More on the “Spiritual but not religious” dust-up

Jim Burklo:

Here’s another way to view the SBNR phenomenon: religiously unaffiliated but spiritually engaged people are in fact encountering God in real human communities that don’t look like traditional congregations, so why not celebrate that?

Diana Butler Bass:

Maybe the SBNR are pointing the way toward a different kind of church or a new kind of Christianity, if only those of us who still care about old denominations and traditions can receive the criticism of their absence and learn from it, even as it comes with a sting.

Kate Blanchard, who teaches religious studies, on the airplane conversation (and her own journey):

If all of this makes me boring to the confidently religious, I guess I can live with that. But I am actually quite fascinated by someone who takes the time to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” when they could simply have said, “Hmmm, interesting,” and put in their ear buds. It makes me feel less alone as I wander in my current religious wilderness. I am actually energized and encouraged by the quests of those who are seeking something true, even if they don’t know anything other than that it’s not religion.

Spiritual, not religious–another view

Amy Thompson Sevimli‘s perspective on the piece by Lillian Daniel:

What I have found, however, is that the phrase is almost always a gateway into a deeper conversation about their spirituality (even if it is about sunsets). It is an opportunity for them to talk about their faith and their experience of the church — which, by the way, has usually been negative.

And this:

Instead of fully engaging those outside our churches, we sit back and wonder why the mass of spiritual but not religious people don’t walk through our doors. But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?

My earlier take, here.

“Spiritual, but not religious”

Lillian Daniel rants about the passenger in the next seat in the airplane who says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” upon learning that she is clergy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the same experience, and the same reaction, both in my earlier life as a professor of Religious Studies (when I would usually pass myself off as a scholar of European History) and since I’ve been ordained a priest.

Of course, people who say they are “spiritual not religious” can be vacuous; but worship and life in Christian communities can be vacuous as well, as Trevor Wax reminds us.

Sometimes, such people are little more than individualist navel-gazers; sometimes, they are on quests for meaning and authenticity. Sometimes, they are burned out on organized religion, or worse. They are so damaged by life in communities of hate that they cannot conceive or ever experience the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, their journey has taken them away, as in the case of a woman I spoke with this week, who after years of faithful attendance, and active involvement in outreach, finds the liturgy no longer speaks to her soul. Instead, it is painting that feeds her soul. Sometimes that phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious” is a formula they’ve learned to help them deal with the absence in their hearts that they cannot comprehend.

Sometimes, we need to listen.


Christianity and the arts

Several recent essays remind us of the importance of the arts for religious faith and practice.

First, Richard Hays asks, “Why should we care about the arts?” He cites four reasons:

  1. “There is no escaping the arts. They create the imaginative symbolic world in which we live and move; we are constantly surrounded by images, music and stories.”
  2. Worship is nothing else than shaping beliefs and practices into artistic forms and more people (60% of the American population) hear live music in worship than in any other setting.
  3. Participation in artistic performances is useful instruction in faithful discipleship.
  4. Created in the image of a creative God, we are by nature fashioners of images and stories and it is through creativity that we make our selves more fully into God’s image.

I was reminded of the role of the arts in worship this past Sunday while attending services at the church in which I grew up. In many ways, the space is a generic Protestant church–there are no images in the stained glass or on the walls; the ceiling, pews, and front of the church are all plain. What differs from my youth is the presence of instruments in the church–a piano and drum set. But this past Sunday, the hymns were sung in four-part harmony as they were when I was a member. All of them were familiar to me and I was struck by the way in which this unaccompanied, four-part singing had been and perhaps continues to be, an important means for creating and shaping community. As one member shared a story that had to do with singing, I became aware of something else, too: through singing, members also take on particular roles in the community.

A conversation reflecting on the differences between Christian (in this case, specifically Thomas Kincaide) and Modern art poses similar questions. It seems that although most modern artists whose work hangs in great museums are not Christian, or even religious in any conventional sense, but nonetheless, many found that ideas or experiences of the transcendent were central to their work:

Artists who don’t have an orthodox Christian bone in their bodies are making paintings that they’re intending, even in subconscious ways, to function in this very specific, sacred, and you could say a secular-Christian, environment.

One of the conversation partners, Curtis Chang, observed that

When I visited the modern art wing recently, it struck me that there was far more silence and contemplation there than I’ve found at any church service …

Rob Goodman reflects on the differences between bad and good religious art in the course of a discussion of Terence Malick:

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

I think that’s one of the appeals of beautifully-executed Episcopal liturgy, words that are themselves beautiful, spoken or sung beautifully in a lovely space, all of which connects deeply to images and feelings within ourselves. Oh, it’s not for everyone, of course, but for those who seek beauty in life, may find beauty, and the sacred, in our worship.

