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ECUMENICAL AND INTERFAITH RELATIONS – September

(Submitted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Southern California Nevada Conference, UCC, and the Pacific Southwest Region, DOC)

EIRCSpiritual but not Religious?

(We thank Rev. Dr. Charles Bayer, a Disciples of Christ theologian who taught in Australia for many years and is now resident at Pilgrim Place, for the following thoughts.)

A couple of weeks ago I was in New Mexico with a group of a dozen old friends attending our annual golf outing. After a day on the links, each evening we would gather for a serious conversation about what was going on in our lives. One of our number, who grew up in a solid religious family and even attended a Catholic seminary for two years, commented that he is still “spiritual, but not religious.” It is a statement i have heard over and over from all sorts of people. The same response is affirmed by all the way from still dedicated church members to outright atheists. Recent surveys tell us that 30% of all Americans now classify themselves as “nons”—meaning “no religious preference.” A substantial number of the nons say that they remain spiritual, even if they have no current religious affiliation or even preference. While the meaning of “religion” may be more or less clear, the word ”spiritual” is not so easily defined.

In former years, “spiritual” often had the vaporous connotation of the spirit world: séances, ghosts, table rapping, and voices from beyond the grave. None of the people to whom I have talked, who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” come anywhere near accepting that definition for themselves. So what does the phrase mean? Basically, in today’s language, “spiritual” implies a quest to cultivate the inner life, as opposed to focusing on outward structures and institutions. It often includes certain practices, such as meditation, yoga and concern for the arts which do no depend on attendance at a meeting of a religious community. While basically interior, however, it is not always a totally isolated discipline. Meditation, for instance, can well be a group activity.

For many the designation is a way to hang on to a value system learned in some religious body or family, without having to accept the barnacles and failings which come with institutional religion.  “Spiritual but not religious” types want to retain an appreciation of what they understand to be the ethic of Moses, Jesus, Gandhi or other great religious leaders. This is probably as close as they want to come to religious institutions, though some may feel a faint guilt for, in effect, living off values and disciplines preserved mainly by religious institutions.

The spiritual but not religious may may also imply reject religious systems propped up by doctrines they simply no longer believe. They find no use or even truth in creeds written centuries ago, in totally different cultural and philosophic worlds. Teachings like the virgin birth, miracles or the blood atonement may violate what they believe about the natural world. Beyond being puzzled, they may laugh that, in this scientific age, people still believe in a six-day creation and the story of Noah and his menagerie. When it comes to the debate between science and religion, for them science wins hands down.

Many of the spiritual nons are also keenly aware of the pogroms, wars, bloodshed, witch trials and bigotries of all kinds which litter religious history. And then there are the contemporary church movements and spokespeople which command media attention and make the nons think that “Christian” means “fundamentalist.” Others in this group are not necessarily hostile to religion or religious people and their institutions–they just see them as irrelevant to their lives or the world in which they live. Churches are often viewed as comfortable, non-challenging social clubs for people who enjoy that sort of thing—which the nons do not.

If I believed that this description was all there is to religion, I would place my own banner in the “spiritual but not religious” camp. To the extent that religion offers the face described above to thinking young people, and even to greybeards like me, it deserves to be ignored.  It is up to us in the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ to help them see that there is much, much more to religion, and much, much more value in religious affiliation, than they have so far seen.

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