Spiritual But Not Religious

Dear SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) person,

Lillian Daniel, the minister at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has gotten some attention for waxing somewhat snarky about you. Have you seen her remarks? Her briefer, snider piece is here, and the longer piece is here. Give them a look and see what you think.

I, too, sometimes meet you, and you tell me you are "spiritual but not religious." One difference between Rev. Daniel and me is that she runs into you on airplanes -- which, for me, seems to be the place for running into Baptist assistant pastors, Presbyterian organists, and Methodist youth directors. I run into you more often in church. It doesn't occur to me, as it does to Daniel, to suppose that you think you are sharing "some kind of daring insight . . . bold in its rebellion." I think you know that you're part of a hefty crowd. Daniel is encountering SBNRs who, apparently, don't go to church (or synagogue, temple, mosque, sangha, etc.), whereas my SBNRs are often in church. When you've told me you were "spiritual but not religious," you might have meant to convey to me any of a number of highly variable possibilities: (a) "You might have noticed I don't attend that often. Don't expect me to." or (b) "I disagreed with something in your sermon." -- or, sometimes, most perplexingly, (c) "I just love being a Unitarian Universalist; I'm so glad to be a part of this thing that isn't a religion."

Also like Rev. Daniel, I hear regularly from folks who say they see God in sunsets, or experience the divine in the woods, or on a beach. I think that's great. In fact, ecospirituality is central to my spirituality, and I offer a service of Ecospiritual Practice -- usually outdoors in a wooded setting -- once a month (check it out: click here.) I have to tell you, though, I think Daniel is right to point out that we need to have a community of accountability if we're going to learn, grow, and deepen our spirituality.

At the same time, I also think you're right to be wary of the kind of religious institution that demands uncritical acceptance of authority, where "faith" means "just believe what the authority figure tells you to believe, and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray." This sort of religious institution is nothing like my church -- and it's nothing like Lillian Daniel's church. (I've heard her preach, and she described something of her congregation -- plus, I went to a UCC seminary myself where we were taught that the function of authority is to guide critical engagement, not demand uncritical allegiance. Indeed, the joke I heard from a UCC fellow seminarian was that UCC stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ." Of course, I wouldn't tell Daniel this joke lest I become the subject of a sarcastic column about how tired and bored she is of UU ministers who tell that joke thinking they're saying something devastatingly witty.) Indeed, fewer and fewer churches match the picture of a church that you seem to carry around in your mind.

You're right to recognize that truth is within us. You're right to reject anything that would turn over the authority of your individual conscience to an external source.

But that's only half the story. The truth is within you all right. It's in all of us. And so is a lot of self-deceived ego.

We don't need authoritarian, ask-no-questions, do-as-I-say church. We do need communities of accountability for sharpening and deepening our religious insights, for calling us on our stuff, for holding up the mirror so we can see ourselves when we hit those places -- as we inevitably do on the spiritual path -- where we can't tell the difference between genuine wisdom and the ego's love for deluding itself with a story about how wise we are. As Daniel put it:
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
If I'm serious about spiritual depth, I need the humility to place myself in a relation of accountability to a long and rich tradition -- a tradition of many people who have wrestled with what I'm wrestling with, who have, like me, been fooled into thinking they "got it" and "had arrived" and "were as holy or enlightened as it's possible to be," but who eventually came, through connection with a community of fellow spiritual travelers, to see through that delusion to a deeper wisdom.

In the longer piece, Daniel tells about a man who tells her:
"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."
Number one: If being in the woods is a spiritual experience for you, then please do make sure you get out in the woods a lot. Maybe you do. But I have met people who say the "great outdoors" is their religion, and when I ask them when was the last time they were out in it, they have to think, and then they say something like, "about six months ago." Ecospirituality is wonderful, vital, and important. But like every spirituality, you've got to practice it. Daily, in some form. Weekly, in a more extensive and immersive form.

Number two: If nature is your grounding, where are you going/growing from that grounding? As Daniel asks:
"God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too."
Daniel doesn't mention what her own theology of cancer is. But if you're using spirituality to turn your back on pain and suffering, or numb it with the aesthetic bliss of sunsets, then not only are you not religious, but you're only half spiritual. The spiritual path calls for facing and embracing the cancer too. If you find beauty, wonder, and divinity in the woods, that's a wonderful starting place. Now use that grounding to move toward seeing beauty and wonder in people, buildings, kitchen appliances, traffic jams, toxic waste dumps -- and cancer. Spirituality is about working out our peace with all of life, not just the pretty nature scenes. For that, you need the resources of a community that embodies a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning.

So, dear SBNRs: Let me say that you are off to a wonderful start. I'm delighted with the spiritual satisfactions that you are finding. I suspect you'll find that your "S" won't be very deep, won't extend very well beyond its immediate stimulus, and won't equip you so well for the hard times of grief and loss and stress, without some "R." I hope you're on a path that will eventually lead from "SBNR" to "S and R," whether the "R" is Christianity, Hinduism, or Religious Humanism. You're off to a great start. Whenever you're ready to think about a little more depth and critical engagement in your "S," come talk to me. I can help. In fact, come talk to me anyway. I like hearing about how great it felt to be on that beach watching that sunset. I know that a number of religious leaders, like Rev. Daniel, are bored and irritated with you. Sorry about that.

I have to warn you that, whatever religious community you may hook up with, it's going to spend a lot of its time not being at its best. That's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts. It's worth it. For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- they'll help you see yours. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

Yours faithfully,


  1. Thank you, John. And: You're welcome. (If you arrive at a place where it feels OK to single out what that "one thing in particular" was, I am curious . . . )

  2. I don't mind saying. It was this:

    I have to warn you that, whatever religious community you may hook up with, it's going to spend a lot of its time not being at its best. That's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts. It's worth it. For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- they'll help you see yours. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

    All the way down to my own sometime pettiness and my own not being at my best a lot of the time, this spoke right to me.

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