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A View from the Back Pew

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Let’s Talk!

by Tim O'Donnell | April 6th, 2011

A respectful, give and take dialogue has ensued between Pastor Bob Cornwall of Central Woodward Christian Church and me.  Now we just need to add your voice. Dr. Cornwall is a church historian and senior pastor of the Disciples of Christ congregation in Troy MI.  He also writes almost everyday on his blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey. He recently wrote a review of A View from the Back Pew, to which I responded.  Pastor Bob is a good guy.

I don’t generally respond directly to reviews of the book, but sometimes it’s called for.  In this case, Pastor Bob focuses his review mostly on a very important discussion that may be starting in our country and it would be remiss of me – irresponsible maybe – to ignore his invitation to dialogue.

I appreciate the leadership that Dr. Cornwall displays when he sees past the inevitable differences we will have about doctrine and seeks out the higher, more fertile ground for a meaningful discussion between a representative leader of organized religion (him) and a demographic sample from the loose but growing number of “spiritual but not religious” folks (me) scattered throughout society. This spiritual but not religious demographic is growing albeit without organization and is claiming people from nearly every brand or tradition of organized religion. Although I pretend no such leadership role for this “spiritual” group, Cornwall views the book as a potential illustrative voice of what may be happening on this front.

What’s most engaging to me about this man is his willingness to look at why people might end up outside the big box of Christianity instead of chastising them for being there.  He considers, “What we on the institutional side of things can learn here is that there is a strong sense of disappointment and frustration among the populace. The traditional institutions aren’t speaking to their hearts or their minds. The question is why? Why do people feel the need to strike out on their own?” There is an undeniable and welcome sophistication and equanimity to his attitude not easily found in the Christian clergy.  He does not however, betray his position within the institution as he continues, “At the same time, I wonder if this new movement pushes the pendulum of institutionalism too far in the other direction, and what that will mean for people’s journeys as they become less and less connected to traditions once held? These are all questions that I pose to further the conversation, and not cut it off.”

Pastor Bob Cornwall asks probing and productive questions of both sides and I’m pleased that the many sticky questions posited in A View from the Back Pew are getting thoughtful and learned men like him to think and reach out in the spirit of meaningful discourse.  I’m very pleased to engage in the discussion, but I only intended to start the confab.  I would love for the conversation to expand.

I invite you over to Pastor Bob Cornwall’s blog to see my response to these and other comments from his review of the book.

I think I speak for Pastor Bob when I encourage your comments; our dialogue becomes a conversation only when you engage it.




9 Responses to “Let’s Talk!”

  1. Thanks Tim for your part in the conversation. I’ve described you as representative of the spiritual but not religious group (I chose group since I’m not sure whatelse to call it), while I guess you could call me representative of the Spiritual and Religious group. As my friend Diana Butler Bass has put it, there are 3 types here. The religious (focused almost entirely on the institution), the spiritual but not religious (not finding the institution at all helpful) and a group in the middle — probably the largest group — that want to experience God in a very spiritual manner but also want to keep involved in community, which to some extent involves an institutional presence of some sort, even if pretty informal.

    My sense is that many who find the institution unhelpful at some point have been burned by it — that’s my sense. Wondering what you think.

  2. timodonnell says:

    To a large degree I think it’s true that there is some sense of being “burned” that moves many away from their institution – an offending a priest, an embezzling pastor or even a particular instruction. I think this leaves many in the gap between religion and God. Many people become so angry at religion they claim to be atheists while others seek a more individualized spirituality.

    But I also am becoming more convinced that to many people, the ancient nature of doctrine simply doesn’t resonate. The more we advance our understanding of our physical reality, the more we want fresher enunciation of the metaphysical reality. To some, the expanding gap between science and religion seems to render religion not developing along with humanity or its other disciplines of thinking.

    So, some drift away because of anger or a sense of being “burned” to be sure, but to many its not emotional, it’s cerebral; they want their spirituality to keep pace and continue to evolve along with mankind’s evolving capacity to understand.

  3. I would place myself in the “Spiritual but not religious” category precisely because there is no leadership. If there was, it would be a religion.

  4. timodonnell says:

    Now, that is a very illuminating insight. I wonder how many fall into this category for this exact reason. You point to an intentionality that needs to be part of this discussion. Without this point of view, people seem to be categorized without any consideration for their will to be in the category.

    The “spiritual but not religious” find their way to this spot in many different ways. Yours points out volition over happenstance – thanks for this distinction.

