The Theology of the “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.26.34 PMI’ve heard it and maybe you have too: the spiritual but not religious crowd lacks theology and has a make-it-up-for-yourself kind of spirituality. Is this accurate? Is there a theology at work among the SBNR group? Are they are salad bar spirituality crowd?

Linda Mercandante has investigated the Religious Nones, which have been  both ignored and even more often exaggerated, but they are a real and significant demographic. She studies them through the lens of their theology in order to discover if there is a theology at work among the SBNR. Her book is called Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, and it is an exceptional book for anyone who cares about the American religious scene (and it applies in many ways to the globalized West). Her book is another study in my year-long focus on liberal theology.

Are we moving to a “religion of no religion” (4)?

What do you think of her major conclusions about what the SBNR believe, or what their theology is? [By the way, this is a careful sociological study with good enough stats for folks not to counter with “but they are so diverse.” She has found these common elements.]

Is this the triumph of Protestant liberalism? Or a more toleration, open American religion?

Essentially the SBNR are spiritual outside the borders of traditional religious faiths and they want to define spirituality outside the borders of science, the material and the empirical. The term “spiritual” is broad and inclusive and reactive and ambiguous. But profoundly evocative for many.

Mercandante asked four questions of the SBNR in her extensive interviews:

1. Is there anything larger than myself, any sacred or transcendent dimension, any Higher Power?
2. What does it mean to be human?
3. Is spiritual growth primarily a solitary process or is it done with others?
4. What will happen to me, if anything, after death?

Her conclusions were to me not so much surprising as profoundly revealing, detailed in separate chapters on the important questions and themes she investigated.

First, there is a clearly a set of theological convictions among the SBNR, and it involves an anti-theology as well as a more pro-theology side. They are against exclusivism; a wrathful or interventionist God; a static or permanent afterlife of either a glorious heaven or a torturous hell; an oppressively authoritarian religious tradition; a non-experiential repressive religious community; and a view of humans that they are born bad. In other words, they have rejected a caricature or have created what Mercandante calls a “malevolent archetype” (230) that creates a common enemy and it enables them to reject a religious tradition.

Second, in abstract categories they have an impersonalized transcendence, a sacralization of the self, a focus on therapeutic — not so much civic — goals, and an orientation to their own self’s needs. Mercandante’s own theological training gives her some insight here to see direct structural parallels to traditional Christian theological categories.

Third, now some specifics and they illustrate in precise details what she means in those abstract categories (especially the sacralization of the self).

Instead of the traditional view of God, they transpose God into the sacred or divine self.
Instead of a sovereignty or freedom of God, they move into “readily accessible, even impersonal, divine energy” (232).
Instead of the traditional 3d person of the Trinity, the Spirit becomes “self-generating personal intuition” (232).
Instead of a savior figure or a prophet as in the major faiths, there are multiple gurus that help in self-healing.
Instead of trusting God, one trusts one’s inner voice.
Instead of praying to a God who listens, we have “self-generated positive thinking” (232).
Instead of the providential God, there is an “impersonal law of karma” (233).
Instead of guidance through God or tradition, there is self-guidance outside the tradition or intervention of God.
Instead of sin against God, it is about violating the authentic self.
Instead of justification as getting right with God, we have “getting into alignment with one’s own inner integrity” (233).
Instead of sanctification as the transforming work of God through the Spirit, we have “self-transformation and continuing self-improvement” (233).
Instead of holiness there is healing.
Instead of community and church we have the self.
Instead of spiritual gifts for the church we have “sacred power tools for the ongoing construction or revealing of the true self” (233).
Instead of worship there is a focus of the healing of the self.
Instead of tradition and authority there is “personal experience as final authority” (233).
Instead of commitment to one religious body there is “flexible, changing affiliations” (233).
Instead of an eternal life by the grace of God, there is “a seemingly endless journey, often through multiple lives or multiple realities” (233).

Mercandante has concluded the SBNR are not unchurched seekers, not apostates, not atheists, and not doubters but “a-theists” (234). That is, “they are moving authority, trust, belief, and divinity from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’ (234). They are what she calls “liminal nones.”

This description, and I see no reason to question her findings, suggests we see in the SBNR a devolution of the Schleiermacherian turn to the experience and the individual. It is a radical expression of Protestant liberalism. I am far less sanguine about the SBNR sector than Mercandante.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.