Thursday, September 01, 2011

NEWS FLASH: Jesus was "Spiritual but not Religious"

In the last 24 hrs on some of the blogs that I follow and Facebook comment threads, there has been quite the stirring about the phrase "Spiritual but not Religious" aka SBNR. After spending a good portion of the day chatting and commenting, I thought I'd blog about it as well.

It all began with a Facebook post from Chad Holtz (the guy who got in trouble for liking Rob Bell's book). I enjoy the way Chad thinks about things and tend to pay attention to the things he post that are of interest to him.

He posted a link to an article on the United Church of Christ site from The Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel, "Spiritual but not Religious? Stop Boring Me." in her post Rev. Lillian shares that she dreads conversations on airplanes with people who identify as SBNR. She dreads it because she seems to find their version of spirituality boring, uninspired and lacking of the real substance that is required for growth (that being the element of community). She further claims that SBNR folks are little more than typical self-centered Americans. Self-Indulgent consumers of their own brand of spirituality, she claims.    An interesting judgement for sure. For those of you who are friends with Chad, we had a wonderful exchange on his comments section of the post.  Chad later posted his own blog entry about the conversation, which is getting some great feedback as well.

Now to Dr. Lillian's credit this article was a mini version of a much longer article posted on the Christian Century site, "You can't make this up: The limits of self-made religion" and as she expressed to me in a personal email, you can say a lot more in 3,000 words than you can in 250.  In the longer article her tone is not as snarky, and her points are better delivered and overall provides some wonderful thoughts for consideration.

Even so, there is still an overall theme that seems to look down upon the classification SBNR as inferior to "religious people."   A judgement that I think naively overlooks the rich history of the SBNR movement.  It makes me wonder if those who criticize the term actually understand what it means?   Do they understand that SBNR is not some mer post-modern cultural fad - but is in fact a deep and enriching part of American culture for over 150 years and has positively impacted nearly every major religious institution for the better?  It makes me wonder if their criticism is balanced with scholarship. Have they read "Spiritual but not Religious" by Robert Fuller  and others like it (which you can find along with other great info on SBNR movement at

If the answers to these questions were yes, I imagine we'd find a slightly more understanding and tolerant tone.  Perhaps we would discover that those who identify as SBNR often do so as a result of the religious abuse and oppression that they have suffered in the name of God and religious authority.  That more often than not, the SBNR among us do not "reject" religion as much as they reject Dogma.  Dogma that has too often been defended and promoted by organized religion.  Dogma that has oppressed the weakest among us, dogma that has suppressed the Holy and Divine Feminine making it shameful and wrong. Dogma that has made a mockery of scripture by using it to defend racism, homophobia, sexism and classism. Dogma that has the audacity to put conditions on Grace, Love, Mercy and Salvation which Jesus so freely gave to all.  Dogma that helped produce a religious institution so unlike the name and nature of Jesus that the Son of Man himself would be hard pressed to recognize, much less defend it.

So please forgive us, for I too am SBNR.  Forgive us for looking outside of the institution that has far too often failed exemplify the simplest element of it's own creed, to Love thy neighbor.  Forgive us for looking into nature to find God's true Nature.  Forgive us that while on this seemingly self-indulgent path of personal discovery, we in fact discovered Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and The Christ Principle.  And please forgive us if we discovered that this encounter was far more real, authentic and transformative than anything we previously experienced in "church."

And forgive us if we happen to notice that this seems to be the path that Jesus took as well.  Remember, he disappears from the narrative from age 12-30 and when he reappears he is not touting the virtues of religious and spiritual community.  In fact, quite the opposite. He railed against the institutions of his day, their dogma, rules and authoritative judgements over society.  He sought his own personal relationship with God, so personal he called him Abba, Father.  So personal that this connection was not made through a creed, book or Temple, but in fact was closer than his breath and dwelled right within him.