    I wrote a post on this topic in response to a CNN.com story that reports on a survey that claims 72% of “millennials” (18-29 yr. olds) that claim to be spiritual but not religious. (SBNR) I address the accusations by Fr.John Martin, S.J. who, in typical Catholic form, labels the SBNR as “complacent” and “self-centered”, among other things. http://timodonnell.org/?p=102

    Looking back on this writing, it underscores why I appreciate Bob Cornwall’s attitude on this subject. Compare the two – you’ll find this very interesting.

    Thanks Sandra, for adding something important to the discussion.

  5. For what it’s worth, I’m about to turn 51 and my choice to be spiritual but not religious was anything but “complacent” and in fact was a journey as deep and conscious as, I believe, yours was. My daughter is about to turn 20 and also considers herself spiritual but not religious. Her choice is not a complacent one either. And yes, I think our choices are self-centered. It is the only thing I can be. I can’t choose for someone else, only for my self.

  6. Sandra,

    I would want to ask whether “religion” is necessary contrary to being spiritual. I am by “profession” a religious professional, so I have a stake in the game, but my concern is with community, which ultimately leads to some kind of institutional forms. Unless spirituality is completely individualistic, then community comes into the picture.

    Thus, from my perspective the ideal is the “spiritual and religious” dimension.

    I wouldn’t want to characterize your journey as complacent, but I would want to know how you move outside yourself to embrace others in this journey. What forms you spiritually? What resources? And ultimately are these rooted in some kind of institution?

  7. Hi Tim and Bob,

    It is so beautiful indeed to have both of you engage with so much tact and respect in this very integral discussion.

    My personal experience with religion and spirituality would take too long to describe here, nor is it needed really. The point of the matter is that today I do find myself outside of any and all religious institutions, although I was once in one. Did I leave because I was scarred, angered, betrayed, or hurt by it? Not really. In fact, I was a very obedient Christian and took the whole aspect very seriously, having what one would call quite pleasant experiences. Until one day for the lack of a better term I “woke up”.

    From that moment on, it was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and all of a sudden things that always made sense did not make sense any longer. There ignited a deeper yearning within and no religion even came close to satisfying it. It was beyond the scope of any such physical structure.

    Fast forward a few years later and I have no doubt that many of today’s people who are leaving religions find themselves in a similar situation. Whether we call it awakening or evolution or outgrowing something, it is all a similar event.

    And in my mind, there has never been a time where I felt a deeper sense of community or understanding of what Jesus really meant, then when I stepped outside of the religion and church confines. All of a sudden an amazing new world opened up, where for the first time in my life I deeply felt God within and it has only been growing since.

    This is what so many people today are feeling, wanting and needing, I wholeheartedly believe. We are seeking liberation and union with the Divine – and the first place this starts is within…. from there we go to reflect that to the entire world around us. We are not finding it in churches or church leaders or the Bible, because all of that is outside of ourselves and the time has come for a truly intimate relationship with God where we understand our potential as human beings, without the need to go through others to understand ourselves or God. It is like trying to play the piano, but having someone else play and never let you try, just keep telling you to read your piano books and listen to them play.

    Some people may think that without rules and guidance from religious institutions the human race may lose all of its moral and ethical ways. But I completely disagree. Ever since I began to think for myself and act from within, from my heart, I have never been more in tune and more sensitive to the needs of all other beings on this planet, from all people to the animals to the plants and everything in between. I can attest with 100% certainty that my Christian background did not promote half of what I practice today when it comes to living in oneness with all.

    We are in a beautiful transition time on this Earth and I thank you both for making more people think about these topics, give them consideration and explore the magnificence of the human spirit. We are all on a beautiful path where we all arrive, where we need for ourselves, at just the right time…

  8. Hi Bob,

    I don’t see religion and spirituality as both/and or either/or terms. I think you can have one or the other or both. I don’t think community necessarily leads to institutionalization, though. I do discuss my ideas and thoughts with other “like-minded” people but there is no institution behind it. And I don’t seek out this community very often. Personally, I don’t feel the need. But ultimately the journey, whether your are part of an organized religion or not, is an individual one.

    I could elaborate but really, Evita said it all in my opinion.

  9. Tim, Evita, and Sandra — I hope to take up the questions of foundations for the journey and community, both of which I think are germaine to our conversation. I’ve been busy so not able to get this going! But thanks for the comments.

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The Book

Blog Posts

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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