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Lillian Daniel nails the "spiritual but not religious" crowd

United Church of Christ* pastor Lillian Daniel, author of a new book, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough," is profiled by Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. She rocks the house:

ABERNETHY: At Howard University in Washington, DC recently, Daniel railed at writers and others who, she says, have blamed the church for many of the worlds biggest problems.REV LILLIAN DANIEL: What church community are you describing? Because it is not mine. And how dare you presume to paint me with that broad and offensive brush? So why is it that when the spiritual but not religious complain about Christianity, why dont we get mad? Why dont we tell them a different story, of a progressive church where your questions are welcomed, where we worship a God who invented us and not the other way around.ABERNETHY: Daniels audience included the dean of the Howard chapel and Howards president and his wife. She referred to them when she acknowledged her own part in what she calls Americas culture of narcissism.DANIEL: in which it is so easy to think, Its all about me. So much so that when the dean told me quietly that the president and first lady were here today you know where my mind went. Im from Chicago. I said, Barack and Michelle? Here?ABERNETHY: But Daniels humor is not always so gentle. She ridicules people she says try to make up their own God and their own forms of worship.DANIEL: Often some shallow combination of exercise and caffeine, coffee shops as spiritual community, hikes as pilgrimages, The New York Times as sacred text, and sunsetsdont ever forget the sunsets. These people are always informing you that they find God in the sunsets. Well, excuse me, as if people who go to church didnt see God in a sunset. You know, my take is that any idiot can find God in the sunset. What is remarkable is finding God in the context of flawed human community, and a tradition bigger than you are with people who may not reflect God back to you in your own image.Part of the nature of religion, so much beat up on in our society, part of the nature of religion is that it delivers a message that is like sandpaper against the culture of narcissism. It is not all about you and, no, you cannot make it up. The beauty of a long tradition is that it is bigger than anything we can do by ourselves.

Amen. And there's more. Read it all here...

* The original version of this post erroneously referred to Daniel as a Methodist pastor.


Commenting Guidelines

I know many people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Many of these good folks admit that they were only superficially attached to an organized religion, or that they heard that this or that group was hypocritical. This seems to be like a person who insists multi-vitamins dont work, having taken only one or two tablets. Lillian Daniel rightfully suggests that these folks might try a church community like hers - progressive, and where all questions are welcome. This would likely exclude our Catholic church, where those who ask certain questions or propose certain ideas are inviting a world of grief.

"FWIW, I also think you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."I guess that's true if your goal is to "catch" people. I'm not entirely comfortable with that kind of faintly predatory terminology. The unchurched-but-spiritual who have bad experiences with organized religion and have rejected it for do-it-yourself spirituality generally stay in the tall grass specifically because they don't want to be "caught."Certainly, I've heard evangelicals talk about the "souls we've brought to Christ." I'm sure those folks are sincerely interested in those souls, but it does smack of trophy hunting to someone looking in on the outside.

Gerlyn:I do not have Weil's book "Waiting for God" handy at the moment but it is one of my favourites and I have read it and profited from it a lot. BTW, as chance (or providence?) would have it I lent it to a SBNR friend of mine although I suspect that she is SBNR simply because she was never raised in an explicitly religious home in the sense that we are describing it.However, in that book, Weil clearly states that a magisterium or church as keeper of dogma is indispensable. However, she felt that the Church was guilty of an abuse of power when she forced love and intelligence to model their language upon her own. This abuse of power, she believed, is not of God. But that is besides the point, maybe we disagree on the necessity of a community for the individual believer. I can only say that based on my experience, it is fairly important in order to assist in disciplining my own wayward mind not to mention, occasionally, wayward impulses....:(

Yes, Simone Weil said the function of the Church as the keeper of dogma is indispensable. Also:"But I have not the slightest love for the Church in the strict sense of the word, apart from its relation to ail these things that I do love. I am capable of sympathizing with those who have this love, but I do not feel it."

I wonder who they were for whom Simone Weil said that she had not the slightest love. Who constituted "the Church in the strict sense of the word"?

