abba's way

“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.  



My ‘Daniel Fast’

As a seminary graduate and author of at least ten books which explicitly consider the relevance of religion, I largely agree with you. I have singled out religion as a problem to be reckoned with, not a solution to our problems.

Read the Article I’m commenting on at Huffington Post


Remarkable Lines from Lucretius

These remarkable lines from Lucretius. From William Ellery Leonard’s equally remarkable translation of his On The Nature of Things.

And there shall come the time when even thou,
Forced by the soothsayer’s terror-tales, shalt seek
To break from us. Ah, many a dream even now
Can they concoct to rout thy plans of life,
And trouble all thy fortunes with base fears.
I own with reason: for, if men but knew
Some fixed end to ills, they would be strong
By some device unconquered to withstand
Religions and the menacings of seers.


COMMENT ON: Tiger Woods and the Problem of Porn Culture in US Celebrity Life

Read the Article I’m commenting on at HuffingtonPost

For more than a century, what passes for religion has been most visibly the moralistic fundamentalisms of the world. These are are shards of lost creedal faiths. Creedal faith fell to the realities of evolutionary science and thought. There will never be a recovery of these though there may be exemplary ways of life we can derive from past prophets and seers.

The need for ritual and celebration remains constant however. Which helps explain why kids plaster Tiger all over their walls. Or did. And why we are so awash in celebrity mania.

It is all part of the discourse aimed at helping us through the loss of transcendence.

I find the nostrums advocated here somewhat ostrich-like and superficial. I suspect that in time a penitent Tiger will do more to alter people’s notion of maturity than moralistic outbursts advocating a withdrawal from reality.


Moment of Truth In Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine, SE Asia, Africa, FSU Afghan War Needs New Strategy: US Commander McChrystal

I include many areas where the world faces huge challenges, including the former Soviet Union (FSU).

We make a mistake when we segment challenges. One boat rocks others. We may not be gaia but there is some truth to our interdependence.

In all these situations, violence is active or incipient. In all of them, there is no solution being proposed that promises an end to the prospect of more of the same.

To cite examples:

There is every possibility that Iran will remain firm in refusing to stop enriching uranium and this will activate Israel eventually. If that happens the US may not be far behind.

There is every chance that the civil violence (if that is not an oxymoron) in many areas of the FSU will continue and that worsening economic conditions there will exacerbate conflict. Again involving other nations including the US.

In Africa there are at least five situations in which any notion of rights and decent behavior is a pipe dream without international action that would involve the US.

In Asia, Burma and Sri Lanka are merely the most conspicuous examples of continuing repression. I have not even mentioned North Korea.

And in Afghanistan we have the head US military man suggesting that with more resolve and manpower we can succeed — a truth that is no more likely to hold than the belief that Iraq will be a stable and unified democracy over time.

No serious thinker following Nietzsche and living through the Holocaust believes that the world can permanently weather a continuation of the dynamics which gave rise to the cataclysmic wars of the 20th Century.

We cannot weather full economic breakdown and a global nuclear winter.

How then are we to proceed?

I see no way other than for our President to declare a global emergency and address the underlying issue of a global military-industrial complex and a reliance on force that is fueled by governments still operating with 20th century notions that the sword is the instrument of peace and justice.

President Obama needs to declare a restructuring of the moral apparatus of the world. Realpolitik must be seen as the politics of negotiation and peace. Religion must be seen as the proximate capacity to dream, not as a license to kill. Economies must be made to create sustainable communities, not fortress societies.

Only the leadership of courageous persons can accomplish the movement needed today. Specifically, in Afghanistan we need to understand that there cannot be a military victory, period. In the future the only real victories will be those of aroused peoples who insist that the ways of war be permanently shelved. This will mean more movements like those in Iran following the most recent elections.

The President needs to stand at the helm of a global civil rights movement. He needs to show that realism is not inconsistent with this. He needs to hark back to Eisenhower and identify the military-industrial complex as the true enemy of civilization.

This is a moment of truth. This is not one person’s belief. It is the stance of all who have lived under the lash of the global war machine. We must reject the leadership of those for whom belief in force has overcome belief in themselves.

