Have you heard of a group of people now classified as SBNR – an acronym that stands for “Spiritual but not Religious”? It is one of the fastest growing demographics in our country, with roughly 20% of the population now describing itself in this way. Folks, that is over 60 million people. Keep in mind that present membership in the Episcopal Church is just south of 2 million. The numbers suggest that for every member of our church there are approximately 30 people in downtown Suffolk who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
What exactly is the difference between being spiritual and being religious? Both words imply a belief in a Higher Power, a desire to engage that Higher Power, and a willingness to align behavior in certain ways based on insights derived from that connection. As the words are commonly used today, being ‘spiritual’ implies that one engages in all of this in the private realm, while being ‘religious’ indicates engagement with it in the public realm. I suspect that for most of us here today we do both. Our way of approaching God is both public and private. But today, one in five Americans rejects the notion that in order to have a connection with God you need to be a part of a place like St. Paul’s.
People who are spiritual but not religious pursue personal experiences removed from institutions like the church, with its rituals, doctrines, and creeds. Many, in fact, have had a negative experience with the church and/or its leaders. They tend to view themselves as being on a journey and are comfortable picking and choosing from a wide array of non-traditional options and alternative religious philosophies in their pursuit of personal growth. Those who are spiritual but not religious are more likely than other Americans to have a college education, work in a white-collar profession, support liberal political views, and act independently (as opposed to having a group-mindset).
Linda Mercadante, a theology professor and author of the book Belief without Borders, argues that those of us who are religious should see the rise of the spiritual but not religious as something positive. She spent over five years listening to hundreds of SBNR’s and concluded they are protesting three things.
The first is what she calls “scientism” – a belief that everything can be reduced to its material value. SBNRs hold that there is more to reality than what can be observed and studied. Second, they are protesting secularism – the idea that we are just cogs in the machines of life. For them, the individual person matters as much as the whole. And finally, they are protesting religion if, on one hand, it is too rigid, or on the other, if it is comatose.
Mercadante contends, in fact, that those of us who are religious care about these same things. She states that this should be a wake-up call for us because many (but not all) churches have lost the ability to communicate and connect with SBNRs. She offers three suggestions:
· First, we need to understand and speak their language rather than being fearful of it and dismissive.
· Next, SBNR folks need to understand that some bad behavior by a few religious people does not automatically imply that you should give up on all religious people.
· And finally, people from both perspectives need to embrace the idea that you don’t have to agree completely on everything in order to get along.
What I appreciate about her thinking is that it seeks to discover commonalities in order to make connections, rather than to center in on those places where there is discord in order to foster conflict.
In this morning’s first reading we heard Paul speaking to the people of Athens. He has surveyed their city and noted its many diverse symbols. He has worked hard to understand all of its rich meaning. He concludes that Athenians are deeply religious people and tells them so. The text suggests he uses the word ‘religious’ to mean both spiritual and religious – in other words they pursue a higher power both privately and publically.
Paul describes to the Athenians a particular altar that he noticed. It contained the inscription “to an unknown god” and would have been very familiar to his audience. Notice how the great saint builds a bridge between the Athenians’ religious experience and his own by proclaiming to know their unknown god.
He begins to talk about what is, without a doubt, the fundamental question about spiritual and religious pursuit in our day. In that era, a few might have asked it, but not many. The question is this: Is God a product of human construction or a reality that exists beyond us? In other words, did God create us or did we create God; naming those things as divine that exist beyond our present human understanding? It goes without saying that as human understanding of reality increases the space occupied by a higher power decreases. Assuming that we who are here today are both spiritual and religious, I can say with confidence that we hold at least one thing in common with those who are spiritual and not religious. We both believe that there is a higher power and therefore a place for a Holy Being that will always exist beyond human understanding.
None of what Paul says can be construed as a direct attack on the Athenians’ faith. It is meant to get people to think, to ask questions, and to begin a conversation.
· Does God live in shrines made by human hands?
· Is God merely crafted by enlightened 21st century individuals who explore the sociological elements of various traditions in order to stich together a spiritual garment that keeps them warm?
· Can you, as it were, create a statue of God, either with human hands or through human intellect?
· If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then does it represent the True and Living God (if there is such an entity) or is it merely something we wish is true?
Perhaps the second fastest growing demographic in our country would argue that the only way to answer these questions is in the negative. It is imperative that those of us who are spiritual and religious find common ground with those who are spiritual and not religious. We have got to find a way to walk together if we are going to find a way to live and move and have our being in a society that is increasingly non-religious and non-spiritual.
Here are some points for conversation that we might have with family and friends and neighbors and coworkers as we seek to bridge the gap between those who are spiritual and not religious with those who are both:
· Can the individual make a difference apart from an institution? Does anything lasting or important ever emerge solely from an individual’s perspective, or at some point does it have to engage the collective whole?
· Next, spirituality generates in us an emotion while religion produces a sense of obligation. In the words of Rabbi David Wople, “Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world.” Is it enough to concentrate only on me, on what I need, and on what makes me feel good?
· Spirituality focuses itself on a pursuit of personal well-being while religion demands that we think of ourselves as a part of a community. How can I get what I need and give what I ought?
What gives me hope is that these are not points we argue but experiences we lift up as true. All we have to do is welcome seekers into our community, live out our faith through its moments of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial – augmented by a weekly remembrance of our Lord’s words, actions, and self-giving – and we will find individuals are being drawn to our community as we journey together to pursue, honor, and obey the One who we believe has, through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, made all that is.