An increasing number of people, and especially the young adults that I work with each day, have come to identify with the malleable phrase “spiritual, but not religious.” There is good reason to believe that all kinds of people identify with the phrase, including some of the most highly religious people in the country, those conservative Evangelicals that proclaim “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship.” Even setting this ambiguity aside, it’s undeniable that many folks today are pleased to find “god” without the trappings of associating with a traditional religious community.
At it’s most basic level, Christian ministers should be glad that these persons are not antagonistic toward God or religion. That would be a more problematic place to be. In one sense I want to affirm people when they so often claim that they “have church” on the golf course or while having a peaceful breakfast at home with family or walking the trails in the local park. (I highly doubt that these practices happen as often as they claim, but I normally pass over that matter quietly.)
I think some Christian apologists could even suggest that a regular practice of such a prayerful attitude will lead the “spiritual, but not religious” to wonder at the beauty of the One True God. I’ll leave that aside by saying only that I am both skeptical and hopeful.
The biggest problem for these folks is that the vision of God for the “spiritual, but not religious” is just entirely too small. And small gods don’t hold up very well when a brother commits suicide, joblessness turns to homelessness, or the cancer comes back…again. (I owe this rich little insight to a great book by Lillian Daniel.)
Consider the vision of God that one gets from a self-made attitude of prayer. I can imagine mountains and beaches leading a person to gratitude for the God that made the world. I can imagine prayerful engagement with the news or even just mindful engagement with one’s work leading to an understanding that somehow we have a place in God’s good plan. I imagine that a person that goes to God in a spirit of prayer in times of trial may very well experience peace and calm, believing that God cares about their challenges…a kind of cosmic counselor.
But the “spiritual, but not religious” God is a pretty small little being. The hardest questions of life crush this little God.
How does a person respond to the father that abandoned them long ago, only to return with hopes of reconciliation? The “spiritual, but not religious” God demands nothing of either party, even if that God is invited into the process. Two temptations will dominate the possibilities. Grace without reconciliation will lead to bitterness. An indignant resistance to reconcile at all will lead to regret.
The Christian God demands a process of confession and pardon that does not permit a neglectful parent to return with an expectation of cheap grace. The Christian religion demands a process of reconciliation that will cost both parties, but also does not allow the pain that has been caused to grow like a blister on the bottom of your foot.
When the worst kind of suffering topples your world, the “spiritual, but not religious” God has only simple answers. Either God must have no power against such suffering, or God just doesn’t care. Or maybe this God is powerful and orchestrating this entire painful world? None of these are finally a God that should be worshipped.
The Christian religion has spent 2,000 years with some of the most brilliant men and women in history working to resolve this question with the light of Scripture and the guidance of a community of wisdom. The answer is complex. God is in control of the world, but as an act of love for his creation, has given creatures freedom…even the freedom to reject God and turn to sin. God could intervene and he will. But God waits patiently to intervene until the time is right, which only God knows. When God finally intervenes, he will so utterly restore the world to wholeness and healing that our present sufferings will not compare to his great and final redemption.
These aren’t the kind of answers that you come up with while watching the sunset. These are hard won answers that are born of a faithful community wrestling with a sacred text. The “spiritual, but not religious” is invited into this community to struggle along with us.
I have a suggestion that will challenge some that forgo the sunset “church” to gather with a community each weekend. You need to dive deep into religion too. Become a Catholic or a Pentecostal or a Methodist, because each of these traditions has a well considered answer to your toughest questions. Even the Christians that are part of the “spiritual, but not religious” are in need of this long-standing religious tradition of confessing sins, proclaiming creeds, and reasoning with their community and the tradition. Reading your Bible and praying each morning is a great start at being religious, but you are in need of these deeper traditions and the way of life that they entail just as much as the non-Christian “spiritual, but not religious.” The Catholic, the Pentecostal, and the Methodist each have slightly different answers to the tough questions. Diving deep into one (or more) of those traditions is going to give the richest kind of life and the most enduring faith… one that gives a way through sincere hurt and hope in faith-testing pain.
Many of the “spiritual, but not religious” choose that path because they think it is easier than putting up with all those hypocritical people in religious communities. (The Christian theological tradition calls them “sinners” and has a well-considered way of making sense of their hypocrisy while refusing to excuse it.) They are right. Those rules and traditions of the religious aren’t easy. But they are good.
Related Post: Words of Grace for Inadequate Christians