I really like Lillian Daniel. Really.
Why, you ask? Because in 2011 she said something that many mainline Christians have been thinking, but were too afraid to say outloud. In 2011 Daniel wrote an article with the very provocative title: “Spiritual, But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” If you think this was a rant, well, you’re right. Daniel basically tore into those folks that have been called “Spiritual But Not Religious” or SBNR. The article went viral and it’s easy to see why. Here’s what she said reflecting on a visit with a gentleman on an airplane:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
After this article and a longer one written for the Christian Century, Daniel wrote an entire book on the subject which just came out: “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough.” Her article last year drew some criticism from younger pastors such as Adam Copeland. Now that the book is out, we are hearing more criticism, this time from Presbyterian minister Landon Whittsit. He thinks Daniel is just being mean to the SBNRs and only focusing on Church Folk:
Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.
I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.
And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.
Whittsit says that Daniel has the SBNRs all wrong and links to an SBNR to prove his point. Actually, I think he proves Daniel’s point much better, but here is what Rachelle Mee Chapman says about her task in life:
After spending tens of thousands of dollars getting a master’s degree in Theology. After fighting to get ordained as a woman. After 30+ years in the church, and 15 years serving at one particular, belov-ed church. After all of this, I said goodbye to ordained ministry.
The practices of my youth stopped working for me. My beliefs had sprung links. The religion I once wore as my most prized possession started to pinch around the middle. It was sad, and I felt lost.
Magpie Girl helped me find my way. While I was living in Copenhagen, eight black magpies nested on the rooftops outside my studio window. The cawed and they cried. They were bright eyed. They were not silent. “Eight for a wish…” says the old nursery rhyme, eight for a wish. And I was wishing. For a new way. For a new home. For a new tribe.
I gather the people who are creating a new way, and I give them a place to call home.
Listen friends, what I want to tell you is this:
I believe you can write your own creed.
I believe that art + spirituality are good bedfellows.
I believe the institution doesn’t get to call the shots.
I believe you deserve a spirituality that fits. One that is authentic to who you are today, rooted in the best parts of your heritage, and creative enough to grow with you.
I believe you don’t have to bite your tongue, my bright-eyed magpie, because you have a voice. (And the world needs you to sing from the rooftops.)
There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin. I could probably write a series of posts on this, but I will leave it at this: what I read seemed to be proof of Daniel’s criticism, that some of these SBNRs are repackaging hyperindividualism as some kind of grand mysterious faith. No, it’s not. You just went to the WalMart of spirituality and borrowed from a few different faiths (the parts that make sense to you, of course) and then made it sound like it was all your own doing. Please.
I don’t get why some pastors are so enthralled with the SBNRs. I’m all for engaging those who are seeking something larger them themselves, but I am not interested or willing to engage someone who is only interested in their own words. In a post from 2011, I share my own frustrations with SBNRs:
In my encounters with folk, I’ve met people who will tell me their interest in church. They might include that they have been excluded for some reason, more often than not, sexual orientation. They seem interested in being part of this faith community or at least a faith community. But when it comes down to it, they never delve any further and seldom come back. In my earlier days I might think this was the soley the congregation’s fault, but now I think some people are just lazy when it comes to faith. I’m more than willing to present a tolerant and inclusive faith. As a gay man, I want to show that yes, we are part of the church and that we are loved by God. But I am not interested in playing games or in trying to make the church fit someone’s shallow faith. Following Jesus is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.
On the other side, I’ve met people in church who are not perfect, whose lives are falling apart and who come and encounter Jesus and be the church. They may not have all the answers, but they have a sturdy faith.
As a pastor, I want to be open to those who are interested in following Christ. Christ did welcome all, but he had no patience for excuses. When a potential follower wanted to follow Christ, but said he would come after he buried his father, Jesus told him to let the dead bury their own dead. Not nice, but Jesus was serious. He didn’t have time for niceties.
This has probably made me sound like the most bigoted pastor around and that’s not my intent. I want to welcome all as Christ did, but I don’t have time for games anymore. I’m too old for that.
I get that God can be found in places other than the church. I get that the church has done some terrible things. I get all that. But God can also be found in a church. God can be found in the imperfect people who make up that church and who care for each other and those outside of the walls of the church because they learned about how Jesus cared for others. I see God in those same people when tragedy strikes. When a wife dies in a car accident. When they get a diagnosis of cancer. When their month old baby dies. I see their faith in action in those dark times and I can tell you it ain’t no faith in sunsets.
For some strange reason, Jesus entrusted the church to people. He entrusted it to us. As flawed and even hurtful as the church can be, it can also be a place of warmth and healing. We see God at work in and through these fragile, broken people, the ones that have a faith that is ancient and able to withstand the storms of life.
As I said in 2011, I want to present those who have felt left out by the church with the love of Jesus. What I won’t do is tolerate those who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t think straight.
And if someone starts talking about seeing God in sunsets in the airplane seat next to me, I’m asking to be moved.