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FATHER KNOWS BEST?

by Tim O'Donnell | July 13th, 2010


Are there dangers in being ‘spiritual but not religious’”? (SBNR)

CNN.com recently ran a story with this question as the headline and according one person quoted in the story by John Blake, there are indeed dangers.

This is a very interesting and loaded question.  The idea of being spiritual but not religious (SBNR) is popular cultural theme today among the American “faithful” – those within formal religious belief systems and especially among those not adhering but believing. (Yes, it is possible to be a believer without being an adherent.)

Blake cites a survey by LifeWay Christian Resources that reports 72 percent of 18 to 29 year olds, so called millennials, claim to be “more spiritual than religious”.   Not surprising – this is becoming an increasingly common claim, although not necessarily limited to the demographic cited in this poll as increasing numbers of people from the all generations are becoming comfortable with this description of their religious/spiritual leanings as well.

Interesting (to me) in Blake’s article were comments from the noted Jesuit, John Martin, S.J.  Father Martin is the author of several noteworthy books, (especially his spiritual memoir, My life with the Saints), editor of the Catholic magazine America and budding pop star.  (Martin has been dubbed “Chaplain of The Colbert Report”.)

Father Martin uses snide language to describe those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.  Words like complacent, self-centered, petty and lazy as he infers selfishness as well.

I should have learned a long time ago not to argue with a Jesuit but I can’t resist responding to this display of superiority and condescension. I do this at the considerable risk of looking stupid, as I’ve never met a Jesuit who was not exponentially more intelligent than me.

I’ll respond to his insults one at a time.

Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self centeredness

Complacent:  Most people in this country are born into a religious tradition. We are indoctrinated into belief systems that tell us what to believe, how to behave and how to interact with the entity we have been trained to call God.  Millions of adherents to various belief systems remain in their flock from cradle to grave and have a religious and/or spiritual experience that fulfills their needs.

But for an increasing number, the religion of their birth falls short of addressing their spiritual needs, answering their big questions or syncing with their inclinations about the non-physical part of life.  Many are not satisfied, fulfilled or content with formal religion and adopt a “spiritual” path as opposed to an inherited “religious” one.

There seems to be a growing discontent with doctrinal and dogmatic approaches to the Divine. The Catholic Church itself reports that about one third of its adherents have fallen into the “lapsed” category.  To simply write this off as complacency seems to dodge the real issues many people have.

Is this a good trend or a bad omen?  From the church’s point of view it is obviously not a positive swing.   But, is it even appropriate to judge it good or bad?  Is it simply more provocative evidence that suggests the human species is continuing to evolve while our belief systems have been stymied and remain stagnant?

Father Martin calling SBNR people “complacent” demonstrates a tone deaf sanctimoniousness that shows he may be a little out of touch with the spiritual and religious realities in the U.S. today.

It takes courage and hard work to overcome indoctrination. It takes initiative to ask questions.

From another point of view, it could be argued that some who remain bound in a relationship with an institution simply out of guilt or a sense of uninformed and uninspired obligation are the ones who lack initiative; those who stay bound to a religious belief system out of fear and a lifeless sense of duty might be the epitome of complacency.

Not that the initial deposits made to the belief systems were inherently wrong, but to not allow them to evolve is perhaps a form of “institutional complacency”.

Self-Centered:  I think most people who claim to be “spiritual” would agree with then center-of-self aspect, but without the negative connotation Martin seems to be using.  The church has stayed in business precisely because it has gone to great lengths to prevent people from looking inside to find connection to God.

Nearly all of the spiritual masters and the original depositors of the world’s main religious belief systems have pointed mankind inside to make the vital connection to his spiritual source, including and maybe especially Jesus.  It is the institution of the church that has injected itself between mankind and God.

The church has a survival motive to influence humankind that it must use the church as an intercessor to reach God when it just might actually be in the center of the self that we actually find what Jesus was pointing us toward when he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within”.

