Since the scientific revolution of the fifteenth century, there has been an increasing tendency in Christianity to see God as separate what God created. We don’t literally think of God as sending the sun across the sky each day. Rather, we know about the earth’s rotation around the sun causing night and day. We no longer literally see God dumping buckets of rain on our fields, or opening some celestial flood gates; we know about the cycle of precipitation.
So, we have tended to relegate God to the “spiritual” realms, often seen as separate from us in space and time, away in heaven. We have relegated God to deciding who gets into eternal life after death, rather than a partner in life now. I even grew up with chalk art images of a great gulf between our earth and God’s realm, with only a very narrow bridge connecting the two, a bridge so narrow, people could easily fall off.
The work of religion has popularly been considered to be the task of getting people safely across that divide into the realm of God. This image is changing rapidly.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, famously observes that, “about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” The last one happened in 1517, October 31 and we call it The Reformation. We celebrate it’s 500th anniversary this fall. So, right on time, the church is beginning to clean out its closets. We are discovering beliefs and practices of the faith, dusty from years of being locked behind forgotten doors. Treasures to dust off. And we are finding some of the ways we have talked about God to be no longer useful. Ready for the dust bin.
This season of Pentecost, the study the Holy Spirit has left me feeling a bit dusty. Like I have been touching old volumes, breathing both dust and the fresh air of new-to-me perspectives, discovered in hidden closets.
Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence, suggests that “the new Christianity of the Great Emergence must… formulate—and soon—something other than Luther’s sola scriptura which, although used so well by the Great Reformation originally, is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient….” (pp. 150–51). What is she saying? Well…, that Christianity is going to have to find another foundation in addition to Scripture. No longer do people accept the answer, “Because the Bible says so.” She is not suggesting that we toss out the Bible, but that we have put too much weight on one single pillar. It is beginning to topple. We know that a foundation of one pier is less stable than a foundation of multiple piers. Just like riding a unicycle, like the kids under the circus tent this summer, is much more difficult than a bicycle, which is much more difficult than a tricyle. We may just be entering an era of Christianity when we discover and reclaim deep foundations which give us balance and strength.
It seems to me that the Holy Spirit, and the practice of connection to Spirit, may be one of these foundations piers.
There is a parallel discovery emerging in our culture. Sven Erlandson wrote a book in the year 2000 called, Spiritual But Not Religious. Though he was not the first to use the term, with his use of it, it caught the public imagination and is now part of common language.
Is it possible that the Spiritual But Not Religious, SBNR for short, movement is part of the new thing which is emerging? A new Reformation? A new Pentecost? It is bubbling outside the church doors so we tend to look upon it with suspicion. But that has never been a problem for the Spirit. Much of her work happens outside. That is why we say in our church’s mission statement that “the Holy Spirit is at work in the world ahead of us.”
What is Spiritual But Not Religious? More than 20% of Americans, roughly half of the unchurched, describe themselves with this phrase, and this is now a very conservative estimate. To be honest, some of the ‘churched’describe themselves this way in private as well. But what does it mean? The confusion stems from the fact that the words “spiritual” and “religious” are really synonyms. Both reflect belief in a Higher Power of some kind. Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power.
But through the last century, and especially in the movement toward focus on the individual person, the word ‘spiritual’ gradually came to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience. The word ‘religious’ then came to be limited to its public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official doctrines.
Social scientists studied a group of people who identified as “spiritual, but not religious.” Religiousness, they found, was associated with more interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs. Spirituality, in contrast, was associated with more interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches. Many had negative experiences with churches or church leaders – from general hypocrisy to outright abuse.
I have been exploring SBNR with people I meet through Taborspace or visitors to our church services. What I have found conforms with what the social scientists found. The SBNR are pretty clear on the “not religious” part. I have often called these the people who have been “hurt by church.” Their trust in churches has gone the way of their trust in any institution, corporation or public figure. They simply won’t be told what to do. Those who study generational theory see the seeds of this rejection of authority in the Boomers (ages 57-74), but it is dominant and angry in the next group, Generation X (ages 37-56). The Millennials (ages 16-36) reject current authority structures and confidently are building new ways of doing things. They have shifted from the emphasis on deconstruction of authority to building new patterns to sustain the kind of life they want to live in this world.
But even with these anti-authority generations, they are hungry for community – a place to be held, accepted and included unconditionally. Much of their angst arises from insecurity in relationships, or downright abandonment. A few are daring enough to give the church one more try because nothing in their worlds offers this kind of community. But these are the exceptions to the rule.
SBNR’s younger, and are hungry for meaning in life, they want to ask life’s hard questions and to spend their lives doing work that is meaningful.
Robert C. Fuller, in Spiritual, But Not Religious, says that “Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issue of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things…. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.”
We know that the SBNR’s of our culture do not value religious institutions. But where in the Bible are we instructed to find God through religious institutions? God resisted having a Temple built in Jerusalem in the first place. Paul was clear that God does not dwell in the Temples we build. Instead, the Psalmist says God’s Temple is much bigger:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
the sky proclaims divine handiwork;
day speaks of it to day,
night to night hands on the knowledge”
And John says in his letter to his friends in Ephesus, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another God lives in us and God’s love is made complete through us…. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:12, 16)
God’s presence and love do not require our human institutions. Yes, we love them. We hold on to the way we have always done things, like we hold on to the beloved kitsch in our closets. We have come to know God through these churches – both the buildings and the people. But it is not the only way. That is what the SBNR are telling us. Some screaming and some just voting with their feet.
Can we listen? Can we find common ground? I think we have more in common than we have in difference. And it turns on that first word of the phrase: spiritual. We, too, are spiritual. Even though that is a doctrine which has gotten a little dusty from underuse, we can change that. What is most important? To connect deeply with that holy presence? To sense the love and acceptance of God? Or to survive as an institution?
Change triggers our fears. But love drives out fear. Faith is the ability to let go of our own plans and love each other no matter what happens. Trust that the Spirit is working all things together for God’s good. And since we have our lives hidden in God, it is all for our good as well. And since God created all things and is in all things, and God’s breath breathes in every human and animal spirit, and somehow mysteriously in the earth itself – well, what God is doing is good.
Let’s commit ourselves to learn to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s revive the spiritual practices which guided Jesus’ followers throughout the ages – from Paul and John, to Francis and Clare, to St. Patrick and Meister Eckhart, to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.
How did they practice the presence of God? Prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, singing, laughing, praying. All practices rejuvenated among the SBNR – of the divorce recovery group, the nonprofit leaders coming to Taborspace, the healers in our building.
Over the next few months we will be focusing on the practices ancient and new which have been a foundation for connection with God, for opening and nurturing our spirits, and making room for Holy Spirit. Arkan Lushwala, a First Nations Wise One from New Mexico, says that essentially, spirituality is one’s capacity to be guided. That means not holding too tightly to what is familiar, and opening ourselves to where the Spirit is moving. It is our heritage, it is the way of Jesus.
We may have much more in common with the SBNR crowd than we know.