Not long ago one of my students described herself as a “free range Christian,” alluding to the diverse and varied character of her denominational past. The phrase captures in a fresh way a reality that has been true of the American spiritual landscape for quite some time.
Robert Bellah described it in Habits of the Heart in 1985. Robert Wuthnow in a book called After Heaven, written in 1998. And you see it on display all around us: Church’s that downplay their denominational connections or deny that they have a creed. People who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, by which they often mean, “I do God, but I don’t do church.” And you see it in the triage theology of rather more typical churchgoers who go to denominational churches, but whose personal theology bears no resemblance to the traditions that their denominations represent.
The phenomenon can be traced to a variety of factors. Some of it has to do with the churches — disenchantment with church’s that aren’t real, that are preoccupied with their own desperate search for survival, that don’t offer a persuasive reason for attending them, and that don’t teach their members much about their understanding of the Christian faith.
But the preference for free range Christianity can also have to do with a flight from spiritual accountability — the desire to craft a spiritual life that isn’t shaped by obligations to community, creed, calling — or anything else, in fact, that requires people to do what they don’t want to do.
In defense of free-range Christianity people will often argue that it comes closer to the “real deal” — a return to a time when people “just worshiped God,” “just read their Bibles,” or “just loved Jesus.”
There’s just one problem with this argument: The moment we begin to talk about how to worship, what to make of what we read in the Bible, or describe what it means to love Jesus, then we are already in the business of articulating a creed. And even if it is your personal creed (which is likely to have the limitations of one person’s thought and experience) you are doing what traditions and denominations once tried to do. The difference in today’s world is that we are coming closer to a world of personalized creeds than ever before.
Creeds and traditions are not meant to straight-jacket people. They are meant to help cultivate and deepen our grasp of the Christian pilgrimage by drawing on the wisdom, reflection, and experience of generations. It gives spirituality traction in our lives, a vocabulary that helps us discuss our experience of God with one another, and communicate it to another generation.
A free range Christian may be free, but he or she is also alone with a creed and community of one.