Two books have recently been published that have made much of the moniker “Spiritual but Not Religious.” The idea, often highlighted in studies of religiosity in North America, is that persons find themselves to have spiritual components of their lives but have little desire to participate in so-called institutional religion. These two books, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler-Bass and “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat, seek to understand the recent and steep decline of American religious life. Of course, as the titles suggest, the two offer two very different takes on the statistical data. Butler-Bass seeks to embrace the rise of “Spiritual but Not Religious” by noting the critiques of Church as we have come to understand it. In a way, she indicts the churches of America saying that we have not fully lived into our current realities as a society. Douthat, on the other hand, indicts American culture, saying that these moves away from Church are more akin to heresies.
Both writers, in their own ways, are trying to understand and speak into the emerging realities of religion in America. In fact, these two work with similar sets of data which show that the Institution of the Church in its various forms is now a hurdle to faith rather than a road into a deepening an maturing spirituality. It has been no secret that Mainline Protestantism has declined steadily for decades. Yet, now into the second decade of the 21st century, even so-called the mega-churches of evangelicalism are seeing a drop in attendance and affinity. At the same time, the statistical category of “Nones”- those who do not identify with any institutional category- has doubled in just 10 years.
I must admit that I find myself drawn to the work of both Butler-Bass and Douthat. At the same time I am critical of both. First, I appreciate the exhortation to pay attention to the religious landscape data. I also find Douthat’s description of communal testing of inward revelation significant and right on. Yet, I have one thing to say in response to both writers and to American “Nones”- There is no such thing as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”
It may sound overly critical and limiting to some, but I am not a fan of the idea at all. In fact, the idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s religious practices can be distinguished and even dichotomized is a product of Modernity. To take Douthat’s language, it is the prime heresy of the American church. Rather, much of christian history has made pretty clear that what we DO is intrinsic to who we ARE and what we BELIEVE.
Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that we most often live ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of behaving. The modern way of thinking has so privileged the mind that we have completely overlooked how we are shaped by the things we say and do. It simply seems too coercive or authoritarian to say that our actions can somehow trump the heights of our reasoning capacities. It is just too much hocus-pocus to think that our sub or pre-conscious minds can be shaped and modeled without our conscious awareness.
Of course, I am saying this as a white male church bureaucrat, and many readers will say that I am rejecting “Spiritual not Religious” from a position of power or influence. To be sure, I am not saying that the institutional church has the market on spirituality. The last think I am interested in is propping up another institution for its own sake. There is obviously enough to be changed or excised from the ways we have created “Church.” Rather, I am critiquing a naive characterization of religion in modern times.
Two myths of religion are prevalent in our time- one from the perspective of those within a religious tradition already and the second from those who are running away from the institution. The first is exemplified by the evangelical mantra “I am not religious, I just love Jesus.” The recent viral video, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, struck this chord and resonated with many church goers. The second perspective takes up a different perspective. From this point of view religion is not so much antiquated or irrelevant rituals but is an institutional hurdle to true spiritual connection. Here, the modern skepticism of powers and structures defines the ways we view any institution, including organized religion.
These two perspectives have similar problems. First, they privilege the individual to the point of a naive solipsism. That is to say that both forms of Spiritual but Not Religious collapse what is spiritual into the lowest common denominator- the individual. Thus, the individual becomes the sole arbiter of what it means to have a spiritual experience. “I have heard God and I know it, and I do not need another to tell me anything about it.” Or, more creatively, “I pick and choose the religious ideas from a variety of traditions so that they match my own preconceived ideas of what the world is and who I am within it.” Again, both of these positions assume that spirituality or faith is about ideas or concepts. What is more, they reject any claim other persons or communities might place on us by taking part fully in a traditioned community. It is easier to cherry pick what already makes sense without embodying the fullness of anyone religion. The common element in either case is that the individual is a kind of blank slate, untouched by religious ideas and practices and can thus better navigate the mystical side of life alone.
From this assessment we can see one other modern fallacy emerge- namely that what is spiritual is interior to the individual and what is religious is external. Again, we have the ideas/institutional and individual/communal dichotomies at work. But on top of this binaries the modern imaginary has assumed that what is “spiritual” is more emotional in nature and thus can only be a part of the individual person. This clearly overlooks the group emotivism, or effervescence that happens in corporate settings or in shared experiences. The result is an isolated sense of what it means to have a connection to some transcendent world, one that is ultimately lonely and without companionship to help understand and give language to what has been experienced.
The Christian tradition has often challenged such thin and individualistic conceptions of spirituality. The very incarnation of Jesus flies in the face of any kind of gnostic sensibility that our spiritual selves can be divorced from our bodies. In all the gospel narratives, healing and transformation comes through material actions- spit and mud applied to blind eyes, jugs of water transformed into good wine, and decades of infirmity over come with a touch. What is more, the Church has always tested individual experiences within the corporate understanding- Peter’s visions on the rooftop and experiences of the Spirit at Cornelius’ house, and Saul’s ecstatic vision of Christ on the road given meaning through the ministry of Ananias. In effect, there are very few times, if any, when someone has stepped up and said emphatically “God told me…”. In fact, for much of our history, such a statement of hubris and individualism was a sure way to be rebuked or denounced all together.
All of this is to say that faith and spirituality, at least from the Christian perspective, has been embodied, communal, and practiced. There is no distinction between outer and inner, and in fact the Christian logic seems to say that the interior work we do has dramatic material implications. What is more, faith is not something that happens in isolation. Hence no one person is an island, for it is in community that I learn the language to understand my experiences and have the occasion to test the inner movements of the Spirit. Lastly, the Christian logic has often revealed that the things we do matter. Whether it is in the sacraments, wherein actions and words effect transformation in the bread and wine or the waters of baptism, or that our way of living reflects our convictions and beliefs, the Christian tradition has equally balanced ethics and faith, doing and believing.
To be sure, the “Spiritual but Not Relgious” nomenclature is a cultural phenomenon. Douthat is right, however, when he uses the vocabulary of heresy, for this cultural phenomenon is making inroads into the Christian tradition. When Christians incorporate the idea into the ways of discipleship, the end result is an the incorporation of distinctly non-Christian concepts of individuality and interiority that are foreign to the faith. At the same time, Butler-Bass is right that religious “Nones” have something to teach us as members of the Body of Christ. These statistical categories reveal to us that we have failed. The cultural around us is increasingly saying that our ways of infighting, our power plays within the wider culture, and our hypocritical morality are enough to drive even the most sympathetic seeker away. We have much to learn from the data, yet we also have much to say to culture that encourages the fallacy of the “Spiritual but not Religious” logic.