The category “Spiritual But Not Religious” has become a growing and popular trend in western culture. It is a catchy and cool way of saying “hey man, I’m totally in to Spirit and God Stuff – but I could do without all the dogma, rules and stuffy church things.”
In some circles this growing trend and identifier (SBNR) has been viewed as a threat to traditional religions. There have been several blogs authored by religious voices chastising those who identify as SBNR – calling them out as being inferior to religiously devote people and as being caught up in a “self-centered American culture that finds ancient religions boring” but consider themselves unendingly fascinating. Some of these blogs drew a lot of attention, including my own rebuttal to one particular criticism of SBNR at New Thought Theology.
It occurred to me then, as it does now that few learned scholars, ministers or theologians really understand or appreciate the deeper currents that lie beneath the catchy phrase / moniker SBNR. The truth is this label is more than a mer post modernist response to the rigidity that our fast paced culture finds in traditional religious institutions. It 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 is a by-product of the evolution of human consciousness and is simultaneously an ancient driving force within human thinking and religious development.
The challenge is human consciousness has developed a nasty habit of polarizing just about everything it contemplates. This has left the religious world unable to see the deeper value, history and benefit of SBNR thinking. But does tension between formalized religion and SBNR need to exist? I think not and I believe that the New Thought movement and Centers for Spiritual Living stand as testament to this.
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. More often than not, the SBNR among us do not “reject” religion as much as we 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 the Christ, that the Son of Man himself would be hard pressed to recognize it, much less defend it.
Under such circumstances the drive to be more spiritual but not religious seems understandable if not predictable. I can understand why people have felt the desire to look outside of the institution that has far too often failed exemplify the simplest element of it’s own creed, to Love thy neighbor. It is understandable that in the earliest days of the “New World” America, the naturalist and transcendentalist looked to nature to understand the nature of God. And while they were on that seemingly self-indulgent path of personal discovery, they in fact encountered Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and the Christ Principle. In many cases they found this encounter to be far more real, authentic, and transformative than anything they previously experienced in “church.”
In the New Thought Movement we consider Jesus the great example, not the great exception. The call to be more spiritual and less religious is one in which Jesus leads the charge. SBNR might be considered new and trendy – but it is in fact an ancient pattern demonstrated in the life of Jesus.
Remember, he disappears from the biblical narrative from age 12-30 and when he reappears he is not touting the virtues of religious community nor dogmatic laws. 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 me for thinking he was not “self-indulgent” for doing so.
It seems that Jesus was “Spiritual but not Religious”
Let us 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.
Dr. Paul Tillich
“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 of Christian understanding to understand that Christianity, as such, is of no avail.” – The New Being, p 19
“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
Dr. Ernest Holmes
“Religion becomes dogmatic and often superstitious when based on the lengthened shadow of any one personality. Philosophy intrigues us only to the extent that it sounds a universal note….
The ethics of Buddha, the morals of Confucius, the beatitudes of Jesus, together with the deductions of other great minds, constitute viewpoints of life which should not be overlooked. The mystical concepts of the ancient sages of China keep faith with the sayings of Eckhart or Underhill; the deep thoughts of ages past are reworded in Emerson’s Essays, and wherever deep cries unto deep, deep answers deep.” - Can We Talk to God?