You can’t make this up: The limits of self-made religion

September 1, 2011

A man recently told me about his faith life, as people are wont to do with ministers. He said, "I'm spiritual but not religious. I want to give you my testimony about why I do not attend church."

Now when I meet a math teacher, I don't feel the need to say I always hated math. When I meet a chef, I don't need to let it be known that I can't cook. When I meet a clown, I don't admit that I think clowns are scary. I keep that stuff to myself. But everybody loves to tell a minister what's wrong with the church—and it's usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.

Like many Americans, this man had made several stops in the religious marketplace. He was raised a Catholic but felt injured by that tradition. His questions weren't answered or welcomed by the church, he said, and the worship, rituals and preaching seemed irrelevant.

While he was in the army he was drawn to a conservative Baptist church. He joined that church because he liked the people who were in it, and he accepted Christ as his personal savior. But later he realized that the church held all sorts of strict moral beliefs that he could not adhere to, the worst of which was a prohibition on dancing—not to mention a prohibition against sex before marriage, which, as you know, often leads to dancing. What kind of God would not want me to use my body to move? he wondered. He drifted away from that church.

After marrying he joined the church in which his wife was brought up, a liberal Protestant church. He described that experience as the equivalent of getting a big warm hug. This church did not frown on dancing and drinking nor on his theological questions. He was encouraged to think critically about scripture. His questions, even his doubts, did not shock anybody. In fact, he was told that his questions made him a very good mainline Protestant.

But his marriage ended, and he began to feel that the church was more his former wife's than his. He found himself spending Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading the New York Times or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. "I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the cicadas. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious."

He dumped this news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave.

Of course, this well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right in to mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now a part of the majority—the people who have stepped away from the church in favor of running, newspaper reading, yoga or whatever they use to construct a more convenient religion of their own.

I was not shocked or upset by the man's story. I had heard it many times before—so many times I could have supplied the details. Let me guess, you read the New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of that than the sermon? Let me guess, you find God in nature? And especially in sunsets?

As if the people who attend church had never encountered all those psalms that praise God for the beauty of natural creation, and as if we never left the church building ourselves. God in nature? Really? The theme can be found throughout the Bible. When you push on this self-developed spirituality, you don't find much. God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?

The spiritual-not-religious are likely to say they see God in their children, at least when they are doing loving things or saying something winning about God. These spiritual-not-religious adults don't want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the e-mails with "cute things kids say about God."

"My kid said, 'Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.' Can you believe the wisdom of that?" says the proud spiritual-not-religious parent. These people's children are always theological geniuses.

I presume that like most children they are parroting back their parents' values. The children see God in nature—and because they are children and have bigger eyes and high voices, they do so in much cuter ways. "I think there will be doggies and birdies and grandma's candy bowl in heaven." But let's take that idea a little further. Will there be sharks and snakes in heaven too? How about vampire bats? How do you like that, you little junior theologians?

These kids who apparently are teaching their parents with homespun aphorisms are being poorly served. If they went to Sunday school on a regular basis, they might learn to think about the bats and scorpions. At least they would have a chance to ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick. They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go a bit deeper into these matters.

But their parents, so afraid that the church will force their kids to accept its answers, have made sure that no such formation or guidance is offered. This approach works as long as there are rainbows and the kids are happy, but it doesn't work so well in the face of tantrums, selfishness and—dare I say it?—sin. Most self-developed Sunday morning rituals have little room for sin.

Or for disaster, for that matter. Suffering in these self-made spiritualities is something we can overcome by hard work, exercise and reading the op-ed page. But worldwide disaster—how do you wrestle with that?

Here's how one man wrestled with it. Realizing that his pastor was desperately in need of reeducation, he explained how his own son had bowled him over with a great insight. He said: "Listen to what my son wrote: 'Children are starving with empty bellies in faraway lands. They have nothing to eat. All around them they hear the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off. And it made me realize that we are so lucky. We are so lucky to be living here and not there.'"

"I had tears in my eyes when he said that," the parent went on to say. "I was blown away and I realized that he gets it, he really gets it. It was gratitude. That's our religion—gratitude. And at that moment, when he recognized all that suffering and how fortunate he was, I could not have been prouder."

Never been prouder? Really? I can see being proud that your kid watches the news and understands that he has privileges many other people do not. I can see being a little relieved that he knows that not everyone goes to bed with a full stomach and that he can at least imagine the fact that war causes enormous pain. But the punch line of this religion of gratitude is this: "We're so lucky that we live here instead of there." Really? That's it?

