The Spirituality of Not

This past Sunday I went to church with my father — to Gloria Dei, the Lutheran Church I was a member of during my adolescent years. It was the site of my Lutheran first communion and Lutheran confirmation; the community where I first learned how to “do” church, and the church I returned to after that world-shattering weekend in 1977 when I, attending a statewide youth group weekend in the Shenandoah Valley, experienced an unexpected, un-anticipated encounter with the mystery of all-pervading loving consciousness that to this day I can only explain as the loving presence of God. When I did return to my home church, I discovered that it was not a place where it felt safe to talk about such an experience. So I compensated by exploring charismatic and neopentecostal spirituality (in non-Lutheran settings). Although I never told my pastor at Gloria Dei about my experience of the presence of God, I did let slip that I had begun to participate in the charismatic renewal — and his disapproval was swift and clear. By the time I realized that I couldn’t accept the theology of pentecostalism, I had already lost faith both in Lutheranism in general and my church and pastor in particular.

With the collapse of my faith in both Lutheranism and charismatic spirituality, thus began my long odyssey through a kaleidoscope of belief systems and ideological communities, ranging from the secular (War Resisters’ League, Democratic Socialists of America) to the contemplative (Shalem) to mainstream religion (the Episcopal Church) to fringe spirituality (Wicca, Ár nDraíocht Féin) to efforts at creating my own faith community (the Earth Mystic Circle, Brigid’s Well), before finally washing up on the shores of the Catholic faith and Cistercian spirituality (and yes, more than one cynic has asked me how long I’ll put up with Catholicism, but as of this writing it’s three years and counting). The funny thing is, for most of the years in which I have been a seeker, I blamed (or perhaps, credited) my disillusionment with the charismatic renewal as the fuel that powered my restless searching. But since becoming a Catholic, I’ve experienced a détente of sorts with the charismatics. I still eschew their theology as aggressively naive and arrested in a mythic-membership mode of consciousness, but I think I’ve managed (or “am managing,” this is a process) to release much of my anger and bitterness toward pentecostalism. These days I can listen to Christian rock without grinding my teeth (and thanks to Rebecca St. James and Third Day, I actually like a lot of it), and I’ve begun to actually appreciate charismatic spirituality as a form of kataphatic devotion.

But then there’s the Lutheran Church. Or perhaps more specifically, my Lutheran Church — Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, in Hampton, Virginia, the church of my adolescence. These days, I think my adolescent spiritual angst was caused not by Lutheranism or pentecostalism, but by the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to integrate the two — and felt like I had no one to turn to, to help me do so. Since the same pastor who disapproved of my exploration of charismatic spirituality is still at Gloria Dei, that old wound hurts again whenever I drop in for a visit.

I probably would never go there again, but for the love of my parents. It’s where my mom (and presumably my dad) will be interred, if they ever actually build the columbarium they’ve been talking about ever since I was a boy. Out of devotion to my parents, whenever I’m in Hampton on a weekend I go to mass on Saturday evening and then take dad to Gloria Dei on Sunday. And four times out of five, I end up having to remind myself not to gnash my ivories while I’m there.

This past Sunday was one of those times. Thankfully, the sermon was delivered by the newly-ordained junior pastor, so it was inoffensive and actually a bit charming as he enthused about the theology of story (after the service I told him that he should read Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution if he wanted a good look at the theology of story, figuring that might shake him up a bit). Compared to the usual exclusionary, triumphalistic, über-patriotic (the church’s membership includes many armed services families) bombast that passes for preaching the gospel there, this mildly boring homily was about as good as it gets. But that still did not keep me from having a generally unpleasant experience. Perhaps it was the awful pseudo-military choreography of the acolytes; or the pastor’s overly-dramatic editorializing during the opening penitential rite (“let us know kneel so that we may confess who we are”), or the jarring absence of a eucharistic prayer (the liturgy lurched from the sursum corda to the words of institution directly to the Our Father. The Lutheran Book of Worship permits this, but I personally think it’s a liturgical trainwreck). Or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten used to worshipping in my ethnically diverse, lower-middle-class Catholic church, so going back to this largely-white, upper-middle-class Lutheran church just felt a wee bit too country-clubbish for me. Who knows? It just seemed that at every turn, there was something new for me to find horrid about the service.

And then it dawned on me. This service was no more horrid (or beautiful) than any other sincerely enacted Christian act of worship, of any theological or denominational stripe. It just was horrid to me. The “problem” was not with those pesky Lutherans, it was with me, in me.

