Engaging Spiritual but not Religious #1: God is a three-letter word

We’re starting a sermon series this weekend called “Spiritual not religious.” I’ve been a little bit sheepish to share this on my blog, since it’s about as cool in Christian circles as being a Vanilla Ice fan in 1994. Hating on “spiritual but not religious” people is obligatory in the Christian blogosphere. I’ve done it; everyone has. But I thought about trying a different approach. I googled the phrase “I am spiritual but not religious” and a site came up with testimonies of people who identify that way. So I figured I would start a series engaging some of these testimonies on somewhat neutral metaphysical ground instead of just making fun of the label in order to prove my legitimacy to other Christians.

I. “God is a three letter word”

This is an interesting poem that sounds like it’s written to be read aloud at a poetry slam. Its essential claim is a sort of pantheism:

When I say god, really do mean
Our mission control; godhead divinity
The creator of which we all comprise
Created out of love; shouldn’t surprise

So according to this author, there’s a creator who represents a sort of collective consciousness that we’re all part of. This is basically a popularized version of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s concept of geist, the God who discovers Himself over time through the history of humanity.

The author goes on to critique religious practice, saying:

People think they need a sacred space
To connect with all of the divines grace
Which has always been inside of you
To guide, inspire and lift your blues

So “godness” is something we have to discover within ourselves. The author doesn’t want “divine grace” to be something that you can only access by going to a “sacred space.” It appears that the biggest problem he has is with the concept of an intermediary, which comes out plainly in the final stanza:

Please don’t think you need
To connect with god, someone in-between
Your connected anyway all of the time
Church is inside you not with bread and wine

The author doesn’t like there being a “someone in-between.” The reference to “bread and wine” sounds like he is reacting against a high church liturgical background, which would presumably include a hierarchical bureaucracy that serves as the “someone in-between.”

II. My response:

I can appreciate the sentiments that are expressed by this author. They are somewhat analogous to the concept of the “priesthood of the believer” that is an important doctrine in the Protestant tradition as a rebellion against the need for clerical intermediaries between us and God. I hear in this poem a longing to “connect” with God; the word “connect” is repeated three times just in the excerpts I quoted. I do think the poet is reacting against a legitimate misconception that God is a distant outsider in our world rather than being immediately omnipresent everywhere.

However, I would feel very lonely and anxious if this poem were the only spiritual resource I had available. While I can agree that God exists “inside of” me (“The kingdom of God is within you,” Luke 17:21), if God is not also beyond me, then that’s a lot of pressure on me to be my own god and make a universe all by myself. It’s tremendously intimidating to read the poem say: “Go today and use the power you have, the power of god in your very own hands.”

I don’t think I could ever feel powerful on my own. I’m way too anxious and easily distracted and emotionally fragile. One of the most comforting verses in the Bible for me is what God tells Paul when he is frustrated with his inadequacies, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Because I feel secure in the divine power from beyond me, I can stand up in front of a group of people and preach for 20 minutes without notes on a subject which I have thought about plenty but haven’t hammered out into a verbatim manuscript in advance.

Another challenge I would raise has to do with “connecting to divine grace.” Does every individual person really have to figure out how to do this on their own? If I were completely on my own, I wouldn’t know what to do, so I probably wouldn’t do anything. What if one person figures out a way of connecting to divine grace that gives that person tremendous peace and confidence and then others hear about it and become disciples of that person? Then whatever set of techniques that person proposes is a religion in which there is “sacred space” or at least a distinction between things you do to connect to divine grace and things you do for other reasons.

My final concern has to do with the energy it would take to convince myself that I have “the power of god in my very own hands.” It would seem to me that interpreting my world in this way would force me to hide from my mistakes and manifestations of weakness in order to preserve a perpetual state of optimism and elevated level of self-esteem. That just feels like it would take a lot of energy and make me defensive and insecure.

When I was clinically depressed, the fact that I didn’t have a legitimate reason for my unhappiness was the primary source of the infinite loop by which I remained depressed. I had a lot of people try to cheer me up by saying the equivalent of “You have the power of god in your hands.” It only discouraged me more because what it said to me was that if I weren’t such a loser, I would immediately see their point and smile and be done with depression.

I need a church that isn’t just “inside me” because I need to be touched and loved by God through other people. The time when I feel the deepest connection with God every week is when I stand in the front of my church and tear off pieces of communion bread and look into the eyes of several dozen different people. That moment is an amazing intimacy that I could not live without. So this is where I am, anyway. If you happen to be a “spiritual but not religious” person, I would be honored to receive your feedback, push-back, criticism, or whatever. I hope that the way I have written is respectful and accessible. Blessings.

