by Debra Dean Murphy
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together..." (Hebrews 10:24)
The SBNR website puts it like this: “Spiritual But Not Religious” describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed. SBNR people desire a deep experience of life, including the mysteries of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.
On the SBNR home page you can sign up to have “daily affirmation seeds” delivered to your email inbox. There, one assumes, they will sprout and grow, “help[ing] you to believe in your amazing essence and bring[ing] many of your deepest intentions into reality.”
I don’t have to tell you how enormously popular such sites (and sentiments) are. I have recently (re)discovered how prevalent “Spiritual But Not Religious” devotees are on college campuses, even (especially?) church-related ones. Yet no matter the age group or demographic, this business of shedding the “baggage of doctrine and religion” is what it’s all about: snubbing dogma and its perceived strictures, rejecting all forms of religion, especially the organized kind.
But I’m with Bill Cavanaugh on this one: “being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals.” Institutions will always be subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, since they are comprised of people who . . . well, since they are comprised of people.
But the organized, institutional part of religion – the messy materiality of people and practices – is its beating heart. Contra the breezy, anti-establishment tenets of SBNR (which are themselves pretty dogmatic), doctrine is simply the lived and living witness of a received tradition. The Christian doctrine of creation, for instance, is not a proposition to be believed in, a theory of how the world got its start way back when. Rather, it’s a way of seeing all things in relation to God; a way of receiving, offering, loving, and living one’s life as sheer gift.
For the past few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading – The Letter to the Hebrews – has drawn us into the messy materiality of corporate religion: worship and prayer, gifts and offerings, cries, sighs, and tears. This week we are admonished to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s the inconvenient thing about religion: it asks you to do stuff – like worship with other people, love other people, do good to and for other people.
And to do it all regardless of how you feel about any of it.
To be spiritual but not religious, on the other hand, is to be unburdened by such stifling obligation. It is to turn inward instead of outward – to find, as the gospel according to Oprah puts it, “the god within.” This of course sounds like liberation – no commandments to obey, no debts to pay, no community to be responsible to. But it is, in the end, the worst sort of tyranny since the ruler and its subject are one and the same: the human ego.
There’s a Facebook group called “I’m Religious But Not Spiritual.” Having joined it recently, I’ve noticed that it creates a good deal of bewilderment. Is it parody? Is it serious? Does it intend to confuse? The answers, from what I can tell, are yes, yes, and yes. To be “religious” in this world of obsessive spiritual questing is to be strange indeed. For Christians, it is to recognize that salvation – abundant life in the Spirit – is mediated through mundane realities like bread, water, and wine and through a body, Christ’s body, the Church.
Because this is true, Christians – persons who are religious but not spiritual – can appropriate Martin Buber’s enduring insight: “The spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.”
November 10, 2009
by Debra Dean Murphy