In all fairness to Gloria Dei, there are lots of wonderful folks there. After the service, many family friends came up to me and my dad, including an old high school buddy I hadn’t seen in years. My father gets lots of love and attention at the church, for which I am truly grateful. These are good folks, good people. Still, it’s not my home. With the clergy, I feel armored and on guard. When I speak to the one minister there whom I genuinely like (a young vicar who was very gracious to my family during my mother’s final illness), I act awkward, self-conscious, making unfunny jokes and laughing at my own foolishness. It’s like I’ve fully regressed to the teenager who has never quite made peace with this church he left behind so long ago.


I’m back in Georgia now, where I belong. And in December I’ll return to Gloria Dei and hopefully it will be one of those rare times when I can rise above my own woundedness and just enjoy the fact that this church means so much to dad and that the good people who worship there are so kind toward him.

What can I take away from all this? It’s okay that my relationship with Gloria Dei is so messy and imperfect; that’s life. Going back there is a lot like having dinner with an old flame: it’s nice to check in, even if the overall experience is rather awkward. But this is not to say that I’m off the hook for the unfinished spiritual work I need to do around this. I’ve come away from this most recent excursion down church-memory-lane with an appreciation of how much my faith is shaped by a “spirituality of not.” And I suspect many people have similar aspects to their spiritual or faith identity. What I mean by this is that it’s not enough to say “I am a Catholic” or “I am a contemplative” or “I am a Lay-Cistercian novice” or “I am a student of western mysticism and Celtic Christianity.” Yes, all of that is true and it’s all important to understanding who I am, faith-wise. But my experience yesterday reminded me of just how much energy I put into what my spirituality identity is not. “I am not a Lutheran.” It doesn’t stop there. “I am not a neo-pentecostal,” “I am not an Episcopalian,” “I am not a Wiccan,” “I am not a druid.” The spirituality of not has me by my short hairs. And I suspect it has most of us. How many of theses statements carry power for you?

  • I am not a conservative
  • I am not a liberal
  • I am not a fundamentalist
  • I am not a Catholic
  • I am not an evangelical
  • I am not a new ager
  • I am not a Christian
  • I am not a fluff-bunny Wiccan
  • I am not a feminist

I could go on and on. Even Jesus might have said “I am not a pharisee.” The point is, we invest a lot of energy into the spirituality of not. Probably too much energy.

It’s human nature. Ken Wilber talks about how part of the process of evolution is learning to differentiate ourselves from whatever we leave behind. I think that might be the genesis of the spirituality of not. But if we aren’t careful, differentiation turns into disassociation. The spirituality of not can become hardened into anger, resentment, bitterness, or (as in my case), anxiety and subtle self-righteousness.

It’s okay to know who we are not. But we need to beware of being hardened into a shell of not-identity. Learning to forgive, to love, to accept, and ultimately to be comfortable with what we are not: that’s an important part of the journey, methinks. “Comfortable” does not necessarily mean accepting uncritically. I’m glad I’m a Catholic, not a Lutheran. But the time has come for me to stop being a teenager when I relate to Lutheranism. Especially the Lutheranism of my dad’s church.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peter


    In our recent web experience on The Starfish and the Spider, Mike gently exhorted me when I was making one of my political anti-something-or-other rants with the wisdom of Ken Wilber: “transcend and include.” I may be at a similar place as you are in this process as it relates to our religious past: spending many years and huge energy on the “transcend” portion of the task–as you quoted Wilber, necessarily differentating ourselves from what we have left behind–and perhaps at length coming to the point of feeling the need to do the spiritual work necessary to have closure on the “include” part. This probably includes looking for the positive (what we have in common) and using this as a basis for communicating as much as we can, without losing the distinctiveness of what we have discovered in the process of our own conscious evolution.
    May God bless you as you seek to re-integrate from your “dissociation” and function effectively as a healed, whole expression of what He has uniquely created you to be.
    Blessings in Jesus,

  • Ken


    I had a similar experience as a teenager. After receiving “baptism of the Holy Spirit” from a married couple who were Charismatics, I told my Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and he strongly discouraged me from pursuing it further. Eventually I left the Lutheran church and had a journey similar to yours experiencing a wide variety of traditions. I am now a Unitarian Universalist (UU) for 5 years and love my local congregation. My whole family are all conventional christians who at our recent family reunion in Georgia were talking about how we have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven after we die. I am also working on “transcending an including” my spiritual heritage of Lutheranism and evangelical christianity. It has been difficult to engage in conversation with my father and other relatives about spiritual matters. It is like we live on different planets. Thank you for the interesting article I wish you well on your journey,

  • Yvonne

    I’m trying to forgive the charismatics and the Plymouth Brethren for the damage they did to my psyche, but it’s hard work. I sympathise.