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

By | September 30, 2012

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

33 thoughts on “God In the Gray Areas: A Defense of the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’

  1. Travis Mamone

    I was wondering when you were going to blog again!

    I don’t really get the whole black-and-white all-or-nothing thinking about religion. I prefer Peter Rollins’ a/theism, where you embrace both faith and doubt.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Hey there, Travis! I was taking a much-needed break from the blogosphere and social media. I feel so refreshed. 🙂

      I agree with you. There’s a healthy line to walk between faith and doubt. I haven’t read any of Rollins’ work yet, but am very interested in doing so. So many books, so little time! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  2. Deanna Ogle (@deannaogle)

    Crystal, another wonderful post!

    I absolutely identify with this group of people, and a lot of people treat it as if it’s just a commitment problem. As if they just can’t commit to God, so they’ll just hang out in the back. But if you ever have been one, or ever have known one, you’d know that it’s so much more than that. I might need to write my own post about this now … Hm.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Deanna, I’m glad to see you!!! Thanks for the positive feedback. I think you really SHOULD write something. I’d love to read what you have to say. See you around. 🙂

  3. joannevalentinesimson

    The Unitarian Church welcomes all those who are “spiritual but not religious” in its non-credal church community, where the focus is on the individual spiritual journey, respect for the human dignity of all others, and a committment to the long-term well-being of all life on earth.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Thank you so much for commenting tonight. There’s a church in my area that is both Christian and UU, which is the balance that speaks most to me at this time in my spiritual journey. I attended a few times, but have had some trouble making sense of the institutional piece of Christianity lately, and I don’t quite know how it all fits together anymore. I continue to wonder if in my desire to choose a place for organized worship, I may be forcing something that I am not cut out for…

      I don’t know what to make of it all right now, but it is at the forefront of my mind every day.

  4. KM

    CSL: You’re approaching something here that I think is very important… and so I hope you’ll let this post simmer a while and offer a follow-up later. The debate won’t go away anytime soon!

    For instance, you write (emphasis mine): “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.” I couldn’t agree more!

    But then you write: “God and truth are found somewhere between what we cannot know and what we clearly perceive.”
    I miss an “ALSO” in this thought: without that “also” we’re left with the negation and replacement of the subtitle “God Is Not Black or White. God Is Gray.”

    There are other places in this post where it feels like you’re arguing more for an inclusive model: “Black + White + Gray.” And I find those points are offset by other places where it feels like you’re arguing for a more limited model: “Not Black. Not White. Gray.”

    How do you feel about this? Is your aim to de-legitimize the extreme and absolutist camps as you legitimize the intermediate spaces? Or are you more interested in legitimizing the _entire_ landscape and allowing that to make all the camps more steady and sustainable? These strike me as different approaches.

    Great post! Thank you so much.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      KM, YOU KEEP ME ON MY TOES! lol… Thanks for your comment. If I had thought this through a bit more, I would likely have argued that God is in ALL of those things… Atheism included. (In fact, I think I’m finding that God is most profoundly present in our times of doubt… I will flesh that out a bit more when I find the words.)

      I’m trying to highlight the unfortunate mistake we make when we say that God is only in liberal expressions of faith, or only in conservative expressions of faith– or that God is an all-or-nothing choice. I think those assumptions are inadequate, and that a healthier choice can be found when we strike a balance between all of the available options. Hope this clarifies my angle a bit. Glad to see you around!

      1. KM

        Thank you Crystal! 🙂

        Absolutely agreed on the all/nothing error. I love the faithfulness of doubt; in some ways science systematizes doubt when it asks us to articulate a problem, propose a hypothesis and prediction about the scenario that could be wrong, and set up a way to test it — knowing all the while that our favored model could be wrong and we’ll have to adjust to match what we find out.

        It’s a different mindset than “set your face like flint.” Which just sounds like painful plastic surgery.

        Perhaps this is one reason science can be a beneficial complement to religion.

