This post originally appeared in Toast Weekly, a newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC.
If you’re like me, you’ve been told once or twice that being a good Christian includes occasionally telling other people about Jesus.
Your reaction might go something like: “Ewww. Yuck. I’m not that interested in evangelism, or selling something, or anything like that.”
But there is another part of you which senses that if more people knew the Jesus who was a radical for peace, forgiveness, love, and justice—the world would be a better place. So how does one go about doing this, without feeling like an unwanted door-to-door salesperson or an awkward friend?Continue Reading..
AS A PARENT, it is a particular delight when I see one of my kids reading. I love to see when they become immersed into a story, or discover something they didn’t know before as they pore over a book. It is a thrill to watch their imaginations and worlds expand. Which makes it hard to imagine a parent saying to a child: “Stop reading! You’ve learned enough already. You’ve learned all you need to know.” Yet in my experience in the church, I’ve been told exactly that. And I know my experience isn’t an isolated one.Continue Reading..
“Quia de deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quid non sit, non possumus considerare de deo, quomodo sit sed quomodo non sit.”
This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ introduction to his whole Summa Theologica: “Since we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not, we cannot consider how God is but only how He is not.”
At different points in my life, I’ve been pretty sure that we can know exactly who and what God is. We could define him quite precisely. We could come up with a list of attributes. We could name a bunch of names written in an old dusty language: “Jehovah Jireh,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh.” Of course, we had only a vague idea what those words meant, yet we felt quite confident using them. We pulled out the good book and felt we had not just a good handle, but a definite handle on who God was and what he was like.
Yet the further I travel on the road of faith, the more I learn about the divine mysteries, the more I realize it is just that: mystery.
Anthony de Mello recounts how the great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, “You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?” Rahner said to him, “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.” And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, “The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”
De Mello concludes: “Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, “Ah, ah…” That is what is ultimate in our human knowledge of God, to know that we do not know.”
It is a strange comfort, this unknowing. It is threatening, to be sure. But also comforting.
This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us, notes de Mello: “Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word “God,” the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, “The ass that you mount and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.” You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts.”
To know reality, de Mello states, you have to know beyond knowing.
Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he stated in Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We must become as little children. Because children are in a place of wonder, and see things afresh. We see things and think we know. And sometimes, our knowing is what gets in the way.
TONIGHT at our regular Pub Theology DC gathering, we’ll be LIVE TWEETING – you can join us in person, at the Bier Baron at 1523 22nd St NW – just a few blocks west of the Dupont Circle Metro stop, or you can jump in on the conversation via Twitter using #pubtheology. Be sure to follow me (@bryberg) and (@pubtheology). Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
If you could name the street you live on what would you call it?
If you received an extra burrito when ordering at your local shop would you say something?
True or false: We should be wary of any efforts to improve human nature.
Did you march on Saturday? Are you marching tomorrow? Does marching lead to justice?
Did Jesus pay for our sins? In what way?
Is hell a just punishment for sinful people?
WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU! Come on down and join us for a pint, or grab your smart phone, a craft-brewed pint, and hit the Twitters! Starting at 7pm.
A recent article in The Banner, the online and print magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, began with the following:
I suspect that a thousand years from now Christians will look back at the 21st century and say, “How could Christians have let themselves think that?” They’d have in mind our theology—some of the doctrines that are so precious to us and that we consider to be the backbone of Christianity.
Some saw this as provocative. Some as overstating the case. Others as unthinkable.
My thought was, “People are already saying this now.”
The article more or less centers around the issue of evolution, which, at least in one form or another, has attained a near consensus status among scientists as being part of the process of the development of life on earth, including all animal life. Animal life includes people, which is in many ways where the rub is.
Are we, as C.S. Lewis puts it in the Chronicles of Narnia, the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”?
Scientists argue that it is not genetically possible for present DNA diversity to have issued from a single pair of ancestors in recent history.
So the writer of the provocative article in the Banner rightly notes that we must begin to assess certain readings and/or doctrines which seem to rely upon a view of the world which may not, in the end, be accurate.
