A Note to the Spiritual But Not Religious

It is not an easy case to make, I’ll grant, not easy to support the claim that Christianity has something left to offer to those identifying themselves as “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR). And so as I begin this new blog, I intend to offer a basic rationale, a “theological framework,” to help the reader understand my perspective. To that end the next few posts will have names like, “There is No Such Thing as a Miracle,” “I’m Not Buying the Whole Magic Blood Thing,” “The Anthropomorphic God is a Fiction,” things like that.

Now some may want to argue that in writing such posts I don’t sound much like a Christian at all, (and yet I claim to be just that: a Christian, firmly ensconced in the Christian religion.) It might even be reasonable to ask how I can support the Christian religion. The truth is, I can’t. At least I can’t if the Christian religion is understood to be collection of propositions about a triune God to which I must give intellectual ascent, or be cast into the fires of hell. If the Christian religion is understood to be a series of ethical positions derived from ancient texts that must now be applied to a modern world, then you’d have to say I’m not very religious. If the Christian religion requires me to believe that Mary was a virgin, or that Jesus walked on water, then I’m not very religious. If it means that I have to consign gay people to an afterlife of weeping and gnashing of teeth, then frankly, I’m not religious at all. Nor could I support similar expressions describing any of the world’s religious traditions. After all, it is those expressions of religion that move so many wise and thoughtful people to call themselves “Spiritual But Not Religious.”

But suppose that religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular are not about that stuff at all? I have come to believe that religions offer us a context of meaning within which to live our lives. We are religious creatures. We need a narrative to give coherence to our lives. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are wired to make narrative sense of the world around us. Having a coherent narrative to frame our lives is the very definition of sanity. Religions provide such a narrative; they give us a framework of meaning within which we live our lives. We are all religious in this sense of the word – all of us – and because of that, if we do not think critically about our religion, our framework of meaning, then we become subject to the manipulation of those who would use our need for a context of meaning, toward their own ends. The marriage of political power and religion has always been about that; but that usury dynamic is also seen in things like consumerism. Consider the marriage of consumerism and the entertainment culture of our society. Consider the values inculcated, the desires manipulated through a media enterprise controlled by those who seem hell bent on directing our work towards rampant unsustainable growth. It’s the religion that drives our economy. The problem here is not that there is such a thing as religion – that cannot be avoided for we are religious creatures – the problem comes when religion no longer serves the purposes of, for lack of a more accurate word, God. The problem comes when the power of religion, which stems from our biological need to make narrative sense of the world around us, is used to bind and enslave us.

My challenge will be to describe a Christian religion devoid of magical constructs, a religion free from the constraints of fear. My challenge in this blog will be to describe the Christian religion in such a way that the seeds of freedom which lie at its core germinate within us. This is not a task for the one, it is a task for the many. I look forward to the conversation.

Love Letter 30
A Response to Mark Labberton’s “Called, The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today.”
Love Letter 35
Love Letter 34
About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

  • http://YamSuph Susan Burns

    IMHO religion is the vehicle of language creation and domestication. We domesticated our own specie and ungulates through the ritual of religion. Also, we know that Abrahamic religions are not from God (whoever that is) because of the holocaust of gay people.

  • Frank

    In other words you want to create your own religion.

  • http://facebook.com/SBNR.org Steve Frazee

    It is an interesting challenge you have set for yourself. I look forward to watching it unfold. I do think you may have started a little off kilter when your propose that we are religious beings that require a neurological narrative. The prefrontal cortex weaves our lives into linear stories, but this does not mean that reality is such a narrative. Reality may be a frothy mess that ebbs and flows. The two halves of our brains tug at our mental sheets, one trying to make the world logical and orderly, the other a swirl of emotions and perceptions that can only be related to concepts like art and love. To say that we are religious beings I propose is not accurate. I offer that we are all spiritual beings and some of us investigate that experience through religion, others not.

    Being Spiritual But Not Religious need not always be referenced to the religious traditions of the past, it can also be a focus on the new, the innovative, and the emergent. This is why SBNR people often call themselves seekers. It is the heroes journey that they are on. They are adventures into what has never been experienced. All the great mystics, including Jesus, were SBNR.

