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Spiritual but not Religious, or A Disconnect on the Faith Divide

Teaching World Religions in the summer term. It's always a fascinating 8 weeks, even in Oklahoma, where you can safely assume the degree of homogeneity in religious expression is very high. While diversity in classes can often look like Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Agnostic instead of Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Atheist, this term seems to have more of the unaffiliated than ever before, even as there are exactly zero students who have never been Christian. Such is life in the third most religious city in America. 

A religions course can often turn into an extended discussion about the grievances amassed over a lifetime (even an 18-year lifetime) of religious observance. I try to avoid that by answering as many questions as possible, encouraging the avoidance of cynicism, and filling in the gaps between experience and knowledge. This is particularly difficult when students believe their understanding of their faith is the faith that was "once for all entrusted." What you might find surprising is that the "spiritual but not religious" group is the most difficult to work with, primarily because they believe they have found a personalized expression of faith.

Much has been made about the growth of "nones" in the past few years, the group who consistently checks "none" on surveys about religious faith. As with all surveys, how questions are shaped determines how good the data is. If a question is multiple choice, the answers must fit within the parameters of the possible responses. For example: What is your faith? a. christian b. buddhism c. islam d. judaism e. hindu f. none.

Clearly, that's a poor question. It assumes the five major faiths are the primary conduits for the transmission of religious frameworks. While I believe that is largely true, there are other factors at work culturally right now. What does none or spiritual but not religious really mean? I'm pretty sure the growth of nones is at least partly due to disaffection with the label Christian. 

One of my students happily informed me that she is not a Christian. Instead, she believes in God. Her friend sitting next to her said she too fit that category. The friend, it turns out, attends a Pentecostal church. Clearly, she's confused about what "just believe in God" actually means. The first student who spoke, though, doesn't attend a church. Here's the conversation:

S. I just believe in God.

Me: Jesus?

S. Yes.

Me: Resurrection, crucifixion, savior of the world, remission of sins, second coming, heaven and hell?

S. Yes.

Me: Trinity?

S. I just believe in God. No labels.

Me: Father, Son and Spirit? Salvation?

S. Yes (reluctantly).

Me: So you take a story from the four Gospels, one that is canonized by Church Councils, propagated by ministers and missionaries, and communicated to you through Christian witness, and you believe that your story is just one wherein you simply believe in God? You see that everything you believe is shaped by the Christian story, and you have simply chosen to pretend as if you arrived at your simple beliefs in God without benefit of two millenia of Christian tradition, despite the fact that you believe the same story they do?

To her credit, she got it. (The friend did not. Can't save 'em all, eh?) She is no more a none than her Pentecostal friend sitting next to her, yet both would have checked none on a survey. Both students are weary of the word Christian. It comes with too much baggage in their minds. I'm weary of people trying to find new ways to pretend they don't stand within 2000 years of Church tradition, even as they construct a "personalized faith" the substance of which is drawn from the Christian Gospel but stripped of elements that require commitment, community, and humility. The radical individualism and consumerism in our culture makes a personalized faith seem perfectly normal. Why wouldn't I personalize my faith? It's mine, after all, just like my political views, mp3 player, favorite DVD, pet, friends, and church. I chose them all, based solely on the question "What do I like?" 

All the new Christian categories—Christ follower, Jesus follower, follower of the Way (hell, just pick one)—are all concepts that are used intentionally to avoid the unhappy conclusion that the follower is really a Christian, but a Christian who doesn't like the Christian tradition or church or some doctrine. Better to own the word Christian than have me interrogate you only to discover that you are actually a Christian. At that point, I think you're dishonest, disingenuous, ignorant, narcissistic, or confused. None of those are good. 

Christians aren't the only guilty parties, though. Many of my spiritual but not religious acquaintances have no genuine framework for their faith. It's a completely self-serving construct that allows them to believe, in the words of Christian Smith I believe, "God loves me and wants me to be happy." What that requires is no commitment to a larger tradition, and a radical internalizing of metaphysical assumptions, all of which are exempt from criticism. Do you pray? Yes. Do you attend worship services? No. Do you have a sacred text? No. Will you go to heaven? Yes. What will it be like? It will be what I make it. How do you know there is a God? I just do. What's he or she like? He loves me. He's kind and forgiving and gracious. Why should he be those things and not angry, vengeful and capricious? He's not. How can you know this? What tradition taught you this? I have no tradition. I just know this. I'm not a religious person, just spiritual.

