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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 213–220 

Ministry Compass

Spiritual but not Religious? Let’s Talk

Linda Mercadante

Psalm 19:1–10

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and his firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. {214}

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

1 Corinthians 1:26–31

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

God is not simply an energy or an impersonal force. Instead, God is personal.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at FUMC today. I am very glad to be back here, for the third time, as Theologian-in-Residence. I originally came here to research people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) and what better place to do this than in Boulder, Colorado?

I’ve really enjoyed speaking to the hundreds of SBNRs I’ve met here and all around the United States and Canada. As you know, over more than five years, I talked with scores of people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” My conversation partners were very diverse in many ways: socioeconomically, racially, and occupationally, as well as in gender-identity, education, and geographic location. I formally interviewed, recorded, and studied a hundred of these conversations. My book Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014) is a record of my findings.

The book has received lots of media attention, was named among the “Best Spiritual Books of 2014” by Spirituality & Practice, and has become an academic best seller. I’ve appeared in The New York Times, on NBC’s The Today Show, and in many other periodical, radio, and media outlets. I’m mentioning this because it shows how relevant the topic is right now. But please realize that without FUMC, this project might never have happened. Through your encouragement, help and support— {215} as well as the Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology—I gained the vision for this project. You helped me network to find interviewees, provided a congenial place to conduct the meetings, shared your thoughts and listened to mine. In fact, one of the reasons I came back was to thank you all for your generosity, your time, your connections, and your love.

I WAS ONCE SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS

I was raised in a mixed faith/no faith family. My mother was Jewish and a second generation immigrant with Austrian and Russian roots. My father was Roman Catholic and an Italian immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager. They married during World War II in spite of their families’ objections. Because a mixed marriage was considered shameful back then, they put their religions on a back shelf, like wedding gifts that embarrassed them. As a result, they gave me no religion. But I had a lot of big, essentially theological questions. I wanted to know about God, about the meaning of life, and how to find peace, vision, and hope. So I became an early spiritual but not religious person.

After a long spiritual journey, which you can read about in my previous book Bloomfield Avenue: A Jewish Catholic Jersey Girl’s Spiritual Journey (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), I eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister, theologian, and professor in a United Methodist seminary. I’m sure many people felt I overcorrected! With that background, it’s no wonder that I took on this project.

I did not accept the stereotypes which called SBNRs shallow, uninterested in belief, and overly self-focused. Instead, I found them thoughtful, caring, open-minded and very interested in theological questions. I felt privileged that so many were willing to share with me their spiritual journeys and their beliefs. Instead of hostility, I received gratitude and acceptance from them. They appreciated that someone so identified with organized religion would take the time to really listen.

When I was interviewing them, I was very careful not to impose any of my own views. I tried to be a good listener and neutral observer, kind of like a theological anthropologist. But after I was done, I thought a good deal about what they said as it related to my own faith. In what ways did I have similar beliefs? How would I explain to them why I, as a former SBNR, have found a home in the church? How would I explain to them why I have found a Christian perspective so helpful and satisfying. In what ways would I be able to meet SBNRs on common theological ground, and yet also be clear about what I believe and why? That’s what I want to share with you today. {216}

WE NEED TO TALK

We need to start a genuine dialogue with SBNR people. They are both inside and outside the church. In fact, today most of us lean somewhat toward the SBNR category, even if we show up at church. And all of us have children, grandchildren, friends, or neighbors who self-identify as SBNR. Today, then, I want to help you grapple with some of your own questions. And I also want to help you dialogue with the many people we all know who say they are SBNR.

I don’t want you to worry about doing this, though. Because both of the passages we just heard confirm that you don’t need to be a minister or a theologian to think theologically. The passages say, in essence, that learning God’s ways rejoices the heart and makes you wise even beyond your own abilities. Whether or not you think you have answers to the big questions—such as the meaning of life and the reality of God—I feel fairly certain that you have thought about them. And that means you are already doing theology. Theology is faith seeking understanding. So doubts and questions are not bad. Instead, they prove your faith is alive.

I want us to look at three important areas today: First, the God question; second, the human question; and, third, the death question. Let’s look at what my interviewees said about these things. And let me tell you in what ways I find myself agreeing with them. But most important, I want to explain how Christian faith can help deepen and enrich our views about these big questions. In the process, I hope you’ll ask yourself in what ways you agree and disagree, and where you still have questions to work on.