Forgive us for thinking he was not self-indulgent for doing so.   Forgive us for noticing that Jesus was "Spiritual but not Religious"

And while you consider forgiving us for these transgressions, take note of the following;

SBNR people do not deny nor reject the power of being, growing and learning in community. In fact a more loving, inclusive and charitable community that is working toward a world that works for everyone is something that we care deeply about.

Take note that often the loudest voices against Religious Institutions have been voices from the inside. Voices that have been the source of positive and evolutionary change.  Religious voices that have called upon us to be more Spiritual and less Religious.

Rev. Henry Emerson Fosdick
Shall the fundamentalist Win?

Bishop John Shelby Spong

"So it needs to be said clear that the God presence of this Jesus will lead us ultimately beyond every religious definition.  Indeed, it will lead us beyond Jesus himself.  That becomes essential to human development whenever our idolatrous convictions identify the messenger of God with God.  So the Ground of Being will finally be worshiped apart from any system of religious thought.  It is a startling but real insight into the future of worship."  - Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p. 224

 Paul Tillich, Protestant Theologian
"The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand in the insight that it is of no importance. It is the spiritual power of religion that he who is religious can fearlessly look at the vanity of religion. It is the maturest fruit Christian understanding to understand that Christianity, as such, is of no avail." - The New Being, p 19

In other words Christianity is not about Christianity. It is about a new way of Being. When Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" he was not speaking of a religious way of Being, but a spiritual way of Being.

Scripture reminds us that it is the letter of the Law (religion, creeds and dogma) that kills, while the Spirit of the Law gives Life. An to enter the Spirit of the Law, one only need be spiritual, not religious.

And finally Dr. Lillian, do not make haste in your criticism of "self-made religion"

All religion is self made.  Paul Tillich reminds us that "Revelation is God's attempt to reach man. Religion is man's attempt to reach God." All religion stem from the personal Revelation of one individual, who then shares that revelation with others who in turn seek to touch the wisdom of the revelation by way of rituals, customs, rules and traditions that ultimately become...a religion.

In the end Dr. Lillian's point on the importance of community is well taken. We need community.  In community we grow, we are challenged and we change. But the world will not be served by more communities of "us and them."  In fact the world of divisive separation that humanity has created can only be served by the spiritual insight and revelation that there is only One Community. One global community of humanity in which, as Dr. Lillian stated, "[in community] we are stuck with each other"

And, like it or not that this is the way it is... This transformative insight can only come one personal revelation at a time.

Ernest Holmes
"The Church of God"
The Church of God is not built with hands, it is eternal in the heavens; it is not lighted with candles; its dome is heaven and it is lighted by the stars of God's illumined thought, and each member in his separate star "shall draw the thing as he sees it, for the God of things as they are." Here all people recognize the God within their own souls and ask for and see no other God. When you can look upon all creation as the perfect work of a perfect God, you will become a member of this church. I doubt very much if the church universal admits members from the church individual. When you can see in the saint and the sinner one and the same person, when you can realize that the one who kneels before the altar and the one who lies drunk in the street is the same one, when you can love the one as much as you do the other, no doubt you will be able to qualify. As it now is we have too many preachers who do not understand, that have no purpose; too many prayers, too many creeds, too many teachers, that have no message; too many churches, too many "learned" people, and too few thinkers. "The Kingdom of Heaven cometh not by observation." It is the "Still, small voice" within the soul that speaks. The expanded thought will never wish to join or be joined to. Nothing human can contain it. It feels the limitation of form and ceremony and longs for the freedom of the Spirit, the great out of doors, the Great God of the everywhere. Alone in the desert, the forest or by the restless ocean, looking up at the stars, man breathes forth these words, "With only my Maker and me."  


  1. As you probably know, David, Sharif Abdullah has been raising similar issues:

    "The reason why America so vehemently asserts its “Christian” roots, while so deeply rejecting the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, is something that we really need to understand."

