We’ve all heard it. perhaps many of us have said it: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I suppose we can divine many meanings from the statement. I translate it as: “I have deep feelings that draw me to something beyond myself, beyond the merely human -call it God…or don’t. I want to experience it, I want to feel that connection, I want it as part of my life. That said, I don’t want some ancient (or new) institution defining it for me. I don’t need to be part of some once a week club, with rules and pre-digested beliefs and expectations that will put limits on my beliefs and my explorations. I will look where I want to look, believe what I want to believe, take the parts of religion that speak to me and leave the rest.”
OK a bit wordy, but then I’m a preacher by profession. Some people think we get paid by the word.
And if my translation is accurate to any degree, that makes the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) seeker a heretic.
“Ooooh! What a mean guy tossing nasty labels like that around!”
Well, no, actually. Heretic mean someone who chooses. It has been co-opted by some institutions to mean someone who has turned their back on an established religious tradition, but that really is only a person who chooses to believe something different from the required beliefs of the church.
I prefer Dictionary.com’s #3 definition:
“Anyone who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle.”
I think “SBNR” would qualify…although one might argue that this popular statement is almost becoming an established attitude, doctrine, or principle all of its own.
By using the word heretic, I am meaning no disrespect to anyone by the way. I have proudly worn that label for 35 years, ever since I became an apostate Catholic and joined the Unitarian Church. I made a choice to believe something different from the teachings of my childhood church.
Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches are full of people like me, people who have chosen to reject teachings of childhood. For many others, there was no childhood church to reject, but they have chosen to formulate a personal system of beliefs inside a flexible, respectful and open church community. We are joyful heretics who embrace the same radical personal freedom implied in SBNR. At the same time we also find value in a sense of a community, in actively working on those personal beliefs in the company of others.
And some of us even like to hear folks organize Sunday mornings around topics that challenge or reassure us in our thinking. Perhaps we find going it alone a little daunting. Perhaps we enjoy knowing that there are people who share our values and who care for us.
SBNR implies a choice to go it alone, or at least in an ever-evolving, ever-shifting community of the moment. Nothing wrong with that if it suits you. I’m not like that. Truth is, I’m kind of lazy. Left to my own devices, I might not work on my beliefs and values as much as I do in a formed community. If I didn’t have church, I would have to find someplace to talk it out.
I would love some SBNR folks to tell me how and where they do that. This isn’t a set-up. It’s a genuine question respectfully asked. Do you need a community fix like I do? If so, where and how do you get fed in this way?
The Unitarian Church is a model that works for me, and I think our liberality and openness might work for you…but maybe not the congregational go-to-church part. So how can we be of service?