"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, September 02, 2011

People, I'm religious but not "spiritual"

I just had to say that in this medium, as I once did on Facebook. The consternation I aroused there bodes well for the traffic I hope to get here. But my saying it here and now is not just lust for vainglory.

This morning I saw a tweet from The Anchoress that called for more than the ten seconds I usually devote to tweets. It linked to an article by one Lillian Daniel, a minister of the United Church of Christ—that bastion of all things PC—entitled "Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." I'm delighted to find a liberal-Protestant minister who's knowledgeable enough about this sort of thing to be bored by it. Rev. Daniels dealt with her boredom by producing that article for a website aimed at the more engaged among her co-religionists. I deal with mine by determinedly affirming the opposite of the slogan that bores me. But the article itself piqued my interest because, as I had hoped, it perfectly explains what's behind the all-too-American phenomenon of "spirituality" without "religion."

From her plane's seat, Daniels wrote (emphasis added):
Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
Exactly. For wisdom about and love of things divine, I need to trust the transgenerational assembly (ecclesia) of people I worship with far more than I trust myself. I may not trust the old lady next to me in the pew at Mass more than myself—she of the blue hair, the off-key singing, the suspicious scowl. I certainly don't look to that guy at the other end of the pew, that middle-aged used-car salesman sporting a beer belly and an oleaginous grin. And I do have an almost-unbreakable habit of imagining how much better a job I could do than the priest up there—or than our bishop, for that matter. But what I do trust, far more than myself or them, is who and what we all love, and what it all represents. I don't want to make God in my own image any more than I want to make him in the image of the average layperson or clergyman. What I want is what we all know we need to be a part of: the Body of Christ. That includes more than his Risen body in heaven. It includes even more than the Eucharist. Necessarily, it includes the Church, which St. Paul did after all call "the Body of Christ." Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is a dogma because we can be incorporated into Christ only through his Body, the Church.

That's the essential point utterly missed by the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd: those who want God without his people, Christ without his Church in all her challenging and irritating concreteness. The spiritual-but-not-religious can hardly avoid idolatry. Recoiling from the human imperfections of God's people, especially those of the leadership, they will settle only for a God who conforms to their ideas of what's appropriate, rather than vice-versa. And that's why I call myself "religious but not spiritual." I want to awaken people to the idolatry they confuse with integrity. That way, they might stop boring me.

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