        1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

          Hey there. I just wanted you to know that I’ve added the words “just,” “solely” and “too” to three of my sentences for clarity and continuity of argument. Thanks for reading, and for your constructive feedback! 🙂

      2. KM

        Thanks, Crystal — the edits do clarify things, and you have a great argument here. I appreciate you!

    2. joannevalentinesimson

      I am so fed up with absolutist rhetoric, whether it is from Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, or Muslims, that I am about to give up on the sanity of the human species. But then, I am a scientist and am inclined to question all assumptions. Perhaps this is the fundamental quarrel between science and religion.

      I wonder if there are really two types of mind-sets: absolutists (black-or-whites) and relativists (middle-of-the-road-grays). Could this be biological hard-wiring? Or does it come about during the first four years of life when our ideas of reality are formed? Is it a function of the way parents answer children’s probing questioning at this age, asking “Why?” about everything. Could each mindset have a survival value depending upon the culture?

      Just asking.

      1. KM

        Hi Joanne!

        I definitely think both absolutist and relativist modes have a value, not just across cultures, but also within cultures. Same with conserving and progressing modes, and I tend to view them all as practical modes and not just contrasting philosophies. Someone who works at it can express absolutist fixed-ness and relativist openness when they prove beneficial. For instance: I’m an absolutist about the equal value of all people regardless of station… that’s one question I’m _not_ a relativist about. And I relate to a couple of religious traditions in a relativist fashion because doing so helps me.

        I suspect there’s a neurological propensity to one mode or another… but early family training overlays one too, and so does broader family culture, religious subculture, and education. So my hunch isn’t that it’s only due to one of these things. They’re inter-networked.

        Personally I lean to one even though my religious subculture trained me for the other. Apparently it didn’t take. 😉

  5. Elsao

    Thanks for this post, Crystal. I find Mr. Miller’s comments amusing, as if we “spiritual-not religious” people somehow owe him a description of exactly what we believe. And then he speaks as if he already knows what is in our minds, that we are lazy and don’t want to think too hard. Really? It’s just the opposite: we think about it all the time, and refuse any longer to ignore, to push away, the contradictions and attrocities in the scriptures and in the church. I have had no choice but to move away from the institution, to carefully construct a belief system that is ever changing, as experience changes my understanding of the nature of life, of human existence, of God.

  6. DavidWebster

    Reblogged this on Dispirited and commented:
    A *very* different view of SBNR to mine – but a better piece with better comments / more interesting than the comments on the CNN site!

  7. Andrea Mandal

    Hi! Found your article through being retweeted on Spirituality Daily. I had no idea we’d be hit with the false dichotomy in the closing paragraph, either!

    I really wanted to write about the actual issue of “spiritual but not religious” people on my blog and not attack his rhetoric, but his rhetoric was so truly awful I could not help myself.

    I never thought I would see the day that fundamentalists and atheists were on the same page about spirituality, and it is so today in the phrase “You’re either with us or against us.” And to both groups I say my hearty No Thank You and become one of these hated “spiritual” people who looks beyond the God-in-a-box approach, yet also rejects the atheistic argument. I’ve been praying to God even before I knew what religion was; why should I stop just because I decide to unaffiliate from an organized religion?

    It is so easy these days to be part of a religion and do nothing to help the world; equally easy (at least in free countries) to shout from the rooftops that God is dead and be self-satisfied in smugness. The people still searching for a spiritual path between these extremes, the ones out on the margins by themselves — they are the ones struggling in a search for meaning, who are trying to find that transformative experience instead of shifting into neutral and coasting. They should not be ridiculed like this, but instead respected. They’re the ones doing the hard work, while everyone else sits around happily thinking they have all the answers.

  8. celia

    Really good insights, Crystal. I am reading this book and absolutely love its understanding of “Spiritual but not Religious” people and how they can have depths of faith that religious institutions might not get — but Jesus surely would if he walked this world today: “How to be a Bad Christian…and better human being” by Dave Tomlinson. I personally like the idea of “equipoise” — gently holding two opposing ideas at the same time. There is a God. There is not a God. What does each model imply, how does it play out, how do your mind and heart wrap themselves around them? cheers!

