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

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.

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."

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

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?

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

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.'"

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lillian Daniel

Lillian Daniel is a preacher, teacher, and writer in Iowa, and the author of Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To (Hachette).

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