Yet some would say, can’t we just read the Bible literally? Well, no. At least not accurately (with regard to science. Or literature).
The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.
This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.
There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.
In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.
So reading the Bible literally is problematic for scientific and historic reasons. And there is another reason:
There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins.
And many people realize this, and have realized it for some time.
But apparently not certain readers of the Banner.
Objections ranged from: “Asking a whole lot of big complex questions without any attempt to answer it is not helpful” to “This article should have never made print” to “This article implicitly affirmed a lot of heretical propositions” and finally, “Is it possible to overture Synod to remove and replace the editor of the Banner for behavior so damaging to the well being of the churches?”
There were many more reactions, some of which were very thoughtful, others of which were more of the above (and worse!).
Was it a perfect article? I suppose not. But neither was it terrible. It opens the door to further dialogue, and that’s what we need. It is OK to ask a lot of big questions. And not only OK, imperative. Asking questions is an important, crucial step in learning anything.
Whenever you are no longer allowed to ask questions, you can safely assume you’re no longer in a good place.
We should be asking questions, and not just about tomorrow’s theology a thousand years from now, but about what we might, by grappling with Scripture, science, and the best of human understanding, believe today about ourselves, our world, and God.
Many are already doing it, and we should join them.
The LA Times had a story recently about a pastor who carries heat: “He shows others how to put their trust in God and take their security into their own hands.”
From the story:
BEAUMONT, Texas — Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, Pentecostal preacher James McAbee was getting into his car after services when he heard a commotion. He saw two men break a window and enter a church hall that was being renovated.
McAbee called 911. The dispatcher said it would take officers at least 11 minutes to respond.
He lingered outside for a moment, frustrated.
“I could hear them snapping the lumber and carrying the sheet rock,” McAbee said.
The pastor drew a .380 pistol he wore in an ankle holster and burst into the hall — only to find two adolescents.
McAbee, who’d had a troubled youth, saw himself in the pair. He lowered his gun to offer some fatherly advice, but the older one, a 17-year-old with two outstanding drug warrants, rushed the pastor with the pointy end of a broken 2-by-4.
“I got my gun back out in time,” McAbee said. “He froze in his tracks. I said, ‘Son, you better not move or I’ll put one right in your watermelon!'”
The pastor held them until police arrived.
Some laud this pastor as exemplary, and he’s become known as Triple-P: “Pistol-Packing Pastor.” He began teaching gun classes shortly after he earned his nickname, and cites Scripture that he says justifies the classes: Psalm 144:1, “The Lord has trained me for battle”; and Luke 22:36, in which Jesus instructs the disciples to arm themselves.
I actually posted Luke 22:38 earlier today on Facebook:
So they said, “Lord, look! Here are two swords.” He answered them, “Enough of that!”
Typical translations will have Jesus reply: “That is enough,” but I like this version. It’s as if Jesus is dismissing such talk. Yet in either case, Jesus is noting that his disciples are not to be about aggression and violence. Two swords would be laughed at in the face of even the smallest contingent of Roman or Herodian soldiers. He would face their worst, and was not about to respond in kind.
But back to our pistol-packing pastor:
He was expecting more than 100 people to attend his latest class, mandated by the state for concealed handgun licenses. The class costs $50, and in recent months, McAbee’s business has tripled and he’s trained more than 1,000 people.
What do you think? Is he doing a good thing? Is it possible to teach someone to trust in God and take security matters into their own hands? My own sense is that the need to carry the gun points to the opposite of trust in God. “Sure, I’ll trust you, God, up until the point I actually need to trust you. At that point, I’ll take care of things myself, thank you.”
There’s more to the story:
Guns were a normal part of McAbee’s life. He was raised in the small town of Clover, S.C., where his grandfather took him hunting. His mother worked in law enforcement and carried a gun.
One day at the range, his mother accidentally shot and partially paralyzed herself. McAbee was 9.