Lenten Reflections from across the Web

Catharine Caimano in Faith and Leadership.

Lent gives a chance to know that God sees us in our frailty and loves us fully, all the same. Lent gives us an opportunity to feel the darkness in and around us that will be expelled come Easter Day.

From Halden: “Remember that you are dust.”

From Jeffrey MacDonald: “Why Lent must rise again.” And a response from Pamela Fickenscher.

Mark Vernon on Ash Wednesday: the importance of acknowledging our mortality.

Ashley Makar: Lent: Season of our Hypocrisy.

St. Teresa of Avila

I mentioned her in my sermon. Andrew Sullivan posted the following poem today: “Teresa” by Richard Wilbur, who turned 90 this week.

After the sun’s eclipse
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.

Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a word, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.

The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.

via The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan.

Teresa, as I said today, thought deeply and extensively about prayer, and wrote with great insight. She was especially concerned to distinguish between “true” visions and those which seemed to come from Satan or were self-induced. Jessa Crispin, in an essay devoted to the question about the relevance of philosophers’ lives for their thought, uses Teresa as an example of someone who “did not always live out their philosophy.” In fact, Teresa’s life was full of times when she lived far from the ecstatic experiences for which she was famous, when her attempts to come close to God were thwarted, either by herself or by God, and faced constant criticism from churchmen who thought her experiences were faked.

At the same time, she was well aware that such experiences could be faked, or products of self-delusion. In her autobiography, she writes with considerable sophistication about how to distinguish the “real” from the faked and shows herself a perceptive psychologist.

“Can spirituality exist without religion?”

The Guardian asks the question. Mark Vernon gets the first shot. The question is in response to a new book by Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. According to Vernon, Humphrey

discusses life in a “soul niche”. Fish live in a water niche, bedbugs in a blanket niche, humans live in a soul niche; the “territory of the spirit”. This is the magic of human consciousness. To have soul is to enjoy the beauties of the cosmos, the responsibilities of free will, the comforts of prayer, the illusion of life after death. Evolution must have concocted such a grandiose dream-world for us for a purpose – probably, according to the author, to make us feel special. That encourages us to give of our best and so is good for our survival and the survival of others.

Vernon finds Humphrey’s view reductionistic and offers a primer on a deeper notion of the soul in which mind and body are linked. It’s a notion that goes back to Aristotle. He concludes:

To put it another way, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that the hard problem of consciousness is not primarily to do with consciousness, but is to do with materialism. Perhaps consciousness is thought hard from this point of view because, in fact, energy, information or something quite like consciousness is the basic stuff of the cosmos? Matter might be the epiphenomenon, not mind. As Keith Ward entertainingly puts it in his new book, More Than Matter: “Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds.”

You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to entertain such thoughts. Physicists do so quite routinely these days. It’s hardly avoidable when you deal with subatomic particles – the stuff of “matter” – as waves of probability rippling across fields of energy.

I’ll be interested to read the other responses, and the Ward book that Vernon mentions above.

I find this question or the related one having to do with those people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” interesting on theological grounds. But it is also an interesting question pastorally. I was intrigued by the recent essay from the Alban Institute on how religious organizations might reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” market, although I think many of the questions at the end of the article are focused on trying to fit the spiritual seeker back into an institution that may not be the focus of their spiritual search. The spiritual seeker, I think, tends to be very individualistic, at least in the quest aspect of their lives; and it may be more important to help them find ways to encounter the holy, and at the same time to do active outreach, than to offer bible studies and the like.

I’m looking forward to the other responses to this question.


Antony the Great

Today is the commemoration of Antony the Great in our liturgical calendar. Here’s a homily I prepared on him a couple of years ago:

Antony is one of those saints who has been a fixture in the liturgical calendar for centuries. And rightly so.  Antony is one of the most important figures in the birth of monasticism. Antony lived in the third and fourth centuries. We’re not exactly sure of his dates, but the best guess is that he lived from 250 to 350 or thereabouts. He lived in Egypt, was the child of wealthy Christian parents, and after their death, while he was still a young man, he heard the gospel for today read and decided that was what he wanted to do. He put his sister in a convent, gave away his money, and went off into the desert to seek intimacy with God. Over the years, he moved further and further away from civilization, but wherever he went, he was pursued by curiosity seekers and by would-be disciples. Occasionally he would return to the city. We know that when he was a very old man, he went to Alexandria, which was the Egyptian metropolis, and the leading center of Christianity in the region, at least twice, and conferred there with bishops.

The flight from the city into the wilderness was not unique to Christianity in Antony’s day. Wealthy people had begun to abandon the city for the countryside, where they could live in leisurely quiet. Poor people fled the city to seek food, shelter, and protection. What set monasticism apart was the certainty that the city was an evil place, that the wilderness was more suited to the pursuit of God.