What's missing from that worldview—and this is no fault of the teenager—is something you might get in a Christian community, a perspective that would take you from feeling lucky for not being hungry to actually doing something to feed a hungry person. This dad was happy to stop with the self-made religion of gratitude, like a person who fills up on the deep-fried appetizers and doesn't order anything else from the menu. He may not feel hungry for dinner now, but that snack will not sustain him.

I am guessing that this family gives to charity and has a good supply of PBS tote bags. But when you witness pain and declare yourself lucky, you have fallen way short of Jesus' vision and short of what God would have you do.

At some point, the worldview based on luck just doesn't pan out, and you figure out that you long for something as out­rageous as a new heaven and a new earth.

I'm not against gratitude any more than I am against finding God in a sunset or a child's eyes. Those are all good things, along with puppies, rainbows, super vacations and birthdays. But none of that constitutes a religion. And contrary to popular wisdom in the age of the spiritual-not-religious, we need religion and we need the church.

I remember a family that was new to our church and whose child had only a year of Sunday school under his belt. At a rehearsal for his second Christmas pageant, the boy cried out in indignation: "Do you mean to tell me that we are doing exactly the same story we did last year?" Today that youngster is grown up and has been blessed by the yearly repetition of church life that gives his chaotic days meaning. In a world that demands that everything be a one-time-only original production, the church remains a place to remember that there is someone much better than we are at original creations.

When that father told me about his son, it finally hit me what was bothering me about the religion he had invented. He hadn't invented it at all—it was as predictable as the rest of our self-centered consumer culture, and his very conceit that his outlook was original or daring was evidence of that very self-centeredness.

If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.

In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church." In other words, you people are stuck with each other.

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur'an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It's no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here's a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don't want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don't get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It's as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn't have access to a shower and didn't bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn't seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It's as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It's as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It's as close as the preacher who didn't prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It's as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

Suddenly it hits that teenager: I don't need to invent God, because God has already invented me. I don't need to make all this up for myself. There's a community of folks who over thousands of years have followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he was raised from the dead to show there is much more to life than you could possibly come up with. And as for the resurrection, try doing that for yourself.

With the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. They come together because Jesus came to live with these same types of people. Thousands of years later, we're still trying to be the body of Christ, and we are human and realistic enough to know we need a savior who is divine.

This essay is based on a sermon delivered at the Festival of Homiletics in June 2011.


Who do you say that I am?

OK Lillian, you got me. I never respond or comment on an article, but yours was very good. Loved the comment on premarital sex leading to dancing .... .I think that was deliberate?

Many many times, I have been met with the suggestion that "I have a personal relationship with Jesus .... but I don't have to be in church to have that relationship".

I have been far too lazy to charitably respond to my neighbour and I hereby commit to loving my neighbour more responsibly. Therefore, I pledge that when I am confronted with the confidence "I have a personal relationship with Jesus .... but I don't have to be in church to have that relationship", I firmly commit to enlightening my neighbour that the Jesus they believe in, confide in and worship .... simply does not exist.

Jesus created a church. Apostles, disciples, churches etc. Sorry folks. He did not simultaneously establish a Nirvana moment directly with one or more individuals. He used mediators. Apostles, disciples who preached and cured. He made a church.

If you want to have a relationship with the real Jesus, he is where he said he would be: in his church. And sign, yes it is a human church and sometimes more human than I am comfortable with. But again, its His church .... and I want His church to be mine.

ps The church is NOT full of hypocrites; there is always room for one more!

While I agree that community

While I agree that community is a necessary part of a relationship with Christ, I would strongly argue that it's not only in church that we find Jesus. I find him most often when I'm studying his word, praying, and listening for him, no matter the setting. I'm offended that someone would say that "my Jesus" doesn't exist because I DO have a relationship with Jesus and I did, in fact, find him outside of church. I'm not saying church is a bad thing; I was born and raised as a pastor's kid, majored in religion at a Christian college with the intent of going into ministry, and am a member of a church now. But the idea that Jesus is someone that you cannot have a personal relationship with outside of the church is ridiculous. And frankly, if you read the Bible, you'll find that Jesus was found amongst the sinners and poor far more often than when he was "at church", and usually when he did confront the leading church of the time (the Pharisees), he was lambasting them for their hypocrisy. And when I look at the church now full of fat Americans who probably have never seen poverty or suffering, who think that going to church once a week is enough and don't bother to reach out to those Christ himself spent time with, well, yeah. I'm one of those turned off by their own religion.

