Dear Rev. Daniel: You’re Bored Because You’re Boring

A Rebuttal to “Are You Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” by Rev. Lillian Daniel

Rev. Daniel’s original essay can be read here:

I hear you, rev.

I, too, am annoyed by those random people who announce that God is in sunsets and moonbeams with the same proud, excited manner of Madame Curie discovering radium. They’re at the starting gate but they think they’ve reached the finish line. And in my line of work, I have to listen to a lot more of them than you ever do.

But understand, reverend, why they’re telling you about seeing God on beaches and mountaintops: they’re panicked. You’ve just announced that you’re a Christian minister on, say, a two-hour airplane trip and they are alarmed. They hark back to their other encounters with your kind—the clean-cut slightly menacing young men in suits who show up at the door and the sketchy-looking guy with the placard shouting on the street corner—and the thought of being trapped for some hours listening to a non-stop harangue about how swell Jesus is makes the bottom of their stomachs fall out. They’re hoping that the God-in-rainbows talk will quell your concerns about their heathenism.

Or there’s another possibility: they’re embarrassed for you. To have a complete stranger—with whom you are sentenced to spend a chunk of time—announce that they are something as odd, as far removed from anything a normal person considers work as a Christian minister leaves them flailing for something nice to say. Since “Praise Jesus!” is out of the question, they tell you about a warm feeling they had while relaxing which they call “seeing God.” They’re really doing their best for you.

But you’ve zeroed in on the most shallow and navel-gazing variety of Spiritual But Not Religious person and tarred all of us with that brush. You blithely ignore those of us who devote our lives to the pursuit of spiritual truth outside the scaffolding of religion. I get that you have an argument to make (i.e., that being a Christian is da bomb) but those of us who take SBNR seriously—and I’ll grant we’re in the minority—encounter God far more than any religionist ever will. And we encounter It everywhere and in everything, not just in the “real human community.” And we certainly don’t require Clouds of Witness (WTF?) as our authority. We have actual experience to point to. Because when we talk to God, It talks back.

You know about your religion, reverend, and about your holy book, but we actually know things about God. Or the Infinite. Or Spirit. Or St. Bosco of the Two Pillars of the Sea. Or whatever you choose to call it. (It doesn’t care what you call It.) We struggle every day to understand the Infinite Ocean of Being within which we have our lives. We figure out what It is, how It works and how It works through us. And we learn how to work with It. We don’t read about Spirit in psalms and creation stories or fall back on “deep tradition.” (We’re seriously not impressed by tradition.) God isn’t something we have feelings about, It’s an active player in our lives that affects outcomes and heals discordances both physical and experiential. We’re not self-centered—quite the opposite—and what we do is damn challenging.

And we know that you come out of your church buildings from time to time and have a look around. Really we do. It’s that dark room in your head that you never come out of. You know the one: it’s got a sign over the door that says “Christianity.”

So the next time you find yourself watching a sunset from a mountaintop, try to set aside your religious presumptions and just see the Infinite joyfully interacting with Itself.

The discoveries you make may astound you.

Religion Is the Opposite of Spirituality

Most of our major online news sources have a religion section. The Huffington Post just comes right out and calls it “Huffpost Religion.” You can do a search on Huffpost for “Religion and Spirituality” and you’ll get…articles about religion. And atheism. CNN has their “CNN Belief” section which is a little better title-wise though they, too, post almost exclusively about religion. And atheism. On Salon.com you have to do a search for it; they don’t even have a section. And PBS has its “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” Rarely a word about Spirituality, or it’s just used as another word for religion, same as “faith.” Poor dears, I think maybe they don’t know that there’s a difference.

The omission of Spirituality from the discussion is understandable. Most Spiritual But Not Religious people can be maddeningly murky-headed. So forget about getting a clear and straightforward explanation of their ideas. In fact, SBNR people mostly break off into two camps: the Just-Fucking-Around-With-You-Know-Cool-Spiritual-Stuff camp and the Actually-I-Don’t-Give-a-Crap camp. So, it’s hard to find a coherent voice for Spirituality.

Let’s be coherent: Religion is the opposite of Spirituality. It’s not another name for something else. It already is something.

Religion is a body of ideas about humanity’s relationship to God supposedly handed down directly from God and—because of its alleged origin—should never change. After all, what does it mean when a religion has to back down from one of its time-honored prejudices because science has blown it out of the water? God changed His mind? God got it wrong? If the world’s holy books actually are the voice of God telling us what’s what, you’d think the supreme being would have gotten it right the first time. The world religions are going through another such heels-in-dirt hissy fit over the subject of homosexuality as we speak. And don’t get them started about women as priests.

Spirituality is a personal inquiry into one’s personal relationship with God or the Infinite or Spirit or whatever you want to call it (God doesn’t care what you call It). This personal inquiry must always be open to correction, always open to new and greater ideas and can never resort to anyone’s pre-existing religious assertions. And it will presumably go on forever; if God is an infinite being, there’s always going to be more to learn.

Spirituality is personal. Religion is institutional.

Those are two very different things. When I present this dichotomy to some people they shrug their shoulders and say, “Tomato, tomahto.” And I have to wonder what they’re smoking.


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I’m Not Making This Up

Those of us who choose the Spiritual But Not Religious path are confronted by snarky Christians with the same criticism over and over: “Religion comes from God, not people. Where’s the moral guidance? You’re just listening to your own voice. You’re just making it up to suit yourself.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Really, these Christians are describing themselves: Christianity was invented by people. It draws its authority from an old book—what is actually a collection of old books—written by many people over a span of millennia. And as for “just listening to your own voice,” the way Christians cherry-pick their Bible verses to justify their worst prejudices is downright Orwellian.

But the snarky Christians do have a point. After someone declares themselves to be SBNR, they go through the Fuzzy Period. I mean, once you unmoor yourself from religion, where do you go next? You take a meditation course at your local community college. You follow Richard Gere on Twitter. You go vegetarian. Or vegan. Or macrobiotic. Or the Neanderthal diet. Whatever.

But when the seeker finds a path with surer footing, that all changes. In the SBNR life, the structure and moral guidance comes from the nature of God Itself.

If I’m faced with an ethical conundrum—i.e., I’m thinking of doing a thing, but I’m not sure if it’s spiritually right—I don’t hold the proposed action up to some moral code invented by religious people. What possible use could that be? I hold it up to God.

Something people like me say to themselves all the time is, “How will this stand in God?” In other words, if I do this thing, will I be acting in harmony with God’s nature or will I be acting contrary to God’s nature? And, of course, if I decide that it’s contrary to, I just don’t do it. Because I know nothing good can come of that. I may outwardly appear to have made some short-term material gain, but I know that the Infinite has taken it out of my hide somewhere else. Skirting the divine nature is flatly impossible.

Of course, to make such a determination you have to know something about God in the first place. And religious people don’t know anything about God. Religious people know about their religion. They know about their holy book. They know what the rules are. Or, at least, what somebody told them the rules are. But God is a mystery to them.

Religion is a creaking, wheezing, steaming Rube Goldberg machine that plonks itself down between the individual and the Divine and says, “If you want to connect to God, you have to go through me.” SBNR people interact directly with Spirit without any external aids. We talk directly to the Infinite and we let It talk back. Or, more properly, we see It talk back. A two-way dialog with God is the core of the spiritual seeker’s life. And once you figure out how to initiate that conversation, religion becomes — at best — unnecessary. Your life is your real holy book. And once you learn how to read it, you and God will do just fine without the guy in the funny collar acting as middle-man.

So: are you still in your Fuzzy Period? Or did you escape? And if you escaped, how did you do it?


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