It is amazing how many Christians I know fall into the category of being ‘Religious But Not Spiritual’ (RBNS). Perhaps this is not surprising. 21st Century Western Christians often admit to a dryness of faith: we come to church, tick all the religious boxes, but don’t feel spiritually nourished. We don’t feel connected to God. We don’t feel spiritually alive – at least not when we are doing Christian activities. As a result, like parched sheep in the desert, we go looking for the water elsewhere – like Yoga.
This reality of the rise of RBNS should ring some alarm bells for us, considering the simultaneous rise in popularity outside the Church of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR).
In the last three years the notion of SBNR has caught the attention of sociologists and religious writers. Seven percent of all Americans describe themselves as SBNR (a higher percentage than Atheists, Episcopalians or Jews) and this seems to be a growing trend. Some SBNRs go as far as to argue that religion is an obstacle to spirituality. [Link] In Australia the percentages of SPNR are much higher. In the 2011 Australian census, 64% ticked one of the Christian denominations as their religion. However, McCrindle Research has demonstrated that one-third of the 64% refine their answer as: “spirituality more than religion.” [Link]
The New York Times and the Huffington Post have both run a series of articles on SBNR, and in most cases, critiqued the concept as lacking substance, being un-profound, and self-centered.
Chicago based Congregational minister Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a popular essay in the Huffington Post called ‘Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me’ [Link] which sardonically cut to the bone of how cliched and un-insightful people are who describe themselves that way. The popularity of the essay caused her to expand it into a book: ‘When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough’ (Jericho 2013). Daniel “dreads” the predictable conversations she has with these people: they think they are so rebellious against the status quo, and unique in finding God in the sunset.
‘Spirituality,’ Daniels argues, fits too easily with individualism, hedonism and complacency. In an attempt to woo back the SBNRs, she makes the case for organised religion: “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 into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
Daniel’s line of argument has many supporters. Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin S.J., for example, bemoans the fashionable status of ’spiritual’ and the unfashionable status of ‘religious.’ [Link] While he knows full well the reasons people might stay away from organised religion (bigotry and arcane rules) it is unfair to overlook the many positives – traditions of love, forgiveness, charity, and social change led by religious leaders such as Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce.
According to Martin, the great problem with SBNR is that it assumes that faith is just between you and God. There is no one else who can speak into your situation or to challenge you if you go off track: “Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the centre of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.” Religious community corrects our naive individualism: God communicates through the group as well as the individual. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic order, the Paulist Fathers, sums it up by saying that religion enables one to “correct and connect.”
Of course, I do want to affirm that spirituality is good. Rabbi Scott Perlo writes, “Spirituality is an individual’s direct, personal connection to God … It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spirituality makes us feel alive.” [Link]
But Perlo also points out that spirituality is me-focused, it ignores bonds between people, and it does not know that God’s voice can be heard when spread over community and time. Spirituality lets go of the past, it might be smart but it is not wise: “Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.” Religion, on the other hand, is thick. Religion has generations of learning and it is wise. Perhaps, religion is a little too thick, such that it “smothers spontaneity and individuality” and “struggles to see people as different from one another.”
Thus Rabbi Perlo and Rev. Martin argues that we need to be spiritual and religious. Martin writes: “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centred complacency divorced from the wisdom of community.” Religion and spirituality are opposites on the same plane, and our goal should be to hold the two in tension.
Christian spirituality, therefore, cannot be fully understood unless one is connected to a Christian “religious” community which shares common beliefs and disciplines. Church community is hard, but it is in the friction of inter-personal tensions that growth occurs. Presbyterian writer Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that: “in community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.” [Link] You might even hate each other, but through the processing of that hate, spirituality deepens. The Apostle Paul calls the Church a Body, where there are many parts, and no part is more important than the other. Reyes-Chow argues that: “as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming.”
Marlise Karlin, founder of the Simplicity of Stillness Method, challenges the case for ‘spiritual’ needing ‘religious’: “Being accountable to a community doesn’t necessarily mean they will teach you reverence for humanity. How often have groups of people stood together, with a false sense of morality on their side, purely by the numbers who gathered?” [Link]
Karlin believes ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ people have equal access to selflessness and grace as long as they have an experience of infinite love. She believes she can guide people into the state of peace using her Stillness Method, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Therefore, she challenges Rev. James Martin and the advocates for the cause of religion, to stop being divisive and to focus on the source of truth in our hearts where we will find peace and inclusivity.
The fundamental problem I have with Karlin is her basic premise that our spiritual goal should be inner peace and inter-personal peace. While those goals are noble, they are not everything. She sidesteps, for example, the need for a moral compass, or the pursuit of justice. Like most 21st Century Western advocates of SBNR, she fails to consider that true, life-transformative spirituality might involve suffering and self-sacrifice. And, the real irony is that she argues that religious teachers like James Martin should not promote division by encouraging inter-personal and inter-institutaional correction – which is itself a corrective suggestion.
Religion needs spirituality: the Christian faith needs to be spiritually alive. So if you are a person who rolls your eyes at the thought of those pathetic Postmodern Secular SBNRs, you might want to pull the plank out of your own eye for being RBNS. The risk is you might just give up the ‘Religion’ and settle with being SBNR yourself.
A challenge I want to put to my own church, Merri Creek Anglican, is to be a Church that “Nourishes Spiritual Seekers” – and that we begin with ourselves.
For more on this theme, listen to a recent sermon I gave on Colossians 2:16-19 which asks, “Does God care if I do Yoga?”.