So I find Christ in spending time with him and in helping those in need and in sponsoring children and am fully aware that I am one of those same fat Americans who too easily turns a blind eye to those Christ would reach out to. And I know I need Jesus' forgiveness for it. I find Christ in spending time with a friend or singing hymns and praise songs. I find him in meditation and prayer. Once in a while I *might* even find him in a church. But usually not. Fellowship is good... religion for religion's sake is not, and any church that is full of people more concerned with religion than building a relationship with Christ outside the hour or two they spend at church on Sunday mornings is not one that I'm interested in attending.

Listen, Take More Risks

Funny, irreverent and insightful take.

However, as someone who is continually frustrated by my mainline church -- frustrated that it isn't engaged enough, relevant enough, hasn't found its way enough to figure out its role yet in my community (some giving here and there to social service programs, do I need church for that?) -- I believe strongly that the church will continue to lose its way if it doesn't listen to its members and the people who leave.

Churches need to make a much bolder, riskier and more provocative statement about who Jesus is for the "spiritual not religious" to begin taking notice.

Taking the risk

I have been on both "sides" of this situation. Raised mainline Protestant, spent 7 years as spiritual not religious, and about 6 years ago, returned to my home denomination (a different congregation, though, which made a world of difference). I liked this person's point, but I'd add that I discovered just how easy it is to criticize from the outside during my 7 years away from the church.

Harder is the task I think God gives us through the gift of a church community: working from within to change the church. My church isn't perfect. There are many things to improve upon. But now, I am directly helping that change appear instead of complaining about it from the sidelines. Religion and spirituality are both participatory, but I think Pastor Lillian would argue that the difference lies in doing something alone versus with a group. I don't disagree that "churches need to make a much bolder, riskier, and more provocative statement about who Jesus is" and I think that Lillian would agree with that well-articulated statement. But that hard work will never get done without people to actually do it!

Faith BEGINS with Gratitude...

A wise preacher (Dr. Bill LaBarr of once preached - Faith begins with gratitude... I have been trying to figure that out ever since... and now I realize from what you said here is that the subject of your sermon had BEGUN his faith walk, he understood the gratitude part, but that is only where it BEGINS...

Not until you mature in your faith walk do you realize that it is NOT about "you"... it is about "the world"... Jesus didn't come to "save me"... he came to eat with and love the least of the world...

He only "saves me" so that I can go out and do that for him...

Great blog!
Patrick Steil

This is a beautiful

This is a beautiful it even more than the condensed one on Huffpost.

I particularly love this bit: But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don't get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity....

So true. We are all beggars.

Your post drew up quite a stir on my Facebook page. I wrote a post myself in response to all of that on my blog:

Aren't ALL religions self made?

Dr. Lillian - I appreciate your points here - that spiritual community has an important role to play in society and in our own personal unfoldment as a human/spiritual being. This article does not strike the same tone as the one on UCC site - "Stop Boring Me" - which I think short changes the SBNR movement... for it is Dogma not "religion" per se, that those who use the SBNR label are rejecting - and all to often religion has historically been the defender and promoter of dogma that gets in the way of one's personal relationship with God.

Which brings me to the point on "self made religion" ... verses what exactly?

Paul Tillich said that "Revelation is God's attempt to reach man. Religion is man's attempt to reach God."

Isn't ALL religion self made? Don't they all start with someone's INDIVIDUAL (spent time alone with God) Revelation - then shared that revelation with others - who then in turn began forming rituals and other religious protocol to pay honor and respect to that one individual's original - personal Revelation? Isn't that the basic prototype of all religion?

Aren't we all just making it up? And isn't that what we're suppose to do? Yes, it is about Being the Body of Christ - which gets MADE Up - each time we respond to a person in need, or to a flood or quake on the other side of town or the planet. It gets made up by us, AS US.

"Christianity is not about Christianity as such" - Paul Tillich

Aren't ALL religions self made?

No, I didn't make up my religion, God the Son did, and I am following Him in part by belonging to the Church He build.

Unfortunately, to those

Unfortunately, to those outside your religion, people did 'make it up'. It's not an easy thing to remember and you may dismiss them as being wrong because you believe, but perhaps it is good to keep it in mind when considering the religions of others as 'made up'.
If people can't see this from the other side, you just get more divisions.

With all due respect, that is

With all due respect, that is the story that someone made about your religion. Which is not a bad thing, it's the story you believe in. Wnderful! I'm a faithful person, ordained minister in fact. So I get it, it's your story and your sticking to it, which you have every right to, and I respect. And, it's still just a story that we've been told. That it works for our faith and makes us better people and God help us, the world a better place, Amen!

