Thursday, June 11, 2009

No More Second Hand God

People at parties and on airplanes often ask me what I do for a living. I’ve never been ashamed of being a church pastor, but it’s sometimes more trouble explaining than it's worth. It goes something like this - “I’m a pastor of a church. But, it’s not a normal church . . . it’s not very religious, you see . . . yes, I know I don’t look like a pastor, but can you blame me? . . . it’s more like a spiritual community . . . we do some “churchy” things but people aren’t “Christiany” and trying to convert people or anything like that . . . we do yoga and meditations and . . . people think for themselves . . . consider me a spiritual teacher . . . but don’t worry, I’m not about to evangelize you . . . So, what do you do?”

Maybe you can relate to that experience. Maybe millions of people are simultaneously claiming the identity SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious) in order to create conversational shorthand with a built in escape clause. With those four words, you can say something about who you are, what makes you tick and also what you’re not. It’s a meaningful identifier both in what it says and in what it distinguishes. It says, “I’m spiritual but I’m not dogmatic and I’m not going to slip a tract in your bag while you look out the window.”

It’s not that all religious people are insensitive. It’s just that a common experience of religion is pushy and desperate. As George Carlin once said - “Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoes. If it makes you feel better, fine. Just don't ask me to wear your shoes.”

It’s not necessary to define “spiritual but not religious” too closely, because it has a certain resonant ring to it. However a little exploration might help. It seems to be a claim on a broad identity but distinguished from its near relation. You know what it's like to be identified with your ultra religious relatives. You can claim an identity without owning its closely related cousin, like “I’m a Democrat, but I’m not a Socialist” or “I’m a Republican, but I’m not a Libertarian.” There’s nothing wrong with being a Socialist or a Libertarian. It’s just that they don’t necessarily represent what is essential about being Democrat or Republican.

Of course, each of these analogies eventually breaks down like a Yugo in the Congo; but you get the point.

The clarity to the phrase SBNR is still emerging. So this week I compiled a survey for the Founding Contributors of It was a survey about spiritual but not religious language. The responses were extremely insightful. I have now compiled a second survey for the wider community. It is shorter and based on the results of the Founding Contributor survey. I have added some of their preferred phrases to my own language. It should take no longer than 5 minutes to complete. I will report back on the results of both surveys next week.

Please take a few minutes to fill out the anonymous survey and then read on. Click Here for Survey

SBNR represents both a distinction and a discernment. It’s not impartial like “I’m a man and I’m Australian.” It has an edge, and does involve some boundaries. There is an aspect of religion in general (not all religion nor all religious people) that SBNR people are happy to transcend. What is this?

Several studies have made an attempt to find the answer to this question.

Linda Mercadante is Professor of Theology at a Methodist School in Ohio. She has interviewed dozens of people about what they mean by “spiritual but not religious.”

She notes these common responses:

* churches claim to “exclusive truthfulness — that they have a corner on the truth market”;
* churches demand that personal beliefs be abdicated;
* churches demand conformity to a “corporate mentality”;
* joining a church means a loss of personal integrity;
* churches demand commitment “to things that have no meaning”’
* churches demand commitment to disagreeable codes of conduct; and
* churches profess arbitrary or implausible beliefs

Researcher, Robert Wuthnow, offers these sociological reasons for the declining interest in organized religion:

* delayed marriage and increased divorce rates;
* fewer children born later in their parents life;
* less job security, therefore greater financial insecurity, making commitment less likely;
* higher levels of education, which decreases “unquestioned belief”;
* “loosening relationships,” resulting in less community involvement;
* Globalization, producing less homogeneity and greater diversity; and
* the “information explosion,” which creates “broader spiritual horizons and therefore looser religious identification.”

Robert Fuller wrote a book called Spiritual but not Religious. He conducted a survey of 346 people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. The distinction he notes is between personal discovery, on the one hand; and membership, formal rituals and orthodox doctrines on the other.

The word spiritual [has] gradually [come] to be associated with the private realm of thought and expression while the word religious [has come] to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and an adherence to official denominational doctrines [Fuller, 2001, 5].

How do you understand spiritual but not religious language? What is the meaningful distinction for you?

Religion is good and useful for many people, but spirituality reminds you that God is in your bloodstream and all of life is infused with wonder and meaning the way sunlight glistens on water. Religion is one way to name and practice this universal spirit, but it is not essential. Don’t let religion that is implausible, exclusive or irrelevant get in the way of your spiritual awakening.

Let me leave you with a quote from SBNR Prophet, Buckminster Fuller. It’s from his book No More Second Hand God. Maybe his title is another way to summarize the SBNR distinction.

“Not legislative code, not proclamation law, not academic dogma, nor ecclesiastic canon.
Yes, God is a verb, the most active, connoting the vast harmonic reordering of the universe from unleashed chaos of energy. And there is born unheralded a great natural peace, not out of exclusive pseudo-static security but out of including, refining, dynamic balancing.
Naught is lost. Only the false and nonexistent are dispelled.”


Linda Mercadante said...

I posted a comment on the day this post came out and am wondering why it did not appear. L. Mercadante

Ian Lawton said...

Linda, you posted your comment on the SBNR site, and it did appear. There are a bunch of comments about it on the sbnr site