"I love the saints through their writings and what is told of their lives - apart from some whom it is impossible for me to love fully or to consider as saints. I love the six or seven Catholics of genuine spirituality whom chance has led me to meet in the course of my life. I love the Catholic liturgy, hymns, architecture, rites and ceremonies. But I have not the slightest love for the Church in the strict sense of the word, apart from its relation to all these things that I do love "

I have some Jewish friends who like to follow their traditions - gatherings of family and friends, food, singing, rituals - but who do not believe in God: are they RBNS?

I wonder who they were for whom Simone Weil said that she had not the slightest love. Who constituted the Church in the strict sense of the word?Hi, Joseph:Imho, Simone Weil was deeply disturbed. In many many ways and for many many reasons.I think there are people who read into her writings what they need to find. There are people who use her as Dorothy Day is used. I guess I wish people would leave her alone. Since that's unlikely to happen, I wish people would read about her life, her family history, her illnesses, etc., etc., before attaching too much meaning to her writings.

Lillian's book this evening: #1 in Books > Humor & Entertainment > Humor > Religion#4 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > Sociology#4 in Books > Biographies & Memoirs > Regional U.S. > West

Ann: "And some judge her, even as they accuse her of being judgmental. So theres a lot of irony in the situation people being judgmental about others who they see as as being judgmental".That statement may be true, but I have never read any articles by SBNR about these condescending scoldings. Perhaps you can guide me to some? I have even done a google search, and while I find plenty of scolds out there like Daniel (James Martin is another who is very hot and bothered by the idea that people might not need priests and ministers and formal churches) I don't find too many who are scolding people like Lillian Daniel.This blog article is "vinegar" from start to finish - the title signals that what is to come will be haughty and demeaning - [she] "nails" the SBNR CROWD." I have seen these kinds of dismissive and insulting attacks on the SBNR on Catholic websites many times now - all take the same tone. If these articles are seen by SBNR as representative of the type of people in the church "community", why would anyone choose to join a community of people like this?And why do those who seem unable to have a spiritual life outside a formal community find it so difficult to understand that others may not share that need? I suspect most SBNR are perfectly willing to accept that those on this board and many other Christians and non-christians "need" a community for whatever reason. They find it helps them in the spiritual journey. But others don't.People are different - that is no surprise. So why expect everyone to live their spiritual lives in precisely the same way? And why be so nasty to those who have made a different choice than your own?Perhaps another perspective is needed - for example, this article called "Celebrating the SBNR" - the language is much more respectful and, frankly, more "christian" than is the title "Nailing...the SBNR". This blog is written by the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California.He begins with "Every day, I ENJOY conversations with students who fit into the category of SBNR - "spiritual but not religious.".... example of a more positive take is by Amy Thomsom Sevimli who is ordained in the ELCA and currently serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod."I know about the discomfort of getting on an airplane and telling the person sitting next to me about what I do.....So when I read about Lillian Daniels similar experience, I was sympathetic to her situation. What I was surprised by, and not terribly sympathetic to, was her reaction to the person sitting next to her on the airplane. She seemed especially put-off by those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.......But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?I firmly believe that the best way we can connect people with God in Christ -- and with the way we worship that God in church -- is by first listening to their spiritual story and only then telling our own. ....Spiritual but not religious is not an impediment to that conversation but an invitation if we are willing to accept it."

Anne --I don't think anyone here has said that all SBNRs are dismissive, angry, judgmental, etc. of their critics. I certainly didn't. But your own posts do seem quite "vinegary" to me. And I'm not saying you have no right to be. But your reaction to Rev. Daniel does seem to answer her in kind.