Physician heal thyself

Don't place yourself in a privileged epistemic condition. Start by applying your favored principle to your own thinking. I get it, you have every right to it, I respect it but it's just a story that someone made up that all religion is a story.

To the original commenter;

This is partly the reason I consider myself religious in a tradition that has as one of its main tenets: "Work out your own salvation with diligence."

I found the degree of arrogance and contempt in the original post to be almost too much to bear, and I thought that it's no wonder there's a cohort of people who want nothing to do with the kind of "community" being enforced by clergy such as the writer. I found her smug self-righteousness even more annoying than the hippie-dippie (or, if you like, Thoreauvian) worldview being espoused by the nature/sunset grateful crowd she criticized.

Yet, I'm glad her religion works for her, and I'm not anti-religious. I merely think it would be helpful to be neither so defensive about one's own faith practice nor resentful and judgmental of those who've chosen something different.

Then again, being part of any self-righteous movement isn't attractive to me.

You do realize you are

You do realize you are criticizing the author's views? I don't see that as you being smug or arrogant or defensive or judgmental or resentful or self-righteous. You and she disagree about hugely important ideas. Let's talk about those rather than the pop psychology.

What Do We Mean by "Self"?

Perhaps we could bring clarity to this conversation by drawing a distinction between "self-made" religion and "self-centered" religion, the latter of which is definitely the religion of choice for many North Americans now, and, I would argue, only all too easily conscripted by the culture of hyper-consumerism.

That said, I found the article itself pretty much on target.

-Derek DeJager, Schenectady, NY

great points

You make some great points and give a great vision of what the church is! Wonderful. I would just add that before we get too self-congratulatory about how great we in the church are, for sticking with those we are stuck with, humanity is also as close as all those "spiritual but not religious" people that you dismiss. They are just so tiresome, aren't they? Granted some who share that insight with ministers do so simply out of guilt, and it can be kind of surface and trivial, but I have to say there are plenty of surface and trivial "religious but not spiritual" people in our pews. And, of those two types, I usually prefer the "spiritual but not religious" ones... if there really is a deep spiritual connection there. If I read my New Testament right, it seems like Jesus did, too.

"I always hated math"

Lillian I love your comment, "when I meet a math teacher" -- and I'm sure you DON'T immediately denounce mathematics -- but if you WERE a math teacher, believe me, you would hear it all the time. I've been a teacher of English, and a clergywoman, and I figure that is two out of three of the room-emptying occupations -- only Mortuary Science left!

LOL, and believe me, if you

LOL, and believe me, if you are a redhead, everyone wants to tell you how they used to have red hair, their daughter has red hair, they wished their hair was red, you must be Irish, you can't get that color out of a bottle.... Thank God that when you are a minister, at least you have some bridge to a conversation that might actually become meaningful at some point! What a wonderful article and a motivation to engage with others about why I can't live without church.

math teachers and red heads

I actually preached a version of this as a sermon at church and afterwards all the math teachers ( and teachers in general) set me straight. I am now convinced they have it as bad as the doctors who get shown people's bunions at a party.

Apple, meet this orange right here

I think there is a huge difference between being told "Uhg! I always hated math!" and having to endure soliloquies about how Math is a corrupt system of values led by people with a secret agenda to hurt you. And there is a difference between that and having someone tell you "I don't believe in math, and here's why you're a deluded nutter for perpetuating some outdated fantasy brought on by that rat bastard, Pythagoras. Nanner, nanner, boo-boo! You're deluded by that cult leader Pythagoras!

Not that it would be any more pleasant to hear how loathesome math is.

Cindy Breeding

Not religious, not dismissive either.

I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Observant, yes. but not "religious" the way many believers, of many faiths, would define it; so I read this piece with interest. I have to say, I disagree with the thesis of this article.
The author is dismissive of the people she's writing about (people like me( and makes a number of assumptions that are not only unfounded, but also rather unfair. For example, when she wrote "If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not." I wanted desperately to be able to show her the Unitarian Universalists, who are EXACTLY what she describes...and who contradict every assumption she made.
I'm Jewish- a tradition that has always been comfortable with the idea that you don't necessarily have to believe in order to be- and I found it almost insulting that the author assumed that the spiritual-not-religious folks were incapable of addressing the bad things in life (poverty, cancer, use her examples) in any meaningful, SPIRITUAL way. She makes generalizations that she can't back up and the overall snarky tone of this article doesn't reflect her religious POV in a positive light. I brought an open mind to my reading of this piece. I only wish the author had brought one to the writing of it.

