There are a couple of writings going around by Lillian Daniels, a successful UCC pastor in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago. The writings are in a well-worn genre. Depending on your perspective, that genre is either the genre of criticizing the shallowness of spiritual-but-not-religious people, or of ministers complaining about the tiresome task of talking to people who think differently about religion than they do. You can read the short version here and the long version here. A brief excerpt, to get the feel for what Rev. Daniels says:
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.
In some ways, I find myself in agreement with Rev. Daniels. Spirituality and the life of God is tied up in the experience of a community. “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another,” as Proverbs 27 puts it, and this can often happen uniquely and powerfully within a community. That is definitely one of the reasons why I stick it out with a community of faith; I find some of the most powerful and probing moments for growth in my spiritual life have come, not from personal reading or devotion, but from the wonderfully directed and often scalpel-sharp questioning of the atheist who comes to church with his wife. I wish more Christian communities had room to do this community thing better, honestly.
But her tone throughout the articles seems thoroughly…well, I find it disconcerting. It reads very much like the gentleman on the plane is a bother or a nuisance; it reads as though Rev. Daniels, a member of the religious elite, is too advanced to be bothered by such simpletons, especially if they’re uninterested in the religious community. This may not be intended or even felt by Rev. Daniels, but the tone sort of seeps through regardless.
I can’t help but feel that the tone is symptomatic of a broader dearth of religious AND spiritual imagination. Imagine another scene: you, a minister of Christ, are on a flight from Boston to Chicago. The person next to you asks what you do, and when you say you’re a minister, they say they are spiritual but not religious.
Instead of getting peeved and asking for a change of seats, consider this: there in the plane, in the space of those two or three cramped narrow seats, a little space of the kingdom of God has been carved out for you. As you crest the vault of heaven, you have actually landed precisely where “real human community” has a chance to form and develop, even if only for the duration of a journey between Boston and Chicago. Indeed, this encounter with another human being is more than just an inconvenience on the way to your destination. Instead, it is an opportunity to attempt a deep encounter with the Image of Christ that resides at the core of the spiritual-but-not-religious person in front of you.
I confess to feeling the same way Rev. Daniels feels, on many occasions. Especially if I’m tired, the words of the spiritual-but-not-religious person can sound like an attack. When someone confesses a life spent in abusive congregations, the feeling that somehow they are blaming you for those problems can be strong. But if you approach the encounter differently — as God setting out a chance to experience nascent human community where the best fruits of religion can blossom, then there is no problem with this encounter. What is happening in the plane is exactly what Rev. Daniels claims to want: a space where another human being calls you on stuff. In fact, the person on the plane, just by saying they are spiritual-but-not-religious, just did.
The next time this happens to me, I’m resolved: I’m going to respond differently. I’m not going to smile and nod and say I understand, while privately seething. Instead, I’m going to ask them what their spirituality is like. I’m going to share my own spiritual experiences of labyrinth-walking privately, and my experiences of worship together in a community as an experience of spiritual awakening and healing. I’m going to say that one reason I like church is because I have a community of spiritual people around me helping me on my spiritual life. And I’m not going to say everything; I’m going to listen too. When that spiritual-but-not-religious person speaks, I am going to strain and stretch and yearn to hear the voice of God speaking through them, as the image of God in them strains and stretches and yearns to hear me. And maybe in that community of believers summoned into being from Boston to Chicago, God will still be speaking, and speaking boldly, and speaking beautifully.