    He asks us to consider some tough questions and offers some challenging historical perspectives and even images here. Then he asks us to consider what I found to be a powerful exercise.

    "If you have a religious practice, estimate the percentage of your practice time that is “culture” (singing, dancing, performing rituals, music, etc). What is the percentage of your practice time that is “spiritual” – spent in spiritual/ transcendental communion. "

  2. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Brian D. Stout from Facebook comments:
    ‎"As for me, you have hit all the major points, Rev. David. Early on in my own adventure in to The Beloved, I found that the offerings of others were useful for direction, but not depth. I longed for a direct experience with The Divine. My logic was simple; if it happened for these fine folks, certainly it could happen for me. I shook off the dogma, tradition, and education of the institutionalized religions and daringly declared myself to be a God Wrestler. It was through direct, experiential, and deeply personal interaction with that which is greater than I that I found my connection with God. Is this not what we are all striving for, anyway?
    In our yearning for this deep connection, we can not ever do the work for our brothers and sisters. We can only inspire, instigate, initiate, and inquire. I say, for those who quietly allow themselves to be spoon feed the solutions, conclusions, and conceptualizations of others (many of whom lived in a completely different age from us), they are the ones taking the easy way out. I find grace in grabbing Angels Of God as they come near and not letting them go until they reveal their true nature to me and thereby, revealing another glimpse of The Lover Of My Soul.
    And yet, I must confess some boredom with those who use SBNR as a scapegoat, an easy way out of a difficult conversation or simply as a way to duck the real challenge of having a belief, revelation, and direct intimacy with that which is Unrecognizable To Be Distinguished. SBNR is far more than a bland soup of boiled down philosophies that are little understood or investigated; unless that is all we are settling for.
    So, allow me to start - right here and now - a new movement; perhaps the next phase of SBNR and declare loudly - I AM A GOD WRESTLER!! Join me if you dare to claim a personal revelation of The Is."

  3. Excellent! "All religion is self-made" - religious people do not see the irony in this...Several years back I came across a piece of writing somewhere (sorry now I didn't note it for reference) talking about the fact that all "revelation" is can't get a "revelation" on behalf of others or for the purpose of sharing it with may indeed share it and they may indeed accept and agree with it, but then it becomes their personal "revelation" unique to their life and circumstances and each is a little different because we are all each a little different.

    Good stuff

  4. Yes Donna - Sharif and I have had some good dialogue about this. Perhaps I'll talk with him some more and follow up with another post.

    @Brian : exactly! We are all wrestling with God. Whether we are in a church community or not, the journey is personal.

    @LaDonna - yes, that sounds like Paul Tillich again. From the same source I quoted in the blog, he says "Revelation is always personal, never universal." thanks for sharing!

  5. I was a member of the UCC for 23 years before becoming an atheist. I expect hateful, exclusivistic diatribes from the conservative types, so Daniel's article was particularly shocking - it was unbecoming of a UCC pastor, period. The UCC is the denomination that promises a radical welcome and assures us that "no matter where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." Would the father in her article, in love with his child and her nascent spirituality, have felt welcome in Daniel's church? No way. I posted her article on my Facebook page and it was overwhelmingly panned as vitriolic and hurtful. Several said they would not want Daniel as their pastor - and who can blame them? The pastor should be the embodiment of a Christ-like compassion, and Daniel displays precisely the opposite with her words. Very hurtful and disappointing.

  6. Hear, hear! Thank you for posting this.

  7. Thank you for your recent response to Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel, "Spiritual but not Religious? Stop Boring Me."

    You note ‘an overall theme that seems to look down upon the classification SBNR as inferior to "religious people."’ You also note that those who reject religion or its dogma are doing so in response to the litany of evil loosened on other human beings in the name of holiness. The church in particular can be a place of exclusivity, etc, and many honest earnest seekers find it repugnant especially when the church espouses a ‘holier than though’ attitude. You also point out that the SBNR have found real authentic spiritual experience where they were unable to in the church.