He grew up caring for his mother, and the stress took a toll. As a teenager he started using drugs and stealing to feed his habit.
When he was 18, McAbee was caught breaking into an elderly neighbor’s house. He was convicted of burglary, aggravated assault and battery, and served 2 1/2 years in a maximum-security prison.
There, McAbee felt called to preach.
This is a fascinating story. This guy spends time in prison because his mother shot herself with her own gun, yet he’s still enamored with them. Amazing. In prison he finds God. You’d think perhaps he would turn over a new leaf in regard to guns. The story continues (you’re not even going to believe this part):
In 2008, his mother again wounded herself with her own gun. Weakened by the shooting, she died later that year.
Seriously? She does this twice?! And she worked in law enforcement. You’d think this would be it for McAbee and guns. There’s no way he can look at one and say, “Hey, this is a good thing, more people ought to have these…” Except he does.
McAbee’s attitude about guns was unchanged: “Don’t blame the tool.”
Don’t blame the tool. Indeed.
MacAbee was hired three years ago at his present church, which is in a low-income neighborhood where gun crimes and celebratory gunfire is not uncommon. The day after Obama was re-elected, he bought an AR-15 assault rifle for nearly $1,000. He noted: “If the thugs are going to have one, I’m going to have one too.” If he insists on referring to people in his neighborhood as thugs, people who need the kind of help and life his church can offer, he might as well be armed. And apparently he is.
On occasion, the article notes, McAbee wears two guns to church — the .40 on his hip and the .380 in the ankle holster. His wife also carries a concealed gun. Neither has a safety on the guns they carry, and they like to keep a bullet chambered.
People think I’m a gun nut and gun crazy, but I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I believe the Bible teaches peace. But that doesn’t mean I should let them hurt me.
That’s like saying: “I believe the Bible teaches peace. But I don’t actually believe in trying it for myself.”
Imagine if Jesus had said, “My way is peace, and how dare you lay a finger on me, Pilate! I’m locked and loaded, baby!”
I invite you to read the rest of the story and draw your own conclusions.There’s been obviously tons of talk about guns of late, beginning with the Newtown tragedy and recent attempts at gun legislation. There are differing perspectives as to what the second amendment should mean today (or even meant originally).
Personally, I am amazed that someone who spent part of his adult life in prison and lost his own mother due to guns would have such a perspective. My own sense is that a ‘pistol-packing pastor’ is an oxymoron, and such an example doesn’t teach people anything about trusting in God, or about the way of Christ.
Came across this selection from In Memoriam A.H.H., by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Terrific stuff – if you’ve never read the entire poem – it’s worth it. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria, and considered by many among the greatest poems of the 19th century. Guess it’s poetry week around here.
It is a requiem for the poet’s Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna in 1833. Because it was written over a period of 17 years, its meditation on the search for hope after great loss touches upon many of the most important and deeply-felt concerns of Victorian society. It contains some of Tennyson’s most accomplished lyrical work, and is an unusually sustained exercise in lyric verse. It is widely considered to be one of the great poems of the 19th century.
Oh yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill, To pangs of nature, sins of will, Defects of doubt, and taints of blood; That nothing walks with aimless feet, That not one life shall be destroyed, Or cast as rubble to the void, When God has made the pile complete.
Behold, we know not anything, I can but trust that good shall fall. At last –far off– at last, to all, And every winter change to spring The wish, that of the living whole, No life may fail beyond the grave, Derives it not from what we have, The likest God within the soul?
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope And gather dust and chaff, and call, To what I feel is Lord of all, And faintly trust the larger hope.
I was curious about this, so I checked it out. Perhaps my favorite line was the following:
“Tech-savvy mega-churches may have Twitter missionaries, and Calvinist cuties may post viral videos about how Jesus worship isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, but that doesn’t change the facts: the free flow of information is really, really bad for the product they are selling.”