Ann, definitely - I AM answering "in kind". Because it seems that too many conventionally religious are saying "right-on" and avoiding real reflection on the rise of SBNR, apparently preferring to take the far easier route of blaming the SBNR for the failures of their own religious communities to keep or attract 20% of the overall population and 33% of the younger adults. It seems almost to be a variation of "blame the victim". It is far too easy to call them "shallow", "undisciplined", "self-centered", "too individualistic" etc, etc etc. than do a serious examen. I am quite deliberately being "vinegary" - using the same negative tone to try to encourage those who applaud Lillian Daniels for her snooty put-downs of people whose spirituality isn't taking exactly the same path as their own to really think about what they are saying and doing, to look in a mirror and see how they might come across to the SBNR who have chosen another path - and perhaps come to understand a bit better at least one reason why some have chosen another path. I will get off my soapbox now. I've said all that I can say about it.

Ann --It seems to me that the problem is that there are many, many stories and hence many, many sides to the issues. You're right to insist that your side be told fairly too.I don't really identify with talk of either the presence of community or the lack of community in the Church. Community is not something I looked for in the Church, and in my case that's a good thing. The Church offers precious little in the way of community to single people like myself. Tradition, yes, that it offers. Tradition is the wisdom of the ages, it's what allows me not to have to relive all the mistakes of the past, or at least some of them. And it brings me the positive insights of the saints and theologians. This isn't, of course, a matter of the virtue of the teachers, though the courage of some of them can inspire. But I believe that the Church is Christ's Church, and however imperfectly it treasures the sacraments and the teachings of Christ, and encourages the Faithful to share our blessings with others. The failures of us members is not what defines it for me, and I'm old enough to know that there is moral failure everywhere.

Ann - "It seems to me that the problem is that there are many, many stories"Exactly - so why put down others because their story is not "traditional"?

I agree with all your comments, Anne Chapman. (Including the one about "nails" in the headline.)I hadn't realized how resentful some religionists are of non-religionists. The success of Lillian's book, marketed as Humor & Entertainment, is a vivid illustration of the contempt the "community" has for those she regards as idiots, stupid, superficial, sloppy, etc., etc., etc.

Anne --ISTM that, as in many groups including religious ones, among the SBNRs there are some who are holier-than-thous or whatever, and Rev. Daniel particularly dislikes them because she thinks they misrepresent her. She too has a right to defend herself. If she said that all SBNRs are X, Y or Z it would be a different matter.

Lillian's resentment of children is particularly offensive, imho. Her ham-handed mockery (aka "Humor & Entertainment) reveals a lot more about her than about those who fail to bring their children to Sunday school.See pages 5 through 8 from the Amazon sample:

Wow, she really is obnoxious. Is the whole book like that?

And I say that as someone who likes obnoxiousness when done right. That just reads like the kind of blog-posting you'd see on the Patheos Catholic channel.** That ain't a compliment.

Lillian is expressing the sentiments of many Christians, obviously. How thrilling it must be for her to see her book in the #1 slot day after day.

I mean, it's an obnoxious religion book--nothing new there. Not sure if it's worth that much agonizing.

Daniel's book (thanks to Gerelyn for the refer on SBNR children) seems to be more about galvanizing her own community of believers around a satiric picture of SBNRs rather than trying to attract any new converts. Which is good because she surely won't.She is smug and uncharitable, and will remind many SBNRs why they left churches in the first place.

-- Ive heard evangelicals talk about the souls weve brought to Christ. --And every year Catholics trumpet the number of people brought into the church via RCIA.But neither group is open and honest about the KNOWN number of people who were "in" but now are "out." And I'm sure that the known number pales beside the unknown number that has simply walked away quietly.Body counting smacks of militarism.And which is worse: being SBNR or "piously agnostic" as are so many habitues of church buildings for an hour on Sunday (or Saturday evening)?

No doubt, Lillian Daniel seems to feel about SBNR the same way I feel when I am confronted by someone from a rural state who sneers about his rugged individualism compared to my effete urban existence, without acknowledging that he is utterly dependent on tax revenue that is collected in the aggregate from people like me. I don't know whether that analogy is a fair one, however, given that the "quest for spirituality" seems to be a part of the human experience. Perhaps Ms. Daniel should focus on seeking common ground or trying to enlarge their vision of spirituality. Otherwise, I tend to agree with Anne Chapman's comments. There is a lot of room for self-examination before anybody leaps to conclusions about whole groups of people.