If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demand on you, why help the poor?”  (Selfish)

Helping the poor: Fr. Martin is obviously talking about the collection plate here.  He makes the not so subtle inference that a person can’t “help the poor” without making a deposit into the collection plate – the “demand” made by the “religious community”. He makes at least two presuppositions here: one, that the collection plate is used entirely to assist the poor and two, the only way to help the poor is to give to the church.

Both assumptions are wrong.

Whereas the church he represents does many things in to ease suffering, it is the reckless and possibly immoral use of money earmarked for the poor that raises the shackles of many Catholics – lapsed or otherwise.

To illustrate this point specifically, I’ll just ask one question:  How much money from the collection plate, given in the spirit of “helping the poor”, has been redirected to deal with criminal priests?

(I realize this seems like a cheap shot but my intent is to counter Father Martin’s point about charity and the “demand” from the “religious community”.  Many dollars put in the collection plates on Sunday have been used to deal with that particular “religious community” problem.  It seems disingenuous to invoke the collection plate at this time in church history.)

When a “spiritual” person decides to contribute to society or to “help the poor”, he or she does so because on the road to true “spirituality”  (tangible personal connection to God) he or she realizes that they are connected to every other living entity on this earth and giving to those in need becomes a natural and organic human obligation.

It is through this understanding that “helping the poor” becomes a spiritual practice and not a response to a “demand” made by an institution.

Religion is hard. Sometimes it’s just too much work.  People don’t feel like it.  I have better things to do with my time.  It’s plain old laziness”.

Lazy: In some ways I agree with Fr. Martin on this point.  We’ve all heard people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” and know they are simply copping out.  With some people, it is obvious they are just too lazy to apply themselves to religion, spirituality, the differences between the two or any serious consideration of the larger questions of life.  It’s easier, more expedient and simply more politically correct to invoke the “I’m spiritual” quip.

Maybe some people are using this growing pop-culture meme of being “spiritual but not religious” because they just don’t want to make the commitment to get up and go to mass on Sunday and it’s just easier to explain that they are “spiritual but not religious”.  Yes, these are the lazy ones Fr. Martin refers to.  They do exist.

But, I’ve also heard people say this with sincerity and a much more convincing posture.  We are all made up of flesh and bone and “something else”.  Many people work very hard at understanding this something else and go to great length to study and learn just what it might be and how it relates to their personal walk in the world; they study different traditions, philosophies and belief systems to find a deeper and more meaningful connection to this “something else” and find it to be the entity we are trained by religion to call God.

From a purely intellectual point of view, it might be said that the “lazy” thing to do is to just accept your indoctrination without ever questioning or challenging the so-called “mysteries”.  How many people sit in the pews on Sunday not really awake or alive?  How many people have questions about specific doctrine and ritual but simply conform because they are “too lazy” to investigate for themselves?

There are many paths on the mountain that lead to the summit of such realization and for a person to explore more than one of those paths is anything but lazy.  These people, if persistent, will eventually begin to ascend the mountain and have a good chance to reach the summit.  Those that circle the mountain and shout up at those on different paths, “you’re on the wrong path” may never actually give themselves a chance to ascend.

Sorry Fr. Martin, name calling and casting aspersions on people who sincerely try to seek a relationship with God, even though they attempt to do so without the ritual and dogma of your belief system is precisely the attitude that causes many to add the “but not religious” part to stating their spirituality.

Do you think Jesus, perhaps one of the most spiritual people to ever live, would feel at home in The Vatican?

CNN.com story: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/personal/06/03/spiritual.but.not.religious/index.html?hpt=C1

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The Book

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Below is a discussion about three separate issues related to the “Spiritual but Not Religious” conversation that seems to be forming today.  Joining me in the discussion is Pastor Bob Cornwall of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy Michigan and Reverend Matt Appling of Levi’s House in Kansas City; the panel discussion is moderated by […]

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