Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spiritual, but Not Religious

A few weeks ago, I read this definition of a new acronymn: SBNR. SBNR stands for "spiritual, but not religious". I was asked to comment on this notion and I've been thinking about it for several weeks. I think there's no way for me to do this without being very judgmental, but maybe the SBNR folks need a little push. (As do the RBNS- Religious, but not Spiritual- people.)

First there is no real definition for "spiritual, but not religious". This tends to be offered as a self-definition when people are asked about their personal theological beliefs and they are not really connected in any way to a church, synagogue, mosque, prayer group, temple, fire circle, or whatever.

I've found that many people don't want to be associated with church because it's 1) oppressive, 2) antiquated, or 3) boring. So a nebulous claim of "spiritual" makes one sound a like a believer, without dipping a toe into in the discussions around agnosticism or atheism. In my opinion, however, "spiritual" used in this context means 1) undisciplined, 2) no desire for accountability about belief and 3) desire to maintain control without wrestling.

What's the matter with church?

It's oppressive. Read: The church causes societal divisions, keeps down women, homosexuals, science, reason, logic, children, societal advancement, killed Galileo, harbors sexual predators, tries to control people's lives...

Sure, in the church's history is the support of slavery, the Inquisition, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Trail of Tears, the push to Prohibition, efforts against civil rights,... and the list goes on. However, the church and religious people are also behind public schools, private schools, hospitals, printing, world exploration, medical advances, historic preservation, disaster relief, book translation,... and the list goes on.

Many people who don't want to be associated with the church imagine one monolithic institution. They extrapolate one bad experience with the whole body. They want to take all the bad history and ignore the contributions of church to society... even unto this day.

The Church, in all shapes and sizes, has done harm historically, but it has also helped. The Christian church, in its various forms, is how God has worked, in part, in the world for the past 2000-ish years. Most church folk try to accept that the cancerous DNA of our spiritual history does not define us. We work to eradicate it now. And the members of the body of Christ do not all have the same function, which means there is a house of God somewhere that would likely be a good fit for a "spiritual" person who wanted to join, but...

It's antiquated. Who needs to join a church anymore? That whole priest at the top telling people what to think model is out-dated and insulting. People can interpret Scripture for themselves and they don't need someone telling them what to do.

This image of church sets up a priest or pastor as a man or woman who thrives on bossing people around and tightening the screws on little people. If you think the pastor is in charge, you haven't been to church recently. (Little joke there.) The majority of clergy of any denomination or faith do not live to crush. They live to explain. People have ALWAYS done their own Scriptural interpretation to the delight and horror of the clergy. The pastor or priest exists to help you with interpretation, to give you a sounding board for your understandings, to offer some direction, some historical background, a little textual criticism and to let you feel safe in wandering into heterodoxy and then bring you back (as best as possible) to orthodoxy.

No priest or pastor worth their tiny pay lives to crush individual study of Scripture. Keep in mind, however, that said clergy also do pastoral care, act as community leaders, and run non-profit facilities. (That's right. The church IS a non-profit. No matter what you think.) Despite what is considered the antiquated model of the church, when people are grieving, angry, hurt, fearful, exhausted, or joyous... there exists an institution that is prepared to be with them in that time- for as long as it lasts.

I often read about people who wish society had a better way of marking grief or supporting social rest or a way of organizing. I know an institution that can do all of those things, but...

It's boring. I know a pastor who points out that if churches put as much work into a Sunday in the middle of summer as they do at Christmas and Easter, then people might be more inclined to come throughout the year. This may well be true, but most people don't know how much work goes into a Sunday in July because they don't come.

Not all churches are going to have bands, screens and pyrotechnics. Some churches have small, barely tuneable pianos, old hymn boards (remember the black number slid into little slots) and hand-me-down hymnals. That "old time religion" isn't about "how it was", but that the old, old story is still new and still needed. Religious people struggle with the understanding that we are not in control and remain undeserving and yet it remains day after day, year after year, that the body of Christ was broken for you. Some people need to hear that through flash and some people need to hear it in a still, small way. There are enough kinds of churches that "boring" is not a good excuse.

Being a part of a religious community does take time. Sometimes people say (see Pascal) that you have nothing to lose if you believe in Christ and live your life that way and turn out to be wrong. You have plenty to lose. The thing is you can't be a follower of Christ alone. Jesus specifically sent the disciples out together. The early church realized people needed the community of believers to grow, to learn, to keep one another accountable and to remain steadfast in faith. A person could calculate the time it takes to be a part of that kind of community, the cost of tithe, the struggles in relationships. It's not true to say you have nothing to lose... if you decide to look at it that way.

On the other hand, you have everything to gain. You have people who will encourage and support your questions, your fears and the struggle of doubt. You have a community in which to base scriptural interpretation. You have people who will help you move, garden, grieve, eat, celebrate, bury, give birth, retreat, spend, save, explore, live and die. In addition, you have the faith of others to support you in doubt and your faith will feed them in their own times of struggle. The church is social, but not a social organization. People of faith are bound together beyond whether or not they like each other because of the bonds of Christ between them- from birth to death.

You see, SBNRs, you want to go it alone, but you're missing much more than you think. No religious person thinks the church is perfect, but they've found a place that offers what they cannot get anywhere else. When people dismiss the institution of church or religion for whatever reason, they are dismissing the overwhelming good that can come from the body of believers.

When you say that you'll let your children decide about church when they're older, you're telling them that faith doesn't matter. When you say that the church is oppressive, antiquated or boring, you ignore the people who are being liberated by church today in new and ever-changing ways. When you say that you're not a joiner, what I hear is that you don't want to be held accountable for what you believe, which essentially means you don't hold anything sacred.

Oh, wait... there are somethings that are sacred... then you ARE religious, you just have a problem with church. Why didn't you say so?

There are many people who say that if religious institutions were to pass away, it would be a great leap forward for mankind. I hate to point out that the last great leap forward didn't go so well.

Even if the institutions, the buildings, the structures, the organizations were to pass away... there would still be people who gather together, who carry on in faith, who believe not only in "something bigger", but believe specifically in God who interacts with creation, who loves, who shapes and who saves. There will remain a group of people who will hold to these truths, religiously, and it will shape their lives.

SBNR is a tag for I'm not sure, I don't know, and I don't have a place. Speaking for the religiously spiritual people, I say: we have a place for you. More importantly, God's place for you has room for your questions, your wrestlings, and your uncertainty. Might as well be with others who are in the same boat rather than drift alone.

Two are better off than one, because together they can work more effectively. If one of them falls down, the other can help him up. But if someone is alone and falls, it's just too bad, because there is no one to help him. If it is cold, two can sleep together and stay warm, but how can you keep warm by yourself? Two people can resist an attack that would defeat one person alone. A rope made of three cords is hard to break. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Good News Translation)