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“Spiritual But Not Religious”? By Harvey Cox

“Spiritual But Not Religious”?       Harvey Cox

        In the past few years, the Pew Foundation’s surveys of religion in America have discovered a new and fast growing denomination. It is made up of those people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious, the “SBNRs.” At current growth rates in a few years they will outnumber both Catholics and Protestants. But just who are they, and what do they mean by their self designation? Not surprisingly, a small cottage industry of sociologist and religious scholars has emerged to try to find out. Their findings, based on extensive interviews,  tell us a lot about the religious (or spiritual) climate of America, and something about American culture in general as the 21st century unrolls.  

        First, the SBNRs live in what one of them called “search mode.” They are seekers and explorers who would never buy a bumper sticker that announces, “I Found It.” Also despite the recent flurry of books by atheists, the SBNRs reject that label. This sets America apart from Europe where the idiom often seems to divide between “believers” and “non-believers,” with no middle ground visible. When questioned, the SBNRs sometimes say they find atheists too self-assured, even close minded, “like fundamentalists in reverse,” as one said, The SBNRs traverse what was once a no-man’s-land, and their tribe is increasing.

        This “still shopping” mentality may be in part a product of consumer society, but it also helps explain in the sensational success of the some of the non-fundamentalist mega-churches like Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback church in California, churches that describe themselves as “seeker friendly.” Just to walk into one of these churches is to be warmly greeted half a dozen times. Even their architecture, echoing by the design of malls, purposely blurs the distinction between inside and outside. Gone are the huge red doors that used to mark the chasm between the sacred and the profane realms. Now one strolls from the parking lot through coffee bars and book stores, and the doors of the sanctuary area are usually wide open. In some, high quality sound transmission enables the visitor/seeker to listen in on the service while continuing to sip a cappuccino. This may sound a bit superficial, but these churches enlist thousands or people in small “ministry” groups that tutor children, staff soup kitchens and operate homeless shelters. The “shopper” is gently nudged from viewer to participant status.

        There is another important characteristic of the SBNRs. Many describe special moments, or places in their lives when they become aware of a dimension of reality that transcends the ordinary. It may happen, for example, when they listen to a Mozart Requiem or see a Raphael painting. It may happen if they visit a retreat center, which could be sponsored by almost any religious group. Or it can also occur under very ordinary circumstances. In these moments of illumination, what theologians would call “epiphanies,” the SBNRs often say they sense another, deeper reality, but somehow neither the words that religions use to describe nor the ones the atheists use to deny it suffice. This makes the SBNRs sound much like such classical mystics as St. Teresa, who speak of a vivid but ineffable encounter with the divine. In any case, the experience leaves the SBNRs uneasy with either the atheist or the conventional religious perspective. It also sometimes leaves them with an itch, a vague sense of yearning. Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age has suggested that their theme song might be the old Peggy Lee tune, “Is That All There Is?”

      The second major quality of the SBNRs is their suspiciousness. Often citing a painful personal history with a church or synagogue, they complain, often in acid tones about what they understand to be “organized religion.”  Many criticize the wealth and real estate of religious institutions. Like those 13th century Italian young people who eschewed their families’ wealth and tramped the roads with St. Francis, they want to sever the link between spirituality and the social power which they believe distorts it. Many other SBNRs are angered by the exclusivism, the “my way or the highway” of many churches. In an increasingly pluralistic society they just know too many people with too many varied faiths to believe that only one has hit on the right way. They are looking for a way, not necessarily the way.

     Some SBNRs also deeply resent the churches they have known for posing as the unflinching custodians of a conventional moralism, one that seems out of touch with their own intimate lives. “If that’s organized religion, then I don’t want anything to do with it.” Many are also troubled by the creeds recited in some liturgies. One woman said that she attended a church for awhile, was sustained and even inspired at times by the sacraments and the music, but kept her fingers crossed behind her back when the time came to repeat the creed. This suspicion of creeds is part of a wider distrust of any claims to one’s loyalty or adherence on the basis of a higher or external authority. Like the earliest Christians, who got along for three centuries without a uniform creed, and again like the classical mystics, the SBNR’s hunger for an actual encounter with “whatever is out there, or in there,” not something second hand, and whether they can call it “God,” or not is secondary. This yearning for a direct contact with the Spirit may help explain the sensational growth of Pentecostals and charismatics in recent decades. Sparing on dogma, and light on hierarchy, but strong on experience and community, they now account for one out of every four Christians in the world. They are what one scholar calls “main street mystics.”

