For a long time, American religion has been attempting to grapple in one way or another with the category of religion that usually falls under the heading of "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR). I can remember hearing Jim Wallis speak on a number of occasions and refer to it as "America's fastest growing religion." As an identifier, it seems to represent the point of view of someone who recognizes the value of religious sentiment, and perhaps a belief in some transcendent reality, but refuses to believe that such a reality is well-represented by any one religious tradition, or indeed, any religious tradition at all, in a satisfactory way. The spiritual but not religious person often seems to be the sort that would like to be religious, if it weren't for the way relgions and religious people so often act.
And among more or less liberal religious folks, this has been widely accepted as a legitimate stance. Sure, among ourselves we may comment about the problems of individualistic religion, lack of community or accountability, and the subjectivism and narcissism that are risked by such a stance. We may make reference to what sociologist Robert Bellah referred to as "Shiela-ism" -- the quintessentially American religion that is shared with no one but ourselves. But at the same time, we have not, generally, gone out of our way to pick fights on this front.
Until recently that is.
It may have pre-dated this, but it first came to my attention with Lillian Daniel's essay in Huffington Post: "Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." Her central argument is this:
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 and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to 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 my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
On the one hand, I find it hard to disagree with what Lillian is presenting here -- that the religious subjectivism of the SBNR deprives its adherents of access to the community and tradition that are part and parcel of what constitutes religion proper. To the degree that religion remains connected to its linguistic root, it is always a question of religere, being bound together with others, past, present, and future. Being SBNR means being disconnected from all of the bad of religion, but it also means being disconnected from the good as well. For those of us who value the good, even when our relationship with religion is often fraught and difficult, it can be frustrating to watch the idea of SBNR be eleveated to a virtuous and principled stance, rather than, at best, an ambiguous and troubled position.
Lillian has recently expanded her argument into a book, When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Isn't Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. A similar argument was recently made in Time magazine by Rabbi David Wolpe, and again, I'm sympathetic to the gist of these arguments.
However, I can't help but be bothered by this backlash, since it seems to misplace the problem. On the one hand, sure, SBNR reflects that Americanist consumerism and lack of communal accountability that religious folks have been complaining about for a long time. But the real problem, it strikes me, is the degree to which religious institutions have failed to make themselves credible within contemporary society as vectors for the transmission of culture, tradition, value, and meaning, let alone ultimate reality. To blame those who are motivated by a basically religious instinct but fail to find the communities designated as the arbiters of religious value to be worthwhile is to miss the fact that the real failure belongs to religious institutions themselves.
It was the institutions that squandered their social capital through hidebound conservatism, through bigotry against gays and lesbians, who both allowed themselves to be blown by cultural winds and refused to head the moveement of the spirit in times of change, who allowed themselves to be corrupted by complacency, or covered up truly horrible crimes on the part of their leaders, who are responsible for the collapse of trust in religion, and thus bear responsibility for those who in their hearts want and need some access to religious truth, but can't find an institution that appears worthy of conveying it. So they seek God elsewhere.
Lillian misses the point of the person who finds God in the sunset. It's not that religious folks don't see God there, but that the Spiritual But Not Religious Person can't see God in the communities to which the religious belong. Until the religious can bring themselves to address that problem in a comprehensive way, it's of little use to criticize those who stand outside.