This week I sat on a panel on LGBTQ+ spirituality organized by the multicultural office and the social work department at the University of Arkansas.
First question out of the gate: Do you consider yourself more spiritual or religious?
As I sat and listened to responses, I realized this discussion, about spiritual vs. religious, is really part of the popular conversation. Panelists had very thoughtful things to say.
Meanwhile, I kept thinking to myself: I don’t consider myself spiritual or religious. I don’t really use those categories when I speak or write.
So then what am I if I’m neither spiritual nor religious? Clearly I’m not one of the “nones” or “dones.” I’m a Lutheran pastor who blogs at the Progressive Christian channel on Patheos, after all. How can I be neither spiritual nor religious?
By the time it was my turn to speak, I decided to answer simply: I don’t think of myself as spiritual or religious. I think of myself as someone trying to practice Christianity in the social gospel tradition.
Let me try to unpack that. So first, I do believe that faith is centered in life lived together. This is perhaps my one struggle with those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I totally believe them that they are. But I do think when people say that they are thinking of spirituality as a largely individual activity. It’s something you are, not something done together.
So the social gospel emphasizes the social implications of the good news of Jesus. In the most “religious” way of talking about this, people would say we try to live like Jesus, practice social justice in the way of Jesus. This is why frequently social gospel Christianity gets involved in politics, or community organizing, or shareholder meetings. Because it is a faith that has direct social implications. Always.
And it is the gospel because gospel is whatever it was that Jesus (and the movement he started) was teaching and enacting in the coming kin-dom of God. Good news for the poor and oppressed. Liberation for those in bondage.
So you could say social gospel is both religious (in that it applies to institutions and structures) and spiritual (maintaining a spirited connection to the teachings of Jesus). But I wonder if perhaps it can be clarifying and freeing to consider dropping the terms “religious” and “spiritual” altogether in order to get beyond a false dichotomy between individualized spirituality and institutionalized religion.
Another way to talk about this kind of Christianity may be to call it Christian humanism. One of my favorite Lutheran theologians, N.F.S. Grundtvig, frequently emphasized in his writings that we are “human first, then Christian.”
Human first, then Christian.
I think this is perhaps one of the reasons many who are finding a more mature form of faith in their own lives feel a need to reject “religion.” It’s because the religious community they experienced turned on them, betrayed them, lost its way somehow, and did so in the name of faith.
And typically that harm came because the community allowed its religious commitments, its doctrine or norms, to take precedence over the shared humanity of those in the community.
Once you harm or alienate someone in the name of faith, you are putting Christianity ahead of humanity.
And then Grundtvig will remind you, “Human first, then Christian.”
A commitment to Christian humanism is also a much more open faith than the closed faith of more doctrinally “pure” communities. If the human comes first, then there is space for the Christian to engage the Muslim, the Buddhist, the agnostic, in ways that celebrate the shared humanity between them, and then discover how their faith tradition enhances and strengthens their shared humanity.
What Is the Future of Such Social Gospel/Christian Humanism?I’ll confess, I’m not sure I have a good grasp of the moment we are in. By all accounts, religiosity in North America is declining quickly. 65% of adults identify as Christian, down 12 percentage points over the past decade (on a side note, but this would need to be a separate post, religiosity globally is increasing).
Recently my own seminary alma mater published a study indicating that based on current projections, average weekly attendance in our denomination will drop from 899,000 in 2017 to just 15,811 in 2041.
No, there aren’t typos in those two numbers.
People have all kinds of theories on why faith in the United States is in decline, and how to reverse it. Large conservative groups typically say it’s because the liberal churches are becoming too much like the culture. Liberal churches say it is because the conservatives are harming people and then alienating them.
In a bigger view, a lot of people are coming to the conclusion that we simply live in a society where it is increasingly difficult to believe in God, and instead people are shifting their faith commitments to other things.
We’re enchanted by capitalism, for example. It’s the new religion AND the new spirituality all woven together.
I do not have a clear-eyed simple explanation for why the decline is happening. The decline probably has multiple causes, not the least of which are decreasing birth rates, a move towards individualism, and more.
But I do know that for my money, getting beyond the hand-wringing over decline and simply living the social gospel is my way forward.
Don’t get me wrong. I very much love many of the ways religious community has functioned as a voluntary society in my life. I love corporate worship and potlucks and all of that.
But because the gospel has social implications, I tend to think discipleship is much less about getting everyone to sign back up for all the measures by which we measured religiosity in the 20th century, and instead start wondering, “Who is going to city council meeting Tuesday night to advocate for better bussing? Where are all the voices of people of faith in the public square?”
Even if Christianity becomes a small voice in United States culture, if that voice both speaks and enacts the kin-dom of God in tangible ways in the world, then there would not have actually been a decline at all, just a shift.
Maybe the best thing for Christianity in this moment is for it to become neither religious nor spiritual.
Then the community that does exist will have learned to do the hard work of the gospel in the world rather than asking everybody outside the church to do the hard work of coming back into it.