SBNR — Spiritual But Not Religious   Leave a comment

We’ve read it, heard it, thought it, and many self-identify with it.  It leaps faith boundaries; there are respectable atheists who lay claim to it. Meme, cop-out, canary in the mine, badge of honor, ticket to bad-ass-dom or philosopher status, tired PC label.  High-mileage, time-to-change-the-tires, still-up-for-that-road-trip hippy van of the post-post-modern zeitgeist-fest that is for today what “finding yourself” was for a whole other lost generation not so long ago.  You ask, and … there it comes, wait for it … “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Don’t misunderstand:  I’m not mocking the impulse, just the frequent obliviousness of people who think it’s original with them. According to a Gallup poll from over a decade ago, 33% of Americans apply the SBNR label to themselves.  I doubt that that percentage has dropped at all in the interim.  If anything, it’s probably risen.

ldanielThe phrase annoyed United Church of Christ pastor and author Lillian Daniel enough that she wrote a 2011 guest blog entry for The Huffington Post: “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  Responses to the post helped supply enough material that the original page grew into a book-length collection of essays —When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough.  [As a side note, only the first half of her book directly engages the topic of the title.]

The “enoughness” of Daniel’s title refers to the importance of community, without which she feels a private spirituality can slide too easily into laziness and self-indulgence.  Of course that can happen.  Who holds people accountable for slipping into bad habits, if they seek to find their own truth, in their own way?  [Turns out there ARE some “forces at large” who can keep us in line; for that, keep reading.] How do we avoid a kind of heedless religion of gratitude, if you live in the West and are comfortably middle- or upper-class?  After all, that life can be pretty good much of the time: no starvation, war, oppression, plague and so on.  How do we escape a superficial enjoyment of nature as the whole of our easy religion? (In particular, Daniel inveighs against the “Aren’t sunsets glorious?” crowd who think that their love of beauty is both original and that it “covers all sins.”)

Yes, there’s a Puritanical streak present in Daniel’s irritation (Puritanism defined by H. L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time”).  A fair portion of the SBNR’s may well come across as hedonist agnostics without a care (though I’ve yet to actually meet one), while the good people in congregations like Daniel’s engage each other in all their human imperfection, and are called to be better for it.  But given the litany of ills the world faces, which any reflective person can see are attributable at least in part to the ongoing gluttony of first-world nations in their consumption of the planet’s resources, irritation is a perfectly reasonable response.  Given the imperial overreach of those same nations in their attempt to bully and harangue the world so that their gullets remain as stuffed as possible, irritation might even be a good starting point for making an actual change — though Daniel goes nowhere near so far.

But there’s more of substance going on here, which Daniel is understandably reluctant to examine, since it cuts to the heart of her religion.  Part of an “actual change” has already been going on for decades.

jspongWe can grasp one corner of the change in the words of now retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong notes in his Q & A for 11-7-2013 that those he terms the “non-religious” often are still spiritual:

Lots of people who do go to church are “non-religious.” Lots of people who say they don’t believe in God are profoundly spiritual and searching people.

What I seek to describe with the phrase “the non-religious” are those for whom the traditional religious images have lost their meaning. There is no God above the sky, keeping record books, ready to answer your prayers and come to your aid. There is no tribal deity lurking over your nation or any other nation as a protective presence. There is no God who will free the Jews from Egyptian slavery; put an end to the Inquisition or stop the Holocaust. If these goals are to be accomplished, human beings with expanded consciousness will have to be the ones to accomplish them. This means that the category we call “religious” is too narrow and limited to work for us in the 21st century.

The question I seek to answer is that when we move beyond the religious symbols of the past, as I believe our whole culture has already done, do we move beyond the meaning those outdated symbols once captured for us, or is the meaning still there looking for a way to be newly understood and newly symbolized? The word “God” is a human symbol. I believe though that the word God stands for a reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define. To worship God in our generation means not that we must move beyond God, but it does mean that we will have to move beyond all previous human definitions of God. So to be “non-religious” is just a way of saying that the religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning. That does not mean the search for God is over; it means the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged.

Some of what’s unintentionally ironic in Spong’s words here, intended to push against “Churchianity” and provoke mainstream Christians in its Pagan-like tolerance, is that many Christians would agree with him, and many Pagans and Druids in particular wouldn’t.  For the polytheists among the latter, gods and goddesses are indeed real.  Where Pagans and Druids do share common ground with Spong is in their conviction that there is a spiritual “reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define.”  But while it may be that some specifically Christian “religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning,” Pagan symbols feel new again.  Paganism is growing because “the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged”; that’s what makes Neo-Paganism: so much is new.  Talk to a Druid who’s encountered Cernunnos or Morrigan, who serves either as priestess or priest.  Talk to a Wiccan who draws down the Moon.

Finally, if the posts on blogs like those on my sidebar of links are any indication, Pagans and Druids who may be solitaries and practice alone (as often out of necessity as out of choice) face their fair share of profound challenges in their spiritual practice that foster growth and unfolding, deeper awareness, and an enriched capacity to love. After all, Christian saints over nearly two millennia who retreated to hermitages and isolation from human others in order to deepen their spirituality also frequently found what they sought. It betrays a misunderstanding of spirituality to think we can’t practice alone.  Fools and sages are pretty evenly distributed across the planet and throughout spiritual traditions.  The sage I seek may live, not on the other side of the planet, but next door in the trailer, the one with the Chevy up on cement blocks in the front yard.  The fool is often standing in front of me when I look in the mirror.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Daniel, Lillian.  When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.

Images: Lillian Daniel; John Shelby Spong.

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