I get it. There are many approaches to religious faith that seek to maintain a following through controlling what information is accessible (and acceptable) to its adherents. I recall a church expressly forbidding its members from reading books by a certain author. Not just: we disagree with that theological approach, but: “If you want to be a member here you will NOT read those books.” The article states: “Such defenses worked beautifully during humanity’s infancy. But they weren’t really designed for the current information age.” Precisely.
To me, such an approach to faith and to God is getting it backward, and perhaps its for the best if these narrow religious approaches do not survive the internet.
After all, when did telling a group of people not to do something prevent everyone from doing it? It’s a losing approach from the start, particularly in today’s info-accessible age.
The article goes on to note:
“A traditional religion, one built on “right belief,” requires a closed information system. That is why the Catholic Church put an official seal of approval on some ancient texts and banned or burned others. It is why some Bible-believing Christians are forbidden to marry nonbelievers. It is why Quiverfull moms home school their kids from carefully screened text books.” (This really does happen!)
Per my recent post on Harvey Cox’s book The Future of Faith, I think there is a shift in religious circles away from exclusive focus on “right belief”, particularly of the closed-system sort, toward a faith that embraces mystery, and seeks to engage one’s life in all of its facets (spiritual, emotional, physical; work, play, relationships; art, nature, beauty). Less and less folks are content to be told: “You have to believe this, and you cannot read this.”
I hope the Internet does as the author of this article suggests: kills such approaches. Perhaps they’ve been allowed to thrive for too long as it is.
My own sense is not that religion will not survive the internet, but the converse: religion will thrive in the age of the Internet. A healthy approach to religion embraces the free flow of ideas. This is exactly the idea behind my book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God. That our faith grows when exposed to a diverse set of ideas and approaches, and that when we don’t engage other religious and philosophical approaches, it stagnates, closes in on itself, and eventually goes on life-support. The faith life of many is being given new life as the Internet age opens up new vistas of spiritual perspectives and practices. Additionally, through online connections many new relationships are allowed to begin and flourish as people find willing conversation partners and co-collaborators.
The Salon article goes on to praise the wonders of science (who am I to argue?), but goes further than I would in declaring that science and a materialist worldview are as sufficient as, or perhaps superior to, any religious approach. I certainly wouldn’t go that far, though I sympathize with the desire to see humanity move toward a more open, inquiring approach to life, one that doesn’t see differing ideas as competitors as much as different lenses through which to look, and through which one might see something one hadn’t noticed before.
Does the Internet spell the end of faith? Maybe for a few (like those who aren’t allowed to use it). But for myself and many others, it is a resource that allows us to engage God and each other at new levels.
Every once in awhile I run across a book that keeps me up late and has me excited to wake up in the morning. Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith is one such book.
In the first chapter he notes that contrary to earlier predictions, faith and religion are as vibrant as ever. But things are shifting. People are turning to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next. “The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institution and beliefs.” In short, Cox claims that we are moving from an era of ‘belief’ to an era of ‘faith.’ But aren’t belief and faith the same thing, you ask? No, and understanding the difference is vital, not only for one’s own spiritual journey, but for grasping the undercurrents of the larger shifts in the world of spirituality.
An excerpt from Chapter One:
It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure. It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”
Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term in everyday speech to express a degree of uncertainty. “I don’t really know about that,” we say, “but I believe it may be so.” Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live. Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two.
The Spanish writer Migual Unamuno (1864-1936) dramatizes the radical dissimilarity of faith and belief in his short story “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” in which a young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son does not answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”
The priest in Unamuno’s story recognized the difference between faith and belief. He knew that prayer, like faith, is more primordial than belief. He might have engaged the son who wanted to pray but did not believe in God in a theological squabble. He could have hauled out the frayed old “proofs” for the existence of God, whereupon the young man might have quoted the equally jaded arguments against the proofs. Both probably knew that such arguments go nowhere. The French writer Simone Weil (1909-43) also knew. In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.” Weil’s words sound paradoxical, but in the course of her short and painful life—she died at thirty-four—she learned that love and faith are both more primal than beliefs.