I just wanted to lend my

I just wanted to lend my support to this comment. I can understand the frustration that lead to the writing of this article. It's far too easy for people to criticise others and I think that maths teachers would know this just as well. In fact in this article the non-religious are not exempt from criticism from the religious as well as vice versa.

A vague personal religion based on gratitude or nature really isn't a religion in the strictest sense of the word and it is a valid point to raise, but I don't think the writer of the article is entirely fair to the 'spiritual but non-religious'. One of the comments on the article says that they will 'tell the neighbour that the Jesus they believe in isn't real'. Perhaps they could say exactly the same in turn - the Jesus you find in Church is not real to them. I don't think a universal desire to be unique drives people to say that they find God outside a building and a structured service. It is how they experience spirituality in their lives not a desire to show you how special they are.

Of course this goes far too deep into conflicting religions and who is 'right', which is never a good topic. Mostly the point I wanted to make, was that one section of Christianity does not have the monopoly on helping others, on working with the rest of humanity, or on educating children about the difficult aspects of life. Children do not need a Sunday School as the only outlet for questions about family illness. Just because a person finds God in nature does not automatically mean they are incapable of helping their children understand life.

The writer of this article dislikes being told that their religion is wrong, and sees a benefit in a church community where members of that community must live alongside each other and help each other. Writing an article telling other people their religion is wrong seems an odd way to go about this. More open mindedness would have made the point better.

I agree, I wouldn't expect

I agree, I wouldn't expect such a derisive, deprecatory, mean-spirited and sneering attitude to come from a minister. At the same time, I can't say it's necessarily surprising, it fits in very nicely with something many people tend to associate with Christianity-- feelings of superiority to people who hold different religious views, and of having a moral obligation to impose their views on others. One sentence that struck me was: "The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it". What is worse than people "disassociating" themselves from bad things? It would be much more worthy of respect to ASSOCIATE yourself with it. Understanding the past, working with it, dealing with it, is much harder but much more honest than just dismissing past mistakes as being "human".
Spiritual questions are difficult and different people deal with them in different ways. There's no reason to worry about the man who sees God in the sunset nor about his children (who will make their own adult decisions when they're adults like everyone else). There seems to be something in your quickness to judge other people, in your lack of respect for others, that seems wholly petty and "unchristian".

Questioning "Unchristian"

If Pastor Lillian's unapologetic, biting critique of the spiritual but not religious crowd sounds unchristian to you, it's not because it is without Christian warrant. Jesus did his fair share of turning over tables and upsetting the religious sentiments of the status quo. He came in a long line of "deprecatory" and perhaps even a little "mean spirited" Jewish prophets. And if you think Lillian is audacious or "derisive", I invite you to turn to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, or even better, Hosea.

Rather than "unchristian", I think the shock and awe of this article lies in the dissonance it creates with the vast majority of discourse from progressive Christians. This piece says something. It takes a stand and does so in a way that elicits a response from her readers. I find this style welcome and refreshing, especially against the backdrop of the milquetoast live-and-let-live ethic that substitutes a cheap, un-challenging, unobtrusive tolerance in the place of a robust, risky love that holds each other accountable.

Say what you will, but the latter sounds a great deal more Christian than the former.

What is "Christian" anyhow?

I do not know where you get the idea that progressive Christians support or exemplify a "milquetoast live-and-let-live ethic that substitutes a cheap, un-challenging, unobtrusive tolerance in the place of a robust, risky love that holds each other accountable." I would suggest that accountability is what it's all about, and that all of the human race is who we are accountable to, if we are to meet God's expectations. We are accountable for the dignity and survival of every human. Thus, some Christians take a broader view in defining "church"and "religion" and their purposes and format in today's world. It is the "my way or the highway" attitude that is cheap, superficial and certainly not risky.

Jesus preached that loving actions are the highest calling, and he disliked hypocrites. He formed relationships with people to both try to teach them these things and to help them relate to others in loving ways, and spread the idea that we must love one another. So in my mind, "church" exists as a community within which loving relationships and deeds can be practiced and extended to those outside the community. All the other dogma of various church institutions has been created over the centuries by those seeking the power of a "following". Christianity (or religion) ought to be considered a practice vs. a label. The context in which loving relationships and practices exist--whether within a church congregation, or within some other community of people who may call themselves "spiritual but not religious"--should not matter.

And, in regard to the "spiritual but not religious person"--if we could even agree what that means-- one's spiritual journey is a continuum along which we all travel. If we were able to do the research, each of us would be somewhere on that continuum, and some would be attending church, others would not.