The moment of truth is a reappropriation of who we are and of our inherent possibilities.

politics, theology

On the streets of New York I defy anyone to pick a Jew out of a crowd

War As Ridicule — The Futility of Military Means


In the war on terror, the very worst features of religion, tribalism and ethnic prejudice are at work. There is no compunction about killing someone merely because he or she may be Jewish. On the streets of New York I defy anyone to pick a Jew out of a crowd. Save for those in orthodox garb, there is no way of knowing.

politics, theology

Israel Has No Right To Act With Impunity

This is a theological post. I have every right to say what I will say and to claim that it is true. Why? Because I am a person who, though theologically educated in a “tradition”, is also a thinker whose theology has evolved through a painful process to the point of arriving close to where Nietzche found himself more than a century ago. I have evolved to the point of scoring all Abrahamic religions for the very same sin — the hubris of believing their respective religions give them the right to act with impunity.

Like the prophet Amos, I hate and despise this posturing, whether it comes from an Imam, a Rabbi or a minister. As Shoah suggests, the causes of the Holocaust were at bottom religious. So too are the underlying realities of many of the most intractable conflicts today.

I believe that there are two sins that are unforgiveable. The first is to deny a person the dignity of being able to say no, for I believe that Abba is within everyone and so too is the freedom to be who one is and who one shall be, period. The second is to claim one’s religion as a justification for acting with impunity. This is exactly what is claimed whenever any person or nation uses their power to deny life and liberty to “enemies” — most particularly civilians.

In a situation of profound conflict, it is necessary to be scrupulous in one’s judgments. Such scrupulousness has been the hallmark of Human Rights Watch.

One indication that Israel has been acting with impunity is the ferocity with which it has attacked the dispassionate conclusion of Human Rights Watch, an organization which is no less veracious than the prophet Amos was when he told the priests to take away the noise of their songs. Human Rights Watch exposes impunity with an equal brush, Arab and Israeli, US and China, etc.

Today’s climate has become demonic. And the culprit at the root is religion, or so I contend. A true understanding of who we are would strip us of our religious pretensions and acknowledge that we possess inherently a dignity that even our own sin cannot entirely eradicate.

Now I shall not attempt the herculean task of trying to undo what is being done to Human Rights Watch by its ferocious and unfair critics. I shall merely give you some references to enable you to reach your own conclusion. If you agree, you do not say I am for the Palestinians or I am for Israel. You say I am for truth. Until the participants in any conflict can step back and see more than the red heat of irrational war, there can be no peace.

Human Right Watch cited and documented an incident representing Israeli impunity in Gaza. (Downloadable PDF)

Required reading. Objective reporting.

A Google news search for Joe Stork, the Human Rights Watch expert on the Middle East, will link you to a plethora of baseless and unfair attacks on both Stork and Human Rights Watch.

Required reading. Highly prejudiced opinion.

And here are some of the reasons I have been so insistent on saying Human Rights Watch is being treated with the same impunity I would criticize across the boards.

The true face of the so called “human Rights Watch”? Short and vitriolic, accuses Stork of supporting Palestinian terrorism against Israel.

Pathological politics: HRW’s “white flags” report Long and involved. Seeks to refute the facts of the HRW White Flag Report. If you take out the statements that have nothing to do with the evidence in the HRW report, it would be much shorter. But the purpose is to undermine trust of Human Rights Watch. The fact remains that HRW is the gold standard for unbiased human rights reporting, vetting each report with legal counsel and relying for support globally on the promise that it is being objective. This is what places current attacks in the “they do protest too much” category.

How human rights groups abuse their position I was about to credit this piece with a great POV until I got to the point where it gravitates to the main attack on Stork which is the most nefarious of the lot. If there is a mother lode of negativity toward HRW, it is Maariv’s Ben-Dror Yemini and here is a summary of his recently issued and false brief on Stork. And here is the report on which Yemeni relies. The slim pickings in this report are evidenced by taking a quote or Stork out of context and representing its message to be an endorsement of Palestinian violence. All Stork suggests is that Palestinians might be motivated to violence, a statement a FBI agent might have made in a report about the Black Panthers.

But whole cloth can be made from tissues of lies by able propagandists.

Generally when such accusations are made they just get repeated over and over by one side against the other.

I once spent a good deal of time investigating and then writing what was deemed to be a fair article on the late community organizer Saul Alinsky. This controversy reminds me of the sorts of tone I encountered back then. It is clear that Stork has detractors who will not respond to any argument, no matter how true or reasonable.

Innocent Israelis and Palestinians who have perished are victims of such closed minds. If there is collective guilt there is also collective causation.

The sage person will do better to remain silent than to venture into realms of untruth that mount up and serve to besmirch organizations that are our only protection against a world of total polarization and propaganda.