    I can honestly concur with what you say because that certainly is my journey. As a deeply seeking young man, I was quickly disheartened that people’s only reason, it would seem, to believe in ‘God’ is because it says so in the book ‘He’ wrote…Barf… I took it upon myself to explore every other possible spiritual avenue I could find: Buddhism, Yoga, Hinduism, Scientology, Shamanism, Sufism. I have whirled with dervishes, offered a thousand sun salutations, chanted Kirtan till the morning light, floated in ecstacy in trance meditation, and fasted in the desert on vision quests.

    Many of these paths introduced me to powerful practices, noble virtues, and some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. This journey consumed a good two thirds of my life, all the while warmly nurturing a deep rejection, even allergy to the words ‘Jesus,’ ‘church’ and especially ‘faith.’ Faith seemed to mean: believing in something without thinking about it out of fear of eternal damnation.

    It is indeed true to say, at least in liberal secular Ottawa, Ontario, it is much more ‘cool’ to loosely participate in one of these other available traditions. For those interested, there is a plethora of opportunities for people to engage in some kind of spiritual resource and many do. Equally as acceptable is to not participate in any form of spirituality but to have thoughtful opinions and genuine desire to love thy neighbour. But, if you want to stop getting invited to dinner parties, or end conversation at social events, mention that you are a Christian. Having become one, I can tell you I am a minority. The vast majority of people that I know (including myself) were not raised in any form of religion and many have only been in a church for a wedding or funeral and could not really tell the difference between what happens in a church on a Sunday any more than they could a Mosque.

    In my experience, people tend to categorize me, when they make the discovery that I am a Christian that I belong to the Canadian Republican party and stay up at night to watch John Hagee, that I reject homosexuals, and that most of all, I have blind faith. OK, maybe not always so extreme, but at the least, people seem to think I have sold out, have a weak character, and obviously not thought much about the way things are.

    I agree with your article that those outside the church cannot be relegated as shallow sunset worshippers. People have good reason to reject religion, especially those rooted in an exclusive dogmatic Christianity. People do not need the church to develop their moral life, and there are indeed genuine spiritual paths available.

    But… (continued on next comment)

  8. Often SBNR seem to quickly dimiss Christians as the Rev Lillian did of them. It would seem that they too paint all Christians with the same brush and do not see the great depths of mysticism – the contemplative and social justice roots of this rich tradition. As I see it, there are two important areas worth paying attention to for the SBNR community.

    According to just about every spiritual tradition I can think of, at its root is some version of surrender, or non-attachement (see the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the Bhagavad ita of the Hindus, the Qur’an of Muslims, and so on). It would seem, this is the goal of human spirituality – the transformation of the will from a ‘me-centredness’ which is responsible for human suffering to an ‘other-centredness’ – other meaning other than me, that which is beyond me – I love the word for God in the Upanishads “Thou before whom all words recoil.” This transformation is incredibly difficult, in fact probably ultimately impossible. This journey of transformation requires intention, discipline, and even suffering; the suffering entailed in confronting your own fears and brokenness and the humiliation of discovering your own self centredness. Many traditions ultimately do this through the hand of a guru, master, abbot, sheikh or guide and require another dirty word: obedience. These ideas of human liberation – surrender, obedience, commitment, discipline are uncomfortable and even offensive to many a western progressive seeker. The challenge faced by SBNR folks, especially in a society like ours which celebrates individualism and self-autonomy, is that as free agents, they can draw a little from here, a little from there, what feels right - and the holy opportunity to hold one’s feet to the fire, the chance to face the refining fire is all but lost. In my experience, it can become an addiction to the next spiritual buzz, and a danger of thinking you are truly ‘spiritual’ without knowing you are just munching on sandwiches and never feasting at the banquet. The spiritual journey can become all about me and what I think is cool. (Of course Christians and other religious are guilty of falling into the same trap, but, to truly engage an authentic tradition, one must eventually take the heat or get out of the kitchen – Grace is a free gift, the challenge is being able to consent to it.)