It's utter nonsense, of course. It's the ultimate metaphysical cafeteria. God becomes the means whereby I think good thoughts about myself and my life. His function is simply to be my invisible therapist and to approve of the things I do, unless he has to disapprove briefly because I got drunk and banged a stranger, but then he is quick to forgive and remind me that I'm worth more than that. That this is a completely internal monologue ought not be lost on those of us who are not spiritual or religious, but convincing the practitioners of the cult of the self that they are neither spiritual nor religious either is a quixotic task. If choosing between the nones and the spiritual but not religious, I'll side with the nones. They seem to recognize that their story is not literally their story.

Christian Cannibalism, or It's Time to Retire the Bible

No, the guy in Florida who ate the other guy's face off has not been declared a Christian yet. He may never be. I mean, it's Florida. He's as likely to be Santeria or Santa Muerte as Pentecostal or Catholic. This is the first year I can remember getting really weary of all the Bible talk floating around. Just the other day a gay news site reported that Christians in Georgia had attempted to burn a gay man alive. After reading the story, it was clear to me that the only way the news site could infer the culprits were Christians was because they mentioned God and live in Georgia. Still, there is nothing overtly Christian about the threatening message. I posted the story on fb, and a few Christian friends immediately said that the arsonists weren't "real Christians."

Christianity in the modern era has always allowed self-identification. If I say I'm a Christian, I'm a Christian. There are no set criteria for proving the assertion true or false. This is largely the fault of the Evangelical churches in the U.S., especially those modeled on the "seeker sensitive" movement of the '70s and '80s. Their method was the natural consequence of the evangelistic emphasis of preaching "the gospel" in tent meeting style revivals. The goal was to generate conversions by convincing the "unsaved" or backslidden that they needed to ask for forgiveness. Reform was clearly an afterthought, especially in the post-Billy Graham Crusades days. Saying the right words, a sinner's prayer for example, brought on the happy ontological shift from child of perdition to child of eternity. The Bible functioned as a sort of reverse lodestone; rather than be a magnetic center, it was the center of a theology from which emerged tiny chunks of theology, like a lodestone suddenly losing its charge. The prooftexts fell from the Bible, a fragmented mess that could be mixed together until just the right combination was found. 

This is not to say this is an utterly new thing. Clearly Calvin, Arminius, Aquinas, Augustine, and many other Church luminaries were guilty of similar parsing, but not until the Second Great Awakening is the process of filtering out a mini gospel so obvious. With the advent of evangelistic crusades in the 20th century, the method went into widespread use. The destruction of the overall context was carried out by the Princeton cum Westminster fundamentalists. They made it impossible to find a coherent narrative within the overarching framework of the Bible. It was all or nothing, a completely ludicrous and ultimately quixotic quest that has led to something as utterly banal as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and as pernicious as the dividing of denominations along exegetical lines. 

It's now time to retire that grand old book. No one knows what to do with her anymore. Evangelicals and megachurch pastors sift out the "you're saved" and "how to manage your finances" and "whom not to fuck" parts, leaving the rest to befuddle their congregants, since the men with business sense who are running those churches have no theological sense. Fundamentalists still insist, emperor's new clothes style, that the book is univocal. They can't even see two creation myths in the first two chapters of the book. Blind guides seems Biblically appropriate. Liberals want to keep all the ethical portions, which is fine, if you can tell me which are the good ethics and which the bad and why we need a Bronze Age book to tell us that anyway. Missional, emergent, mainline, charismatic, all pull portions of the Bible to build interesting little kingdoms, but no one knows what to do with the rest of the book.

The most obvious problem is that no group can read the book and explain what a Christian ought to be. There are no overarching criteria. Even belief in Jesus is silly once the question is asked: what do you mean by "belief?" I just read a quote today posted by the amazing David Dark. You can find it I'm sure. I'm just going to paraphrase. The problem in the South isn't biblical literalism; it's biblical illiteracy. And the wise among the tribes nod their heads. Only that's nonsense. If you read the whole thing, you'd be no closer to forming a coherent work and witness and ethic and creed than if you just made shit up. Too many voices in there clamoring for attention. Biblical literacy always means learning to read the book through a particular lens. That lens already determines the conclusions before the reading begins. I told one of my fb pastor friends that the Bible is worthless for creating a unifying doctrine and for describing what a Christian ought to be. Given that, why keep reading it other than for anthropological, cultural, linguistic and literary reasons? It clearly doesn't function well as a locus of doctrine, praxis, ethics, or history. If it can't tell people who believe it is God's revelation who they are supposed to be, what possible function can it have?