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  10. modernreligiousart

    Hi crystal I first want to say how much I like your blogg and generally feel in tune with a lot of what you say, I agree with you in many ways about the grey areas we need to inhabit,
    also the phenomenon of the fundamentalist Christian who ‘converts to the fundamentalist atheist seems to be a growing one. This itself shows that its not about the beliefs so much as the way in which we hold them. I can get along just fine with an atheist or with a Christian, but as we know there are ‘Christians’ and there are ‘Christians’ likewise with atheists.
    But I cannot help feeling that their s is a little truth in what Mr Miller says. I feel that the sort of spiritual seekers he is criticizing would also completely miss the sort of points you have made here and elsewhere on your blog. Such ‘spiritual’ seekers as he criticises would lack self-critical reflection , and the desire to look out long and hard at the world around them. They are partly a product of our consumer society and they are trying to find the next thing that will make them happy and feel good. Your grey areas would not offer then the sort of satisfaction they are looking for.
    Myself I have always preferred grey. I am not a Christian nor an atheist , I am an artist. And feel more and more that many of the problems of the black and white world can be resolved through somehow extending and expanding the part of us that approaches the world poetically and creatively. I started a website a while back related to this have a look if you get time.

  11. Geo Downer

    Thanks very much for your blog. Many of your observations were similar to my own, although rather than writing a blog to respond to it, I chose to walk away and act as though the crazy guy doing all the ranting about something that he didn’t truly understand wasn’t worthy of any response- a bit like what happens when you’re out to eat at a restaurant and overhear a baseless and ignorant rant from the table near by and just pay the bill and walk out, if only for the satisfaction of social graces. I appreciate your courage and your responsibility to correct something so blatantly and clearly WRONG. Thanks for your courage and conviction to know that every pathway to God is sacred to each individual.

  12. Rev. Patricia Schneider

    Crystal: I agree so much with your article. I am an ordained pastor and have been in ministry for many years, but in the last few years have become unhappy with the organized church as it is today. I am also a Hospice chaplain, so I meet many people who have left “the church” because of church-hurts and have left Christianity because they felt that was the only option they had when they left the church. It has been difficult to address their issues, because of my own journey into being more spiritual rather than religious. I have no struggle about where God is for me because I believe God is in all ways of believing, but what I am struggling with is where does Christ fits into my faith structure now. I have to be honest and say that my faith is now more in the grey area, instead of black or white, but I hesitate to even use the word grey because that is also a label. I am also a Sociologist and I remember one professor in college who gave a description of a Sociologist that I have never forgotten. He told his class that in order to be a good Sociologist one must have “a high tolerance for ambiguity.” That is truly me. Maybe I should start the Church of Ambiguity where all seekers are welcome. The only problem with that is, knowing human beings, some would want to structure it, and the moment you structure it, it stops being ambiguous. 🙂 I still do pulpit supply and do love preaching, but my sermons are about taking God out of the box and learning about a “larger” God. I think their are more people struggling than we realize because, without knowing why, many people gravitate to what I say in my sermons.

    I will continue my struggle from the ambiguity in which dwell, but do so appreciate hearing from others, like yourself, who are also struggling authentically with their faith and organized religion.

  13. Free From Religion (@ReligionFree)

    I highly enjoyed this post. I’ve done a lot of thinking since I wrote that post about becoming unyieldingly atheist. Reading your article helps me see that I’ve contributed to this attitude of black and white myself somewhat. It’s so hard to escape that mentality after being raised Mormon. I was raised to KNOW that the Mormon church was the ONLY true one, and that all the others were unequivocally wrong. It is hard for me to accept the possibility of a gray area when it comes to the idea of God, but I’m learning to recognize value in it. Thanks again, I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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