      A third characteristic of the SBNRs, one that also infuriates religious higher-ups is their stubborn selectivity. This is the approach of those many millions the bishops have censured as “cafeteria Catholics.” The SBNRs are like them. They see religious traditions not as unified packages but as resources from which they can pick and choose the elements that make sense in their own lives, and then assemble what one scholar has called a “collage.” The preachers and prelates may complain that one has to take the whole package or none, but the SBNRs ignore the reproof. They go on practicing selected parts of Christianity and ignoring others, attending a yoga class, admiring the Dali Lama and keeping a book of Buddhist meditations on the night table.

         Theologians may reject this pattern as “syncretistic,” but the better informed among them know that Christianity itself is a vast amalgam. It absorbed baptism and communion from the Jewish practices of the mikvah and the seder, along with the entire Hebrew scripture. It borrowed its basic theological categories from religiously imbued Greek philosophy. The process is a continuous one. Scholars have found that St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” was influenced by the Sufi mysticism of his Muslim neighbors in 16thcentury Spain. Some historians suspect that the Gospel of John may have been influenced by Buddhist ideas, since trade routes linked Alexandria, where it was written, with India.

        Today, the borders between religions have become increasingly porous. One reason is that the era of Christianity as a “western religion” is already over. Not only do a growing majority of Christians now live in the non western world, but this “southern” world is migrating into America and Europe. Consequently spiritual practices are making creative adjustments. Following the example of the late Thomas Merton, Benedictine monks sit cross-legged in Zen-like meditation in Japan and Thailand. Pentecostal preachers in Korea draw on their people’s indigenous shamanic practices, and theologians are at work rooting Christianity in cultures shaped more the Vedas and the Lotus Sutra than by the Greek metaphysics of the early creeds. Call it “syncretism,” but the effort to release Christianity from its western scaffolding is moving into high gear. A new and perhaps more “spiritual” chapter in the history of Christianity is beginning.

        But some cautionary notes are needed about the SBNRs. Often infected by the hyper-individualism of American culture, they sometimes think they can just “do it my way.” But human beings are social animals. And the spiritual life is not a solo flight. Isolated from other selective and suspicious searchers, the SBNRs can easily lose their way or lose heart. Much of their grumbling about “institutional religion,” is justified, but the answer is not no institution at all. New shapes of church life will be needed, more participatory than the one way communication enshrined in today’s pulpits and altars, and they are already appearing. For example, some churches are opening coffee bars where members can converse about the things that matter in life over glasses of wine with people who are reluctant even to cross the threshold of a church. In such settings, as one SBNR said, “They don’t give you the answer before you ask the question.” Maybe Jesus’ disclosure of himself to the discouraged disciples at a table in the inn on the road to Emmaus may suggest the best pattern for tomorrow’s church architecture.

       The SBNR search can also become trivial and self-centered. They need to know that the Gospel is not about manicuring one’s own soul. It has a social as well as a personal dimension. They also sometimes look down on those mere plebeians who continue to be “religious.” They need to be reminded that the true spiritual giants of the past century – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day – all combined a profound spirituality with a burning passion for justice, and also continued to be “religious” in their own traditions. Gandhi did not rail against the Hindu temples of India, but insisted they be open to the “untouchables.” King continued to be a Baptist preacher, hardly ever missing a Sunday in his pulpit, to his dying day. Dorothy Day attended Mass on a daily basis, unless she was in jail for protesting nuclear weapons or for non-violently blocking a road to support the farm workers union.

        Ultimately, perhaps the relationship between being religious and being spiritual is not a mutually exclusive one. In fact, surely the real purpose of any religion should be to nurture a genuine socially conscious spirituality, one that draws –critically and selectively – on the treasures of religious tradition and deploys them in the service of the left out and the broken-hearted, those Jesus called, “the least of these, my brethren.” 

Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. His most recent book is The Future of Faith.  



6 thoughts on ““Spiritual But Not Religious”? By Harvey Cox

  1. I really appreciate the information contained in this post. Thanks!

    As one wrestling with these issues in pursuit of a healthy spiritual life for myself and my son, I am excited to be involved in the dialogue – even if merely a spectator.

    Much of what was stated in the last paragraph resonates with me. The social need for community and the belief that spirituality and religion do not NEED to be mutually exclusive but are often portrayed as such.

    There are so many facets to be considered and developed. I will give Linda’s site a reading soon to flesh out my knowledge a little to go along with my experience.

    I thought I was settled but I have recently discovered I may yet be searching…

    Thanks again!

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