You miss the brunt of her argument

if you don't hear her critique of a "private spirituality." In this essay, I take "spiritual but not religious" to mean one who is not affiliated with a spiritual community, a privately spiritual person.

All the contexts "in which loving relationships are practiced" are, in fact, communities. Whether it is a church, synagogue, mosque, or UU congregation, I don't think Rev. Daniel minds. It is the accountability to a community larger than the individual and to a tradition with some roots. That's hardly "my way or the highway", that is just having standards.

My "live-and-let-live" critique is precisely on this point of standards and accountability. I think it is well within the authority of a Christian pastor to critique, on prophetic grounds, an endemic spirituality accountable only to the individual. And I would even claim that her act is one of Christian love. I like your definition of church as a "community within which loving relationships and deeds can be practiced and extended to those outside the community." But for that to happen, we need to be in a community, and we need a love that holds each other accountable.

The flood of responses that question the "Christian-ness" of Rev. Daniel's essay are proof positive that we have a milquetoast understanding of Christian love. Christian love is more than just playing nice; it entails a prophetic dimension that risks calling out a self-centered spirituality in the hope that its adherents will seek out the blessing, richness, and challenge of a community of accountability.

missed opportunities

I am also surprised at her tone. I was a sunset gal myself for about six years, and one of the many reasons I'm back in church is all the conversations I had with patient religious folks who sat through my pie in the sky meanderings. Little by little, I found my way back to the religious tradition I loved as a child.

It's fair to think that people who spill their hearts out to a stranger, especially a minister!, might be searching for something more. So why not treat such encounters as an opportunity to expand someone's idea of church, and to introduce them to something that could be more fulfilling? Isn't that what being a witness is all about?

There might be a place for snarky banter in such conversations, sure, but here's no need to be dismissive. People are on their sunset roads for a reason.

since when is religion necessarily Christian-

Christianity is much more than a religion-it is good that human beings are spiritual-God created us that way-the Pharisees were religious-The Buddhists; Hindus; Muslims are religious-but they're not Christian-Jesus is a personal saviour-he calls each of us personally & we bring our personal relationship with Him to church & out into the world-our Lord went alone to the mountaintops to pray at times-I went to church and shook today-if the minister doesn't think I'm religious enough to suit him or her is he or she going to write about my shortcomings on the internet-I thought we were suppossed to treat others as we would have them treat us-how can we call ourselves Christians without a personal relationship with Jesus-the point is not religion-religion doesn't save us-religion is not the Good News-Jesus is-also we enter God's courts with Thanksgiving-it's not about thanksgiving -IT IS ABOUT JESUS

No opportunities were missed

I would like to respectfully disagree with you, missed opps. Did the stranger in this exchange "spill his heart out" to the pastor? Was he "searching for something more"? It really doesn't seem like it. Instead, he ranted AT her, unheeded, heartlessly, and apparently, disrespectfully in a totally oblivious way. So I say AMEN to the pastor's response. If a clergy, of all people, doesn't stand up for her faith, then who will?? That's what I would call being a witness to Christ, having the guts to point out the flaws in one person's faith, especially as he spits it at a person of the cloth. Her snark perfectly matched the man's tone, and her response makes me wonder about this man: if he thinks he can approach a member of the clergy this way, do you think he cares a whit about how he approaches God? The discussion perfectly highlights that it's acceptable, even crucial to one's faith to question and doubt both God and the church. But it also highlights the need to do so from a place in our hearts of true wonder and curiosity IF we want to know God. This man didn't seem to even care about the lack of depth of his faith. Isn't that a problem, THE problem? Patience is just one way to addressing such a problem. But isn't tough love another, perhaps more powerful, way to address it??

Same and more

I think Pastor Daniels is missing opportunities to lead by example and be an actual pastor. If I'd read this article from the Pastor of my church, I'd certainly have meeting with said pastor about their missing the big picture.

Such a snarky attitude in unbefitting of a pastoral leader and more that of the unwitting layperson.

Religious Unitarian Universalist

Chava, you seem to presume to speak for all Unitarian Universalists. I wonder if you fully understand Unitarian Universalism. I am a very religious UU, and I know many religious UUs. I think the article is very consistent with Unitarian Universalism.
Further, while it is true that Judaism is not dependent on personal belief, it is dependent on religious observance. There are 613 commandments in the Tanakh, and an observant (religious) Jew is obligated to keep all these mitzvot, or commandments. Being religious if not spiritual is in a way a definition of Judaism.
If you are asserting that there are many UUs who brand themselves as "spiritual but not religious", yes, there are those who are on that part of the journey. But Unitarian Universalism is a journey - we encourage one another toward spiritual growth. In our religion.
I wish you well on your spiritual and religious journey.

