'Spiritual but not religious' - how smug is that?

A pastor sparks an internet frenzy by complaining about those who insist they are "spriritual but not religious." Here's what they are missing, and what the churched are failing to understand.

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North Sound Church in Edmonds

A pastor sparks an internet frenzy by complaining about those who insist they are "spriritual but not religious." Here's what they are missing, and what the churched are failing to understand.

My friend Lillian Daniel, a pastor in Illinois, recently sparked an Internet viral frenzy with a snarky piece challenging the popular formulation “spiritual but not religious.”

Here’s some of what she had to say about the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) mantra:

On airplanes I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people are always finding God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails, and ... did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature.

"Lillian," said I, "you sound pissed." Well, crowded airplanes and obnoxious seatmates will do that to you. She continues:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now ... Can I spend my time talking with someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding a hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

As I said, a bit snarky. But with some important points worth making. Let’s note four.

One, the SBNRs are as capable of smugness and arrogance as anyone else. Maybe more so because self-made religions, by definition, admit of no norms beyond personal preference or “what works for me.”

Two, being “in community” with others — even participating in (horrors!) an institution — while sometimes a pain in the butt, does have upsides. We do gain both the correction and the inspiration of others.

Three, it probably is true that SBNR dovetails all too easily with the reigning, often self-centered, ethos of American culture. Perhaps it once was daring, but no longer. “Do what seems right to you” is, alas, our stock-in-trade.

Four, there is richness in ancient spiritual traditions and practices that may surprise and benefit the genuine spiritual seeker. Sometimes churches, synagogues and temples don’t do an especially good job of helping people access the ancient wisdom, but it is there.

It's also true that a couple questions or criticisms of Miz Lillian’s excellent but testy comments may be in order. Here are two:

One, a fair number of people have migrated to SBNR because so many religious people, Christians in particular, seem awfully unchristian. Its tough to see much Jesus in the gun-toting, Koran-burning, gay-hating “Christians” who, though not the majority, certainly make up a highly visible minority.

Two, while I also find it to be a bore to be cornered by the SBNR person who smugly explains to me everything that is wrong with “institutional religion,” at least sometimes SBNR is a way of saying something different. Like, “I’m hungry, I’m searching, let’s talk.” It isn’t always a smug or self-satisfied statement. It may be just the opposite.

These days lots of people, for good reasons and not so good ones, are turned off by institutions, perhaps religious institutions in particular. I get that. And I regret it.

Institutions do often fail us by becoming self-serving (though religious institutions have no corner on that). But institutions also draw us into community and relationship, put us in touch with traditions and purposes larger than ourselves, and help us to do with others things we can't do alone. They provide continuity in a rapidly changing world. They can be a source of strength, funding acts of real courage.

We’re in danger of overlooking the positives of older traditions and institutions — or if you prefer the softer word, “communities.” One day we may wake up to discover we’ve lost something of value.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.