we are created for good and meant for fulfillment. We can agree that each of us is infused by a spirit that centers and grounds us, if only we acknowledge it and listen. And we can agree that awe and wonder are proper attitudes when pondering the mystery of life.
From there, we can bring forward positive insights from a Christian perspective. For example, the sacred, which we call God, is not simply an impersonal energy. Instead, Christians believe God is always with us, is personal, created us, knows us, and loves each of us. God is also beyond our reality, larger than we are, and larger than the universe. Otherwise, God would be bound up in our world and powerless to bring about the realm of peace and justice that so many long for. As for finding the sacred in nature, the psalmist says nature itself declares the glory of God, even without words. But theology also asserts that in order to understand and trust the character of God, we need more information.
As Christians, we believe that God has taken measures in order that we are not left with just mystery. We have sacred texts and others’ testimonies to help us know the reality of God. And we have confidence in God’s intentions because we have been given the unique window into the character of God by Jesus Christ. In spite of the history of male imagery for God, God is a spirit and as such has no gender. Anthropomorphisms are analogies or metaphors, simply used to “accommodate to our condition.” And on the human level, the real male gender of Jesus overturned gender stereotypes.
What about each of us being divine? We do have an inner brightness because we are each made in God’s image. More than that, God is constantly helping us — especially if we cooperate — to become more like God. Traditional Western theology calls this “sanctification,” but the Orthodox tradition goes further, calling this “godding” process “theosis.” We never become God, but can grow closer to the image of God which we each carry. What about sin? It can be understood as alienation from God, others, and self. It points to a reality which the contemporary therapeutic culture calls “dysfunction.” That is, because we are easily distracted, tend to slip up, and do harm to self and others, we cannot fully actualize this inner divine image merely by relying on human effort alone.
It is crucial to remember that both “sides” begin with stereotypes and misunderstandings, and we must be careful not to categorize people. Whereas Daniel dismisses SBNRs as individualist and self-centered, SBNRs in turn call out churchgoers as hypocrites and harbingers of prejudice. My research indicates that the primary issues that inspire SBNRs to avoid organized religion – in particular Christianity – are often theological at the core. Ethically, there is already much we can agree on and we can reach a deeper understanding when we engage our theological differences and talk about each other’s deepest longings and beliefs. The truth is always a bit more complicated perhaps, but never boring.