Speaking for UU's.


I was not presuming to "speak" for anyone. All I was doing was pointing out that UU churches manage to bring together many "spiritual but not religious" people who manage to do all of the positive things that the author of this piece claims such a group would be unable to do. Not sure why you're finding this statement offensive, since I meant it as a compliment and was in no way denigrating or minimizing the existence of religious UU's.


Missed the Point

Christianity is not a broad brush stroke of whatever we decide to make of it and chose to worship. It's foundation is rooted in the Bible as the living word of God. Believe it or reject it you cannot live somewhere in between.

The comments to the article demonstrate the confusion the author is speaking of.

Honestly, how many of you spend time daily reading your bible and learning the nature of your God? I think most are spending time in nature looking for God. You will only find the magnificence of his creation but you will not experience a personal, meaningful relationship with him.

spiritual but not religious

I think one advantage Christians get from being religious is the possibility of being challenged by others in the fellowship. Inventing your own spirituality usually does not create the kind of challenges a person needs to grow. Although, as you point out, nature is also challenging; it is not, at the same time supporting in ways that fellow Christians, and the Gospel can be.


Simply outstanding. Thank you.

I'm glad you don't feel a

I'm glad you don't feel a need to go up to math teachers and tell them how much you hated math, because as I math teacher I get exactly that at least once a week.

Great piece. I never have understood the "spiritual but not religious" folk either. It doesn't seem to make much sense to say that.


There are so many aspects to t
his I could address. but the one i will address here is your comment regarding "...if we got them all together....but that would be too much like church..they are far too busy being original to realize that they are not"

The multitudes of catholics i know are far too busy being "seen" in church but not "heard" from in their community. It is the don't ask don't tell religion. Don't ask what is going on in the life of the pew-mate yo
u've sat next too for years (for some generations!) because they might say something that isn't pleasant to hear. Which actually doesn't matter to a catholic because they just use the standard "i'll pray for you" . REally? because what they probably need is more in line with an action item like-bring dinner, help with picking my kids up from school while i'm caring for my dying parent, or help finding a new place to live because your husband has decided to leave. Catholics just don't get it. ACTION ITEMS speak the teachings of jesus. Catholics are not into ACTION ITEMS unless they let EVERYONE know they have just spent time energy and money to "help" someone. I think i'll stick to my spiritiual not religious path. A lot more people seem to be getting what they need....which is help and understanding.

It's kind of funny though....

I can appreciate the spirit of this article but like the other recent, ""spiritual but not religious- you bore me article" I find this mean spirited in places. It's just funny it is presumed to be known all the feelings that happen behind statements made by someone who claims to be "S B N R"- When they are inside the walls of the church you seem to see, "oh, she pines for a baby, oh she is depressed, oh that teen finds comfort in something bigger...". Outside the church, that person is conceited, seeing only good, "All American" (but in the ways that make the average American sad to see). The man in the beginning of the story whose journey you recount is lovely. What will his next step be? If he reads a mean, spirited article like this one- I can envision that step being far away from the church. If, by hope he does not, perhaps that step will be back to another church where he will find himself within a group of people who love and appreciate the journey to Christ that everyone must take. Blind faith, to me, isn't really faith at all. Faith without thought or a journey is bound to be crushed at some point. (perhaps this is why he ditched his first faith, Catholicism). Perhaps without this "leg" of his journey he will never find the way. The same may go for many. I see you can appreciate where many people step away from the church because of all of the politics and hate that happens within the walls. This happens at more churches then I am sure we all care to admit. It can become hard for people to find "the right" place. I'm not talking sins, (sins happen)- I mean hate, hate that comes from a place no God would ever want. This "sunset" walk is just one more step towards a Christian life. I'm not sure the thought behind it, at least not for everyone who tells their story, it quite so malicious as you make it out to be. (you may not like to hear this "S B N R" rant, and that's OK) It could be a call for guidance and not quite so, I don't know, "triumphant" and "conceited" as you think.

Didn't Kenda Dean write a

Didn't Kenda Dean write a book called Almost Christian about young people's "shiny happy theology" that lacks any real bite or substance? And didn't Kenda come to the conclusion that WE--the CHURCH--are the ones responsible for teaching them that superficial stuff?

To suggest, as this piece does, that it's only the people outside the church who send trite e-mails, and who rely on a sunset-loving bumper-sticker faith, and who are all about me-and-God, is intellectually dishonest. Just as it's facile to suggest that SBNRs live in a cave and don't *routinely* bump up against people who think differently than they do.