THE GOD QUESTION

My interviewees told me that they find the sacred in many places. In nature. In others. In themselves. They often approach life with a sense of wonder and awe, respecting the mystery and not expecting too many concrete answers. Many of them thought it was immature to expect personal attention from this source largely because it was an impersonal energy, not self-conscious or intentional. Most did not like to use the word God. As one interviewee put it, she said “I don’t have to believe in some ‘clown in the sky’ to make my life complete or to give me help.”

Thus, their objections are more than simply not liking male imagery for God. Many of them did not like the idea of an external or transcendent deity at all. They might talk about a benign universe, a universal energy source, some kind of energy which is available for them to plug into on an as-needed basis, kind of like a cell phone charger. Many live in a closed universe where nothing can be expected to intervene from outside. But one of the most striking I heard from them is that each {217} person is divine. Some actually said “I am God.” They said we need to tap into our inner divinity and there we will find all the answers and power that we need.

Where do you agree with this? Maybe it would help if I tell you where I agree: I agree that the sacred dimension is a mystery. I agree that this dimension is ultimately unknowable by human powers alone. I agree that it is something like energy and that it is with us, all around us, pervading all of reality. I agree we can get a sense of the sacred in others and even in ourselves. I agree there is something inside each of us that is like God. And that each of us is infused by a spirit that centers and grounds us, if only we tap into it. I agree that we can also sense the sacred in nature. And I am sure that if we don’t increase awareness of that we might destroy nature entirely. What do you think?

I need to add to this description, though. I need to include some things that I have gained from my Christian faith: I call the sacred dimension God. God is not simply an energy or an impersonal force. Instead, God is personal. God knows us, call us by name, loves each of us individually. God is among us and God’s grace surrounds us. But God is also larger than we are and even larger than the universe. If this were not the case, God would be embedded in this reality.

As such, God would be powerless to create and bring about the realm of God where justice will reign, all tears will be wiped dry, and we will have eternal life. And while God is mystery and unknowable by human powers, God has taken measures so we are not left with just mystery. We have Scripture to help us know the reality of God. And we have the unique window into the character of God, Jesus Christ.

As for nature, consider this: As the psalmist says in the passage we heard earlier, nature itself declares the glory of God. Without words, nature speaks of a creator who gave us a bountiful world to live in. So it is not earth as mother so much as recognizing that God is the mother of the earth. You can learn much from nature, but it does not necessarily tell us enough about the character of God. Church, scriptures, other faithful seekers, and tradition fills in, with words, what nature quietly displays and refers to.

And what about each of us being divine? I believe we have this inner brightness because we are each made in God’s image. More than that, God is helping us every minute, especially if we cooperate, to become more like God! This process is what the Greek Orthodox call “theosis.” It is our “godding” process, traditionally known as sanctification. In fact, that is why the idea of Jesus Christ is so important to Christianity. God became like us so we could become more like God. It’s a startling statement but it’s true to the Christian faith. But key here is that without {218} God’s help, with only relying on human effort, we could not get there. We don’t ever become God—that’s an important difference—but the longer we walk with God, the more like God we become.

THE HUMAN QUESTION

When the interviewees thought about what it means to be human, every one of them, without exception, always started with “Each of us is born good.” They did not like the idea of sin and especially original sin. As one said, “I don’t want someone to tell me I’m born fallen and God is punishing me for it. I believe everyone is born good and has the right to seek their own self-fulfillment. No one has a right to tell me how to live or express myself.” Where do you see yourself here?

Maybe it will help if I tell you how much their beliefs resonate with me: Yes, I agree that we are meant to be good and that human nature is not essentially bad. And I recognize that it is a contemporary moral value to seek happiness, meaning, and satisfaction in life without others imposing their own views on you. And I’ve learned from my interviewees that this goal does not mean you are narcissistic, hedonistic, nihilistic, or overly self-centered.

But let me make an additional contribution: Yes, God created you good and God wants you to grow and improve. God knows your authentic self and desires you to fulfill your deepest potential. You do not need to “white knuckle” your way to self-knowledge. You only need to trust that your source, God, knows you and can guide you through grace to live with integrity. But this is not automatic because we are born into a world distorted by many wrong or ignorant choices—that is what original sin is simply describing. We all have a tendency to turn away from God—and that is the meaning of the word “sin.”