    Steve Frazee
    Executive Director, SBNR.org

    • http://www.gracecomesfirst.net Sam Alexander

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comment. Life’s business has kept me from responding sooner.
      I write to the SBNR not because I think they/you are wrong and I am right. I make no such assumption. I don’t so much seek to convert as to expand the conversation because I think there are some interpretations of Christianity that have value. I write to that amorphous group called the SBNR because I think I can engage in a conversation with them that will move us all a step forward in the hero’s journey.
      I take your point that the two halves of our brain are tugging at us. You also say that some of us investigate spiritual experience through religion and others not. Certainly this is factually correct, but I would suggest that we humans will do better if we take and an integral approach on this rather than an either – or. You brought up Jesus’ being SBNR. So let me preface my response to that by saying that it is my experience that portraits of what the historical Jesus did or did not do, to claim authority for a point, end up being founded on shaky ground – so I’m not trying to do that here. Having said that, I think the evidence is there to suggest that Jesus investigated spiritual experience both through religion – he being clearly steeped in Judaism (if any of the words we have in the gospels are original to him which I suspect some are) – and through what you beautifully call “the swirl of emotions and perceptions that can only be related to in concepts like art and love.”

  • Sara Fritsch

    What you describe sounds very much like a Christian Deist. Personally, I have felt that my own beliefs, when I try to define and categorize them, come very close to that. After all, shouldn’t all Christians be Deists first and foremost? There is no doubt that Jesus was a Deist. (period). A LOT of the forefathers of the United States were also Deists.

    But, because I believe that Jesus did in fact perform miraculous works, I do not share the same disbelief in the possibility of Miracles. This seems to be a splitting issue between many Deists. They are also split on whether or not God is a personal God or a disinterested bystander. I think God can do anything that is within the laws of God’s nature, and that some things that appear as miracles are possible within those laws. I guess this explanation of miracles is similar to the so-call ‘Christian’ version of alchemy.

    What I do tend to agree with (in principal) regarding miracles, from the Deist point of view: If I did not witness the so-called miracle with my own eyes, and if the only evidence of the supposed miracle is hearsay upon hearsay (two or three people removed from the original eye witness) I am under know obligation to believe it. (This would be the case in any court of law). To Deists the same principle applies with regards to Revelation. i.e.: If it was not revealed to me, I am under no obligation to believe it. Note: This is not my own personal view of all of the revelations in the Bible. That is why I consider myself a Christian and a Deist. (I’m a little bit of one, and a lot more of the other). The big issues I have with Christianity, in its current forms, is that they appear to me to be worshiping the words, in a book, above God. And they appear to pick and choose verses from the Old Testament, and seem to ‘conveniently’ miss the point of the New Testament at times when it is ‘useful’ to them as a way to subjagate others. I think the reason they insist that the Bible be taken literally, and that the Bible is ‘inerrent’ is because they have staked their entire claim of ‘male superiority’ on the ‘authority’ of two sentences in that book, rather than on the authority of God. Sadly, very few men on the planet will ever admit that, to themselves or to anyone else. Most will cling to that belief, even if they have too do so dishonestly. To them the ends justify the means, even if that means they have to commit grievous acts.

    As a seeker of truth (per Jesus’ instructions “Seek and you shall find” and “The Truth shall set you free”) I have studied the origins of the Bible, including the various councils where important decisions were made that impact the religions of people to this day. I do not hold that, because these men were supposedly extra special Holy men, that their decisions were necessarily wise with respect to me (a woman). The choices they made appear biased toward me. I have to tell you I am not a ‘radical feminist’. I am just a Christian woman who is appalled by history. To me, they appear to have overlooked some books simply because they didn’t like the thought of women being treated with respect equal to that which men seem to think is their birthright, alone.

    These learned special Holy men invoked ‘the great lie’ to crown their choices with the false pretense of Holy selection. (To cynically pacify the superstitous women, I suppose.) Since I am a Christian, in that I try to follow the teachings of Jesus, and continually improve, I seek out Truth in order to ‘discern’ what it is that God wants me to believe. I have prayed long and hard about it. And I have to say that based on all of the evidence, when thoroughly studied and reflected upon, the only conclusion that rings true in my heart is that these special Holy men made a terrible error at that time in history. There are other Gospels which are at least equal in time and place to the ones adopted, and I feel deprived of a birthright that this treasure is not included in the religion that claims to be representative of Christ. These are the same special men who turned Mary Magdelene into a prostitute and centuries later quietly apologized. Tell me, truly, if you were a woman how would you feel about all of this? I believe my ‘true’ religion has been co-opted for centuries by a self enthroned patriarchy who created a religion so vastly removed from the religion of Christ that if you can’t see it, you must be blind. If you have eyes to see, then see. If you have ears to hear, then hear.

    So, to the one who spoke down about ‘creating your own religion’ all I can say is: “It made me laugh.”

    Therefore, if anyone is out there trying to ‘correct’ this ERROR they are OK in my TRUTH SEEKER book!! The truth will indeed set us free from the misguided man-made religions that are today known as Christianity. I hope tomorrow we will show the world what true Christianity is. (Note: Read ‘Christianity as Old as the Creation’ for Christian Deist core beliefs. It is very very good.)