The folks who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” have been around for a long time and aren’t going away anytime soon. This tribe (subset of the religiously unaffiliated “nones” and now in proud possession of their own acronym, SBNR) is growing despite the concern, dismissiveness, snark and borderline vitriolic commentary often lobbed in their direction from the more religiously entrenched – one particularly vexed Huffington Post blog-rant by pastor Lillian Daniel evolved into an entire book dedicated to further expression of her argument, “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. Some push-back and other less defensive voices are starting to speak out in this cultural debate. Patheos’ “NakedPastor” blogger David Hayward – self-styled “graffiti artist on the walls of religion” – effectively took Rev. Daniel to task in his August 2013 post. But most encouraging to me – and the launching pad point of this essay – has been the emergent view most recently articulated by Krista Tippett, creator and host of the public radio production, On Being. In an October 2013 radio interview on The Take-Away with John Hockenberry, during the show’s week-long series “Young Nation Under God?”, Tippett clearly framed the growth of the SBNR contingent as a source of renewal for America’s religious traditions. I repeat – “a source of renewal.” Let’s sit on the bench with that for a spell.
“This spirituality of the Millennials is not the new age, superficial spirituality of the 80s and 90s. This is also the generation that has a huge service orientation. This is the generation that has given us social entrepreneurialism. Even as they detach from institutional affiliation, I find a lot of these people who describe themselves as non-religious or non-affiliated as incredibly ethically engaged, spiritually curious, and even theologically curious.” ~ Krista Tippett
As a seminary student (of the late mid-life variety), I have the often uncomfortable pleasure of grappling on a regular basis with what all of this means – spirituality, religion, faith – and I’m discovering that the more I learn, the more unsettled my certainties become. I have been both intrigued and flummoxed by the concern over the rise of the SBNR group for some time – aren’t the words “spiritual” and “religious” synonymous terms? Religion scholar Robert C. Fuller wrote his own exploration of the SBNR cultural trend back in 2001 that reveals some of the difficulty with the premise of the current debate. Fuller sees the oppositional framing of the ‘spiritual versus religious’ as a product of our evolved cultural distinctions between private and public regarding the practice of religion – distinctions that did not exist prior to the 20th century. The spiritual has come to be identified with private expressions of faith; religion as the institutional expression associated with a fixed set of belief claims. I believe this is a false dichotomy that has not only limited our individual understanding of both spirituality and religion but has damaged our cultural ability to function well religiously. I think that it’s time for a reframing of religion – and what it means to be religious. I want to know: Can we cultivate a religious perspective that unifies all of our disparate spiritual selves? Is it possible to loosen the grip on our certainties and imagine religion differently?
There were times in my own life when I was a card-carrying member of the SBNR tribe, though my membership was of the revolving door variety. Despite all my doubts and disagreements with the Church proper (in my case, Protestantism as practiced by the United Methodists), I would find myself eventually gravitating back to religious community following each escape away, to give it just one more try (I have wondered – albeit in moments of great despair – if this pattern is not unlike that of the chronically institutionalized criminal who can’t make it on the outside – prison life is all they know). Paradoxically, my sabbaticals away from church life always led me back to the same inescapable place – the longing to be in spiritual community and relationship with others. After many go-rounds through the revolving door, I finally chose to exit at a different point and landed in a new spiritual home, the faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism, arguably the most liberal and least traditionally religious of all “organized” religions. Unitarian Universalism (UU or UUism) could be described as a bold experiment in doing religion differently – and it is through the lens of this pluralistic, non-creedal faith that I find a reframing of religion that gives me hope.
Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) president, the Rev. Peter Morales, has written and preached extensively on his definition – his vision – of a “religion beyond belief”. Morales views the equating of religion with a fixed set of beliefs as the “enemy of religion.”
“The problem with asking what someone believes is that it is the wrong question. True religion is about what we love, not about what we think. True religion is about what you and I hold sacred. The practice of true religion is faithfulness to what we love.
The key religious questions you and I must answer are these: What do we love so much that we are moved to tears? What gives us unspeakable joy? What brings us peace beyond understanding? What do we love so much that it calls us to action? What do we care about so deeply that we willingly, joyfully, devote our lives to it?” ~ Peter Morales
I am moved by this reframing; but while Morales’s vision provides a compelling contrast to doctrine/dogma-oriented religious systems, it seems to create yet another troubling dichotomy, this time between what we think (believe) and what we love. I’m not sure that it’s possible to escape belief systems; I do think it’s possible to hold our beliefs more lightly. This is really what Morales is challenging us to do, to focus our religion beyond our beliefs. In this regard I think that Morales is speaking very much to his own UU tradition, for UUism is not exempt from the growing exodus of the SBNR tribe – our particular religious cultural tendency toward intellectualization (or “idolization of the mind” as I call it) can be the cause of spiritual drought in many of our congregations. I find this sadly ironic – the religion that holds great promise for reframing what religion means in our time often falls short on the spiritual front.
This is the message I hear from the SBNR folks: Religion defined as a set of rigid belief claims is not working for us. Nor are we interested in an isolated, self-serving, navel-gazing spirituality. Spirituality not grounded in service to something outside ourselves in this interdependent web of life isn’t worth the cellophane it’s packaged in. We want meaning and depth. We want to wrestle with the hard questions. We want to engage with the world and effect its healing. We want community – we’ll even accept something labeled as religious community, provided it’s rooted in something deeper and more transformative than simple prescriptions of belief. We are willing to create new forms of communal religious living. We want support and grounding to grow spiritually and opportunities to do service in the world. We want the opportunity to know God – or not know God – on our own terms, grounded in our own life experience. We want to experience transcendence and be transformed. We want to grow in our capacity for compassion, joy and love.
I confess – this is not a scientific statistical compilation of all SBNR desires. While it might be a fairly accurate reflection for some, it is in essence an expression of my own past and present spiritual and religious longings. Spirituality is an individual process and experience – religion (I believe) is the communal aspect and expression of a lived spirituality. They are two sides of the same proverbial coin. We are relational beings; our individual spirits require community to grow and thrive. Can one possess a truly enlivened spirituality minus some form of religious commitment and expression in community? Can true religion exist minus a commitment to the cultivation of the spirituality of its people? From my perspective, the growth of the SBNR tribe is a call for a renewal of religious imagination in our time. Question is . . . are we listening?