Will we achieve this ultimate satisfaction in this life? On one hand, it’s okay if we try hard. After all, we can be quite strong and determined. But how can we reach this perfection when we are also fragile, vulnerable, and mortal? In addition, fulfillment is not just about you. It is also the way we help others. We are here for each other, and community is necessary for all of us. That is what church is all about. People helping people stay on the path, find consolation, and share the grace of God. Still, all is not lost. Because each of us, if we keep focused on our source, will find our ultimate self-fulfillment and unity with others when we see God face to face.

THE DEATH QUESTION

The interviewees mostly did not obsess about what happens after death. Some didn’t even want to discuss it. Still, most of them were {219} confident that whatever happens after death, it surely won’t be a static boring heaven where we have to praise some narcissistic God all day. Nor will it be endless torture in flames for those who just didn’t get it right or didn’t choose the right religion. Many of them believed in karma and reincarnation. Not Hindu or Buddhist reincarnation, though, where you can regress as well as progress, but an American version where we get endless second chances and move to greater and higher levels of fulfillment and power. Where do you stand on this?

Let me tell you where I stand, because maybe it will help: In a lot of ways, I agree with them. Yes, I believe there is something after this life. I don’t believe it will be static, boring, or torturous. I also believe that we can begin to live into that reality now, based on our choices. And I don’t believe that only, say, Southern Baptists or evangelicals will have a shot at a positive afterlife.

But let me make a contribution here: If we all got what we deserved—which is what karma means—none of us would be doing too well in this life or the next. Instead, Christian faith declares a loving, forgiving God who does not have a calculator to tally up our rights and wrongs, and give the appropriate reward or punishment. Instead, God is ready to receive us with open arms. In addition, God is with us now. But God also has special plans in store for us after death.

Deep in our hearts, we know—or at least we hope—that we were not created just to be extinguished after death. All that work, that growing, learning, and maturity for nothing? God will be happy when we come home. God is like the perfect mother who is even now preparing a feast for us. But I believe that she is just fine with us coming home late. I can imagine her saying “Hey, it’s okay, stay there and enjoy life as long as you can. But I also want you to start getting ready for the party now.” In fact, I think that finding fulfillment and happiness in this life—and helping others do the same—is a good preparation for the life to come.

Now, I believe that God wants to spend eternity with us. And I think that there we will continue to be individuals and continue to grow and deepen. We won’t be static angels on clouds, fawning over a narcissistic God who only wants us to keep telling him how great he is. Instead, when we do come home, I believe we will find our friends and family waiting for us at the big banquet table. And we will meet lots of new people, too. Then we will find what we’ve been after all along. We will know deep happiness and peace. We will know our authentic identity. And we will know true unity with others.

But more than that, I believe we will be starting on an even bigger adventure than this life. This will be a journey we take together. Growth will continue, but this time, without sadness or suffering. As C.S. Lewis {220} said (and I’m paraphrasing), “When we meet God after death, we will know that the school term is over and we are all on holiday now.” Isn’t this way of looking at things what we would expect from a loving, good, powerful, and visioning God?

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

What do you think about all this? Where do you stand? How much do you agree with the SBNRs I interviewed? Do you find the contributions that Christian faith makes persuasive? Think about it. And let me remind you why I have said all this today. It’s because I wasn’t able to tell this to the hundreds of SBNRs I interviewed. I was not able to explain to them why now I am both spiritual and religious.

I also wanted you to know that this is why I love the church. For we don’t have to believe “in” the church. The church is not the object of our faith. Instead we simply have to believe the witness of the church as it points us to God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The church is a community of faithful people whose job is to share God’s grace in Jesus Christ, remind us of this larger vision, and help us be grateful for it. The church is not a collection of perfected people. Instead, it is a healing and growing place for people taking the most important journey of their lives . . . together. Thank you for being the church. For all that, I praise God. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Linda Mercadante is Straker Professor of Theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She is the author of many academic articles and five books, including most recently, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious (2014). This sermon was delivered to the First United Methodist Church in Boulder, Colorado on May 24, 2015.

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