So you’re spiritual, but not religious? “Please, stop boring me,” retorts the Rev. Lillian Daniel. Her Huffington Post blog on the topic went viral in 2011, and now she’s published a new book: When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho Books, 2013). Ms. Daniel is senior minister of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, of Glen Ellyn, Ill.
She spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.
You mentioned in the book that people who are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) like to buttonhole you and tell you their story when they learn that you’re a pastor. What’s that about?
I think in general people want to talk about themselves, and that’s kind of my critique. Often I find that (SBNRs) perceive themselves as being in this brave and bold minority. They seem unaware that they’re in the mainstream of American culture. They want to tell you this shocking news, that they’ve left the church and don’t need it anymore, and how they’ve put together this interesting spiritual life of their own. The point I make in the book is, it’s actually not very interesting. These people have a sense of terminal uniqueness.
Sometimes people want to tell their story, of how they’ve been wounded or injured, and here I’m very compassionate. But usually it’s a story about a church that has no relation to the one I serve. There seems to be this tolerance in the American public square for people to stereotype Christianity in ways that, if they were to for another religion, we would call them bigoted. They’ll say things like, “They’re just after your money, they’re all homophobic, they oppress women.” And you want to say, “Wait a second, my church doesn’t do that.” It’s almost like it’s an acceptable prejudice. I would not debate that there are forms of Christianity that do all the things they are complaining about. But prejudice is when you paint all of Christianity with that brush. So increasingly, I’m saying, “Sorry, but I’m just not going to apologize for a religion I’m not a part of.”
I interviewed a seminary professor, Linda Mercadante, who’d done research on people who call themselves “SBNR.” Most weren’t wounded by the church, as she had expected. Does that mirror your observations?
When I speak on this topic people often accuse me of not being compassionate, and often it’s my fellow mainline clergy in the Protestant world, particularly in the liberal traditions, and I myself am in the liberal Protestant tradition. Their attitude seems to be, “These are wounded people, and if we are just kind and nice and listen to them, they will show up in our pews.” I think that’s been the mainline evangelism project for the last 50 years: “If we’re nice, they will come.” And how’s it working for us?
Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to say, it’s not enough just to listen and affirm these people. At some point we have to make a cogent argument for why religious community matters.
What do people mean when they say they’re “spiritual but not religious”?
This is what I mean: Somebody who feels connected to the divine in some way but does not practice or worship with any community. There are some people who might actually worship in our pews who might say, “Well, I think I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’m not talking about them. In that case, I think what they mean is, “Do not associate me with the type of Christian who is judgmental and narrow-minded. Do not associate me with the nutty pastor who is burning the Quran.” But in general, when other people say they’re SBNRs, I think what they mean is, “I don’t worship anywhere, and I’m kind of proud of that because it implies that I’m a freethinker. I’m not spoon-fed dogma and I don’t look down upon other people who are different from me. Except, of course, people of faith.”
You’re a little snarky. Did you wrestle at all with the tone of your book?
I get called snarky fairly often. I would just put this out there: You don’t hear many male writers who make an argument called snarky. I think there is this assumption that if you are a mainline pastor, you affirm and love everybody. And it is a Christian calling. I mean, I do love everybody. But I reject the notion that you cannot advance an argument, or have a healthy debate. For many who sit in our pews—that’s one thing they love about our churches, that you don’t have to leave your brain on the sidewalk, you can engage it with faith. I also would add that what I’m doing is using humor.
First, I don’t think it’s not enough because you’re going to burn in hell. That’s not my concern. I think God’s in charge of eternity and God probably has it worked out. It’s not a fear-based thing. But I would argue that throughout time and history people grow closer to God by going deeply into a religious tradition. I really don’t mind if your religious tradition is in a mosque. I argue from a Christian perspective because that’s what I know. I do believe there is value in landing somewhere and going deeply, and allowing yourself to be shaped by a tradition that is bigger than you are. I think the danger of creating your own spirituality is that you simply create a God in our own image. That works when your life is going well, but when things fall apart that is not really much of a foundation.
Do you have a comeback to offer United Methodist readers for when someone says, “Oh, I don’t need to go to church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”
One would be, “So I gather that you don’t value community?” They’ll say, “I value community.” Well, community is what separates religion from spirituality. It’s the other people in the room. . . . I hope your United Methodist readers would feel encouraged, when somebody starts criticizing the church—describing a church that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the church of “Open doors, open hearts, open minds,” to sort of push back. What we’ve tended to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry for the church doing that.” We get sort of sheepish about our faith. What I think would be great is to say, “The way you’re talking about Christianity is stereotypical and bigoted and I’m going to challenge you on that.”
Given that a lot of people now call themselves SBNRs, some would argue that instead of scolding them, the church needs to speak to them where they are. We need to affirm the S in SBNR. Your response?
Obviously if somebody is sitting in my pastor’s study telling me they’re SBNR, I’m not scolding them. I’m listening and I’m being kind. I’m also impressed they made their way to a church. I try to positively affirm what’s going to be different for them by virtue of being part of a community of faith. And it’s not the services we’re going to provide. We tend to talk about ourselves like we’re the gym: “We offer this great youth program,” or “We have yoga classes.” No. It’s going to be really hard. You’re going to be made uncomfortable. Your narcissism will get challenged and you won’t get everything you want. I think that’s respectful of people on the journey, rather than, “Hey, you’ll love it, the youth group is really fun and we won’t ask anything of you, don’t worry.” No, it’s more like, by the way, we ask you to share your money and not to get services. There’s a way in which we can talk to the SBNRs as though they are mature people ready to engage in an intelligent conversation, as opposed to just listening and overwhelming them with our niceness.
I think people who see the church as a service provider that should be grateful for their attention, just don’t get it. It won’t surprise you to know that I don’t perform non-member weddings for exactly this reason. I think Christian community means something and has expectations. When we devalue ourselves it’s not necessarily attractive to people.
I think in the mainline we need to talk about what we do with some seriousness of purpose. Our churches are full of people who make really big sacrifices to keep the institution going. They’re giving hours and hours of time to teach Sunday school, they give 10 percent of their money. That’s a story worth telling.