Her real beef is with shallow theology, and folks, that's outside AND inside the church. There's a huge log in our eye.

I have loved her work for a long time but she loses credibility with me in this piece.

Specious Nonsense, As Expected

"The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion."
- Thomas Paine

How is the child's rainbow god any less insightful or accurate than the nonsense idea of a virgin birth, a talking snake, or a dead man revivifying? From an empirical point of view, these ideas are the epitome of risible nonsense. Daniel's peddling exclusivism (long the province of conservative faiths) and Christian privilege to a world that, I imagine to her great dismay, is moving on from rigid dogmas and fear-based conformity. I praise the child or adult who thinks for herself, but evidently Daniel sees her as trite and stupid. Such unwarranted vitriol makes me ashamed I was ever a part of the UCC.

+ 1

All religion is utter bullshit.

If you are reading this and are skeptical of religion, hear me now. Your intuition is CORRECT, that seed of doubt in your head is called RATIONALITY and COMMON SENSE, foster it, google all of your questions, and you will find the answers out there. "agnostic. humanist, ethical culture, richard dawkins, the god delusion"

All religion is total and utter bullshit. Yes, it is hard to believe, in America especially, that the majority of the population believes in made-up fairy-tales, virgin birth, parting the red sea, etc... including the presidential candidates, but they do. And it is up to you and I to put America back on track like the rest of the developed world that is revoking religion. It served its purpose when we didn't know any better, but now we do.

If you want an alternative to religion, look up Humanism. The ability to be good without god. The responsibility is our own to come up with a set of evolving ethics as a human race that minimizes pain and suffering. Along with a community that is not divided based on ancient stories of how life came about, and that doesn't pretend that stories and books they were taught from thousands of years ago are somehow special.

Do you really think that you Christians are so special that every Muslim and Hindu person in the world will burn in hell for all of eternity. Even the innocent children and mom's who loved their families under those faiths. If you believe this you are an idiot. Do you really think 1/2 of the worlds population on the other side of the globe is going to somehow magically descend into a pit of fire when they die just because you haven't told them about some stupid book from some stupid storyteller thousands of years ago that your brilliant mum and pop brainwashed you with. Get real. Read the new york times like the article mentions, get a real education, and boostrap yourself out of your own conflicting self-deluded ideas about what is right and real in the world, and start to understand the real facts and science.

All religion is man-made and serves certain purposes in terms of community togetherness and support, but it is founded on complete speculative, superstitious ideas, and ultimately will be replaced by a version of community togetherness that does not force people to believe in bullshit that is unprovable and untrue.

Don't say I didn't tell you so.

Hi rte3759,As an editor at a

Hi rte3759,

As an editor at a Christian magazine, I naturally disagree with a lot of what you say here. Still, thanks for reading, and happy to have your comment--except for one offensive slur that I did delete.

I'd encourage you to stick around and peruse other articles here. You may find that a lot of your assumptions about Christians are pretty far off.


Steve Thorngate, web editor, the Christian Century

raised devout Christian

I was raised a devout Christian, and thus I am quite knowledgeable about the faith in general, so I'm not sure what assumptions you think I am making that are unfounded.

Being part of a Christian youth group made me into the moral, ethical person I am today, but that still doesn't negate any of my statements made above.

Peace also,

BTW, Do you believe that all kind-spirited women and children that are born into Hindu or Islamist families and retain their faith throughout their lives doing ethical and moral deeds praying to their imaginary gods will fall into magical pits of fire and suffer eternally when they die, just because they don't believe in your imaginary god? Thank you, please drive thru.

No, I don't. And neither do a

No, I don't. And neither do a whole lot of folks who read and write for this magazine. That was my point--it may be that the faith you're quite knowledgeable about is a different branch of the Christian tree than the one most represented around here. The Christian faith is an awfully big tent.

ok, fair enough, but,

I don't see the point in distinguishing between Christian, Hindu, and Islam if that is the case?

What do you think happens to them?

That's a great big

That's a great big theological question, and a bit beyond the scope of this comment thread as far am I'm concerned. My point: there are lot of Christians considering these questions in serious and compassionate ways, and not just universalist types, as I infer from your question above. Take, for instance, the considerable conversation around the latest book by evangelical pastor Rob Bell.

thanks for the reference, I'll check it out

>That's a great big theological question, and a bit beyond the
> scope of this comment thread as far am I'm concerned.


Also, to give you (and anyone reading) an article from "across the fence" so to speak, I found this article by a prominent humanist really interesting:

" Disbelief is not a choice " in Psychology Today