This tension between city and wilderness is deeply ingrained in our own culture and in the cultures that gave rise to the biblical writings. It’s been a very long time since we in America saw urban life as the ideal.. We may not prefer the wilderness to the city, but we certainly tend to distrust the city, and all that it represents. Longer ago, the distrust of the city and even the town ran much deeper. When I was a boy, my mother read the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder to my sisters and me. If you remember them, you remember that Pa was always on the move further west, further into the wilderness; as soon as he could see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, he was ready to find somewhere new to live.

Antony did much the same, and indeed throughout the Middle Ages, monks settled in the wilderness, in places as remote as possible. There’s something of an irony here, however, for wherever monks went, laypeople quickly followed them. Antony’s biographer, Athanasius, said of Antony that “he made the desert a city.” By that he meant two things; first: Antony and the monastic ideal were so popular that perhaps thousands followed him into the desert; second, that in their communities, the monks created a new kind of city, focused on the worship of God.

The wilderness also plays a role in the story of Jesus. Jesus was baptized by John, who lived in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. People came out into the wilderness to see him. He seems to have been something of a curiosity, but the encounter with John changed people’s lives. In the weeks to come, we will hear of Jesus’ own journey into the wilderness, where he will be tempted by Satan.That encounter with Satan in the wilderness seems to be a turning point. It comes immediately after his baptism, and after the baptism, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry.

Usually when we think of the image of wilderness, we think of wasteland, of danger and violence. In the language of spirituality or religious life, the wilderness is often used as a metaphor for a period of intense struggle, or perhaps a feeling of alienation from God. For Antony and the other Egyptian monks, the wilderness or desert was not a place of alienation from God. Rather, it was a place that enabled intimacy with God. Stripped bare of everything but the essentials, the monk could focus only on what really mattered—his or her relationship with God.

Compared to Antony, of course, our lives are much more complex. The idea of throwing it all away for the opportunity to focus on one’s relationship with God may seem appealing occasionally, but few of us would ever act on that impulse. We all have those times in our lives when it seems as if we are in a desert, when the old way of doing things, our lives and lifestyles, seem difficult or meaningless. Sometimes, in those deserts, we seem to be all alone, abandoned even by God. That feeling of abandonment was not foreign even to those monks and nuns of the early centuries of Christianity. They left behind stories of their struggles with temptations and their struggles to deepen their relationships with God. Antony’s example reminds us that even there, in the wilderness, God is present.

Antony’s life and lifestyle may seem completely alien, perhaps even bizarre to us. Few of us would ever contemplate, at least for more than a moment, throwing everything away in our pursuit of God. That’s exactly what he did, and we might wonder about the impact of that decision on those around him—on his sister who he put in a convent. But his example is also a lesson that we respond to the call of God in very different ways. Today’s gospel led Antony into the wilderness. The very same words of Jesus, nearly 1000 years later, spurred St. Francis to begin a very different form of the religious life, focused on poverty, on preaching, and reaching out to those in need. The question for us is how do we respond, authentically and passionately, to the call of Jesus today?

Reading a little Aelred of Rievaulx

Tomorrow is his commemoration. Here’s what I wrote last year. Aelred (1132-167) was an English Cistercian Abbot during the golden age of the Cistercian order. He is noted for his writings on friendship and love, but today  I reread part of his pastoral prayer. He prays to Jesus Christ on behalf of the monks under his care:

My understanding and speaking, my leisure, my activity my doing and thinking, my good and ill fortune, life and death, health and sickness–let absolutely all that I am, experience, feel and understand be employed and expended for them, for whom you yourself did not scorn to expend your very life. And so I pray you teach your servant, Lord, teach me by your Holy Spirit how I may spend my substance for them. Grant, Lord, by your grace, that I may bear patiently with their frailty, sympathize kindly and support with tact. Let your Spirit teach me to console the sad, strengthen the faint-hearted, raise the fallen; to be weak with the weak, indignant with the scandalized and to become all things to all men, that I may win them all.

His prayer is a powerful reminder to all of us with the cure of souls, of the importance of praying on behalf of those in our care. He prays for their material needs, but also for their spiritual needs:

pour your Holy Spirit into their hearts that he may keep them in unity of spirit and the bond of peace, chaste in body and humble of mind. May he himself be with them when they pray and inspire the prayers it pleases you to grant. May the same Spirit abide in those who meditate, so that, enlightened by him, they come to know you and fix in their memory the God whom they invoke in their distress and look to in time of doubt. May that kind comforter be swift to succour those who struggle with temptation and sustain them in the trials and tribulations of this life.

These quotations are from The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century (Penguin Classics), translated and edited by Pauline Matarasso.