    The second area of danger, from my experience, is that if one does go down an authentic spiritual path from another culture, it becomes powerfully seductive to see the cultural influences and the form of that tradition as spiritual. We adopt aphorisms and greetings or prayer in another language, special handshakes, clothing etc which seduces us into our image of what spirituality is and we never face the music. (Yes, Christians too face the same ego traps with power, control and self affirmation, yet the fabric of the form and tradition is part of our cultural make up, our meta-narrative and so easier to call a spade a spade, even when just setting out on the journey.) When feasting outside our own tradition, we are also embracing another culture, the soil in which that tradition grew. It becomes harder to detect the trappings because it all seems so exotic and ‘spiritual.’ This, no doubt, is why the Dalai Lama reportedly often tells people to go deeper into their own faith tradition instead of adopting his own Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

    ... (continued on next comment)....

  9. .....Although being religious is fraught with challenges, difficulties and a bloody history, it offers some qualities that I think are worth embracing. It is embedded within the culture that formed us. The archetypes, symbols and language are foundational to our (here in Canada) secular way of life – a way of life I whole heartedly embrace. It was outside the Church that I personally discovered God, and was then able to see God in all things, in all traditions, but it was in returning to the tradition of my culture that I came to know and experience God where she has been all along, within. It is within the form of the church, the sacraments, the scriptures and in the community that we are forced to face ourselves and our holy crappola again and again and to keep giving up my own need for control, affirmation and security so I can consent to THE Will and not my own.

    Surely all these authentic traditions ultimately drink from the same river, but if you want to reach water, dig your well deep. If Christianity just isn’t for you, then it would seem to me one is best advised to find the path that works and embrace it whole heartedly with eyes wide open! As a Secular Christian Canadian Anglican Priest I too recoiled at the tone in which Rev Lillian seemed to reject those outside her own faith – however – there was a part of me that welcomed her words. Sometimes, I get a little lonely.


    1. Anonymous2:51 AM

      If one keeps the commandments, one can enter the spiritual kingdom of heaven here on earth and the Holy Spirit manifest in the individual. One is then truly given all the gifts of the Holy Spirit turning man from natural to supernatural. No Rituals. No Funny Clothing. No Church Services. God cannot look upon sin. Therefore, working through what is "not good" or in alignment with God must be worked through. Then the Holy Spirit can enter the individual. Just as Jesus said we are all to become "AS" Gods. Not God. The Holy Spirit takes possession of ones body, rather than being possessed by unclean, false, demonic, and various other spirits that cause mental, physical ,and emotional deformities. Surrender your mind, body, and soul to God, clean your temple, recieve the Holy Spirit, and help others do the same. This is a spiritual process between man and God alone. And only for those who seek the truth that comes from within. The Bible (B-asic I-nstructions B-efore L-eaving E-arth) is written on the Hearts and Minds of every human. Seek one who has entered the Kingdom that Jesus preached and follow his set of instructions. The process is very simple, but definitely seemingly impossible. Keeping the commandments starts small, then becomes a natural part of the brain and expands the mind and all the life (on the inside) not lifestyle, has to offer. It is a treasue in a field that most will not find. It is like a special grand of sand on the seashore. Seek and ye shall find. God is Spirit. The highest spirit of all spirits who want to give you all the gifts for eternity. May your journey lead you to the living water of life. Gods will for you is in every moment. Jesus taught love and tolerance of everyone. And this love must be expressed at anytime under any circumstances and at all times with everyone in our path all day. This is Practice!! Our SIN (S-elf I-nduced N-onsense) gets in the way of this love, harmony, respect, peace, serenity, that we can all experience at all times. May God's spirit rest upon you!!



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