Debates about the existence of God or the gods were raging in Plato’s time, twenty-five hundred years ago. Remarkable, they still rage on today, as a recent spate of books rehearsing the routine arguments for and against the existence of God demonstrates. By their nature these quarrels are about beliefs and can never be finally settled. But faith, which is more closely related to awe, love, and wonder, arose long before Plato, among our most primitive Homo sapiens forebears. Plato engaged in disputes about beliefs, not about faith.
Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds. As with church buildings, from clapboard chapels to Gothic cathedrals, creeds are symbols by which Christians have at times sought to represent their faith. But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.
The nearly two thousand years of Christian history can be divided into three uneven periods. The first might be called the “Age of Faith.” It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated. During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.
The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.” Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally. Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him. Thus, even during that early Age of Faith the tension between faith and belief was already foreshadowed.
Then, during the closing years of the third century, something more ominous occurred. An elite class—soon to become a clerical class—began to take shape, and ecclesial specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs. Still, however, these varied widely from place to place, and as the fourth century began there was still no single creed. The scattered congregations were united by a common Spirit. A wide range of different theologies thrived. The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire. He decreed that the formerly outlawed new religion of the Galilean should now be legal, but he continued to reverence the sun god Helios alongside Jesus.
Constantine also imposed a muscular leadership over the churches, appointing and dismissing bishops, paying salaries, funding buildings, and distributing largesse. He and not the pope was the real head of the church. Whatever his motives, Constantine’s policies and those of his successors crowned Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The emperors undoubtedly hoped this strategy would shore up their crumbling dominion, from which the old gods seemed to have fled. The tactic, however, did not save the empire from collapse. But for Christianity it proved to be a disaster: its enthronement actually degraded it. From an energetic movement of faith it coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs, thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries to come.
The ancient corporate merger triggered a titanic makeover. The empire became “Christian,” and Christianity became imperial. Thousands of people scurried to join a church they had previously despised, but now bore the emperor’s seal of approval. Bishops assumed quasi-imperial powers and began living like imperial elites. During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and reason became heresy.
…Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation did much to alter the underlying foundations of the Age of Belief… The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century.
Still, to think of this long middle ear as a nothing but a dark age is misleading. As we have seen, throughout those fifteen centuries Christian movements and personalities continued to live by faith and according to the Spirit. Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his Kingdom their motivating drive. [I cut a fair bit of this and the preceding paragraph for the sake of brevity.]
Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story. Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster that it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are sharking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined.
So, can we make a distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?
The book, as best I can tell (I’m into Chapter Four), dives further into this delineation, into what got us to where we’ve been, and what might move us forward into the future.
Terrific stuff, and as I read it, it seems to make a decent amount of sense. And perhaps more pertinent, it seems to connect with what we find in the text: Jesus himself and the earliest believers, it seems, were not motivated by assent to a list of beliefs, but rather a deep-seated and profound faith that God was doing something new and his kingdom was breaking into the world in unprecedented ways.
I find that for some time perhaps I’ve been losing faith in belief, even as my faith continues to grow in new and exciting ways. It is encouraging to consider this larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world, which, despite our best efforts to constrain it, continues to “blow wherever it will.”
The real reason ‘spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out A guest post by Robert Kroese
Robert Kroese is the author of Mercury Falls, Mercury Rises, and many other engaging apocalyptic adventures! This post was originally published on his blog at robertkroese.com, and was a thoughtful response to Alan Miller’s post.
Recently I ran across a blog post with the title My Take: “I’m spiritual but not religious” is a cop-out. I read the post with interest because I’ve often thought this very thing: that claiming to be “spiritual” isn’t an answer to a question about one’s religious beliefs, but rather a way to avoid the question while sounding like one has put some thought into it.
Sadly, the post almost immediately devolves into unverifiable, baseless generalizations. For example:
Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
Whoa, what now? That’s a bold statement. And it doesn’t appear at the end of a chain of rigorous reasoning or citation of studies about beliefs; it’s just thrown out there, as if it’s a brute fact of reality. The author follows this up with all manner of other vague and unsupported statements, somehow managing in an 800-word blog post to attack moral relativism, a culture centered on “feelings,” and megachurches — and going on to defend “old fashioned” values and the King James Bible (which has done all right for 400 years without his support, thank you very much).
