Dear Shared Spiritual Seekers:
Several weeks ago, I wrote about my optimism in the face of declining denominational participation. As I was researching that particular musing, I came across an article I had saved from last summer. It was an interview with Roger Olson, a Professor of Theology at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary [Christianity Today, July 20, 2017: “The Rise of the Nons: Protestants Keep Ditching Denominations”]
I kept the article because of this quote by Dr. Olson:
“There is a trend toward what I call ‘generic Christianity’ that is very feeling-centered and pragmatic and somewhat anti-intellectual. As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spirituality that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content. The result is often folk religion rather than historic, classic, biblical Christianity.”
The thought caught my eye because it dovetailed with so many conversations I’ve had with individuals regarding their faith. They define themselves as spiritual without being religious. I flinch a bit at the notion, as I am a religious professional; if this de-institutionalization of spirituality gets out of hand, I could be out of a job.
I understand how corporate apparatus can inhibit authentic expression. I am deeply aware of the ways religious organizations stifle innovation and accommodation. At the same time, however, I fear non-religious spiritualists are buying into a false paradigm, that one can experience the depths of spirituality divorced from the foibles of corporate interaction. Once you seek to transmit spiritual ideals or organize an activity or coordinate diversity, all the little gremlins of religiosity rear their ugly heads.
Following this trend, church-growth gurus are encouraging leaders to provide single-use events, mission projects that that can be accomplished in one day, fellowship that requires no follow-up, educational events lasting only two or three hours. These are less messy. Participants are not required to encounter one another that awkward second time where recalling names or preferences might be expected.
This parallels the rise of the political rally at the expense of the discussion forum. At a rally, everyone briefly adheres to a single cause or candidate without ever exploring the possibility of disagreements over motivation or purpose. Unity is defined by head-count, leaving the power of interpretation to the organizers.
At the risk of sounding out of step, I must confess that my spirituality isn’t fed by the flash-mob. I believe true spirituality is nurtured by the chafe of difference; it is the deeper invitation to remain connected while simultaneously being uncomfortable. I may not even like you, but remaining connected and respectful inspires my spirit’s growth.
To be spiritual without being religious, in the end, is as satisfying as being musical without being tonal, patriotic without being national, informed without being educated, intimate without being relational (or, as is often my situation, humorous without being funny).
For the few of us remaining that still believe in the triumph of reconciliation over estrangement, there is a thicker opportunity found in the old-time religion of community. There’s something profoundly challenging in trying to figure out how to serve on a committee with someone I’ve offended. Every time I have to apologize for forgetting your name, I am chastened to pay better attention. Yes, it may require I stifle my reflex to insult or ignore you, but perhaps that’s the point. If I am constantly rewarded for being accepted as I am, how in God’s name will I grow?
Finding spirituality in religion, not without it, I remain,