17 thoughts on “Engaging Spiritual but not Religious #1: God is a three-letter word

  1. Jill :: No, the danger of which I spoke was the danger mentioned by Morgan in his previous reply, that of “bending over backwards to such a degree that you no longer even have a perspective that you’re sharing”. I try to put myself in the shoes in the person I’m discussing religion with in order to anticipate their objections, and deepend my own understanding, and so in trying to pre-emptively address those potential objections I run the risk of caveating my statements into incomprehensibility or getting so far into what I believe to be your thinking that I can’t find a way to form that bridge back to my own perspective.

    I love talking to people of differing backgrounds and faith. While I do not necessarilty have an agenda to change their beliefs, I absolutely have an agenda to correct their misunderstandings about my beliefs, and, in the case of LDS, correct their misunderstandings of the historical evolution of their beliefs and the alleged Scriptural basis for them.

  2. To Dan, I’m not understanding your use of the word ‘danger’, I would think that your perspective is strong enough to be comfortable talking to people of any background or faith. I would likely be labeled agnostic by Christians more devout than me, and I have no agenda to change your beliefs or ‘correct your thinking’, as long as your beliefs are not actively causing harm. My tried & true Christian friends feel no danger in discussing differing points of view because, at the basis of our conversations, is respect and trust. If my Christian friends didn’t tell me about how their faith uplifts and enlightens their path, I wouldn’t have the respect for Christianity I have rebuilt. It makes me sad to think Christians may still be worried about such things, if I’m understanding your meaning Dan.

  3. The Pope made an interesting statement a few days ago about the intolerance of agnosticism. While lacking conviction is not intolerant, in practice, based on those I’ve met, I think he’s onto something. Most of the “spiritual” people whom I’ve met are not so much guardedly embracing the divine but not yet willing to commit to Christ, but rather are explicitly rejecting Christ and the Church.

    • But a lot of them have been wounded by perverse forms of Christianity. When I was reading through what they were saying, it seems like most of them are ex-Christians rather than cradle agnostics. I think we’re dealing with victims of theological malpractice which is why there’s an active hostility there. I don’t think you would disagree that out in independent evangelical land, there is a lot of horrifically irresponsible theology being generated.

      • I completely agree. And even the cradle agnostics have been embittered by (to give them the benefit of the doubt) well-meaning Christians attacking them for their lack of belief.

        • The challenge is to speak with compassion without bending over backwards to such a degree that you no longer even have a perspective that you’re sharing.

          • Morgan, very well said, all of it. Especially this. Not every self-titled agnostic or atheist is aimlessly rageful against Christ or church doctrine, and it takes care to find that out. In fact, I would suggest there is more in common than not. Agnostic/Atheist does not = Apathetic. It often equals the opposite. If I can generalize, it often masks pain of loss.
            That’s why a conversation like this one is so vital, to invite a broader discussion than what mere labels can suggest. Thanks for this, Morgan.

          • “If I can generalize, it often masks pain of loss.” That was my hunch, and that’s why I wanted to do this.

  4. I’m not planning to say much, other than I appreciate your even-handed tone, passing through this neutral zone with no weapons present. Having passionately lived on both sides of this equation, I can with respect say that both sides equally misunderstand and then misrepresent the other quite easily. Each side can quietly feel affronted by the other’s view, and then conversation often disintegrates from there.

    A mild correction I would make is that I’ve had the pleasure to have friends on both sides and, unless asked outrightly, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in depth of devotion, the outward expression of ‘love and fine works’, and the commitment to a higher standard of being. The noticeable variance would be only some of the language used.

    In my happy experience, faith in ‘something bigger’, however defined, has proved quite sufficient to motivate people to create positive change in their lives. I would suggest instead that a lifelong, organized religious experience can be a easier proposition for some than others. And I would also submit that finding your own personal spiritual path, one that speaks ‘your language’, feeds your soul, motivates positive change, and makes a difference in your community is a feat in itself that speaks of a commitment to honest self-actualization instead of simply taking the prescribed route to the nearest church. (Not that I criticize that choice– it is a choice amongst options.) My two cents.

    • I spent a couple of years in my twenties with some anarchist punk kids in Detroit who were probably “spiritual but not religious.” They acted way more like the body of Christ than most church people I know. Ultimately I couldn’t live that way forever, but now that I’m trapped in suburgatory, I do have a certain wistful nostalgia for that time in my life. They would certainly be ridiculed by all the suburbanite megachurchians who have “real jobs” and “real families.” But I really think the terms by which our society judges them are precisely the values that make us worldly and immune to the full radicality of the gospel.

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