Hidden in that rhetorical avalanche are two short paragraphs that I think actually come close to dealing with the matter at hand:
The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.
What is it, this “spiritual” identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?
The problem, as these paragraphs indicate, isn’t that “spiritual but not religious” is a bad answer to the question “what are your religious beliefs?” (as Miller seems to argue in the rest of the post) but rather that it’s a non-answer.
Imagine a group of plane crash survivors stranded on an island, debating the best way to get off the island. Some argue that the best way is to build a signal fire. Others argue that they should try to build a raft. Still others say that trying to get off the island is a waste of time; that they should focus their efforts on basic survival. Finally one person pipes up with, “Well, I don’t agree with any of you, but I definitely think we’re on an island.”
The man isn’t wrong, but his answer doesn’t get them anywhere. It doesn’t add anything to the discussion. It’s just an acknowledgement of the predicament. And worse, it’s an answer that seems calculated to put the speaker above or outside of the arena of discussion: “Have your petty disagreements amongst yourself; meanwhile I will sit here and contemplate the ocean surrounding us.”
Let me clarify that I’m not saying that the “spiritual but not religious” person is being intentionally smug or provocative, but that this is how is answer is going to be received by people who have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out a way off the island. It could be that he has already considered and rejected as wanting all possible attempts to get off the island and possesses some knowledge about the island that the other survivors aren’t privy to. But if so, then he’s doing a disservice to the other survivors by not sharing his knowledge. And if not, then he’s just wasting their time by pointing out the obvious.
The “spiritual but not religious” label points to three possibilities, as far as I can see:
1. The person has done a thorough study of the world’s religions, found them wanting, and took a different path.
2. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs but has been blessed with a mystical understanding that allows him or her to see the shortcomings of any “man-made” religion, and took a different path.
3. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs, has no real wisdom to offer, and is parroting an answer that he or she has heard various celebrities use in interviews with some success.
Without lapsing into pure cynicism, I’ll point out that (1) requires a lot of work, and (2) requires that the person be able to see a reality that is evidently hidden to most of the world’s traditional religious believers, whereas (3) requires only pure ignorance, which is in bountiful supply on this planet.
Of course, answering a question about religious beliefs by saying “I’m a Baptist,” “I’m Jewish,” or “I’m an atheist,” isn’t any more inherently difficult than saying “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In other words, there are lazy and ignorant Baptists, Jews and atheists as well as lazy and ignorant “spiritual-but-not-religious” people. Some Baptists have thought long and hard about what they believe and why. Others are just parroting answers they learned in Sunday school. But to their credit, at least they are answering the question.
Further, it seems odd to me that “spiritual but not religious” is such a common answer to the question about one’s religious beliefs. If you really want me to believe that you’ve made a deliberate choice to walk the road less traveled, then you might try giving a different answer to a question about your religious beliefs than that given by, say, Lady Gaga. Otherwise, aren’t you just a Gagaist? What’s the difference between you and every other “spiritual but not religious” person? If there is a difference, then tell me what it is. If there isn’t, then you’re just a member of another vaguely defined religion.
If you are asked about your religious and you don’t really have any religious beliefs, I suggest saying, “I don’t really have any religious beliefs.” If you have some vague belief that people have souls and that there are bad consequences to immoral behavior, say that. If you think that we’re all part of the Great Mystical Oneness, then say that. Saying that you’re “spiritual” doesn’t communicate anything. And saying that you’re “not religious” only communicates that while you may not know what the answer is, you suspect that most of the answers other people have come up with are wrong, or at least deficient.
You might have some really interesting thoughts about God, souls, sin, redemption, justice, forgiveness, love, purpose and oneness. But if you start out by saying that you’re “spiritual but not religious,” I’m going to seriously doubt it.