Monthly Archives: September 2012

God In the Gray Areas: A Defense of the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’

I was checking my social media accounts this morning when I noticed that an article by author and businessman Alan Miller was getting a fair amount of attention on Facebook. He has written an opinion piece for CNN titled “My Take: ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out”. The title caught my eye because I’ve been privately working through some of my issues with organized/institutionalized religion. In that process, I’ve been making peace with leaving my church affiliations behind. Miller’s article ruffled my feathers a bit, because while parts of it speak accurately to the growing sentiments experienced by so many disaffected Christians, for the most part, his beautifully-written article misses the point altogether.

I took no issue with his opening observations, which read:

Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.

It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.

Miller rightly notes that those of us who are joining this growing category are doing so because we feel disgruntled with what it means to be a “Christian” these days. In the past year or so, I’ve joked to myself that I’m a “Christian with Caveats” because it seems that as soon as I tell someone I’m a “Christian,” it becomes necessary to explain exactly what I mean by that word. Note: the need for explanation is not because I feel immediately embarrassed by the label. I feel the need to explain because people openly voice their assumptions about what it means to be a “Christian” (and more recently in my life, a “Christian in Seminary”) when they learn of my religious preference. It’s usually assumed that because I say I’m a Christian, I must automatically be anti-this or pro-that.

The notion of coloring outside the lines from within Christianity is not one that is widely understood by people in our generation. This usually makes for some interesting (and at times, frustrating) conversations.

And so, I found myself nodding along with Miller’s article until it took a pretty unfortunate detour. Along that detour, he began to describe the spiritual-not-religious crowd as a “selfish” hodgepodge of meandering, willfully ignorant, feel-good know-nothings:

“A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur’an, let alone The Old or New Testament… The trouble is that ‘spiritual but not religious’ offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind… What is it, this ‘spiritual’ identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?”

Why yes, Condescending Wonka, that’s exactly what it means.

Miller admits that his demands for an explanation of one’s beliefs are a bit “doctrinaire” and “old-fashioned”. His rant reminded me of my days at Ye Olde Fundamentalist Church when the preacher would yell at us from the pulpit to “Choose this day whom ye will serve.” (That’s Fundamentalese for “be more outwardly pious to prove you’re a good religious guy/gal.”) For a moment while reading his article, I thought I was cruising for an altar call. And then the unexpected happened in his closing paragraph:

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingness, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t reading an impassioned “come back to Jesus” argument. (Those are common in diatribes against the “lukewarm” spiritual-not-religious crowd.) Instead, I was reading the set-up of one of the most common false dilemmas in religious discourse today. I was reading the words of yet another really, really smart guy who was erroneously arguing that there are only two valid choices in the world of religion: Established/Organized Religion and Atheism.

God Is Not Solely Black or White. God Is Also Gray.
I’ve made some great friends online in the past few years. One of them, The Rev. Stephen Yeo of Canada’s Anglican Church had a recent conversation with an atheist about what it means for faith to evolve. After their discussion, the atheist shared on his blog that he had gone from being unyieldingly religious to being unyieldingly atheistic. In both phases of his life, the options were as stark and simple as black and white: Real Christians do AB&C, Real Atheists do XY&Z. Anything outside those parameters, in his estimation, had once lacked credibility.

I read his blog post and thought about several of my own friends who have converted to atheism. Their disillusionment with Christianity led them to draw the conclusion that all expressions of faith, all forms of belief in some higher power, and all actions directed at spirituality were a waste of time. They wrote off the whole religious deal as ridiculous, and a whole lot of really good religious folks along with it.

I’ve wondered a lot about the black-and-white thinking that causes us to believe that if we don’t choose Christian fundamentalism, then we must choose atheism—or that if we’re not choosing the institution, then we are, by default, choosing something other than Jesus. I’ve wondered quite a bit, but haven’t been able to fully understand these trains of thought.

What I do know, however, is that whoever or whatever God is transcends the black and white explanations we demand. God is not only in the black of the institutions—and God is not only in the white of our private meditation time. Truth is not solely found in the black of religion or in the white of atheism. God and truth are found somewhere between what we cannot know and what we clearly perceive.

God is not just black or white. God is in the gray areas, too—and that makes us uncomfortable because we can’t bottle that up. We can’t package the gray areas, or talk about them in “enlightened” absolutes. We can’t control people by threat of ridicule and ostracism when there are no black areas or white areas in which to entrap them.

So, I would say to Mr. Miller that while I understand his frustration with the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, he should reconsider his position. Maybe it isn’t so troublesome that young Americans are choosing religious options free of any “body of belief or set of principles of any kind.” Maybe it’s a good thing that so many of us are hanging out in the gray areas. Maybe… just maybe… there’s some truth here, too.

You May Also Enjoy Reading:
1. Mysticism & God: When Silence Is the Only Answer
2. A Snapshot In Time: What More Christians Should Consider
3. The Still Small Voice: An Easter Reflection
4. Download My Free E-Book About (The Non-Existence of) Hell