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On being religious but not spiritual

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But to this day I'd much rather hang out with spiritual people than religious people, even when the religious people share my basic convictions. I am less and less concerned with doctrine or the outward distinctive forms of the various Christian tribes and more and more concerned with how people relate to one another, particularly their families and their enemies. I want to be a person characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. I'm not convinced that the tribal distinctives can help me with any of that, and I need help. I'd like to be a spiritual person.

Amen to this.

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Tribalism is a big problem in our culture in general, not just in religious circles. But ultimately, people who make distinctions in what they believe are just that -- distinctive. That doesn't mean they're the problem. They can be problematic in how they live out those distinctives, but it's not a prerequisite that "religious" people who hold to doctrinal distinctives are inherently problematic.

I think Andy would agree with that statement, but I felt like I needed to make it.

Andy seems to be saying that personal struggles with sin trump doctrinal statements. But those statements tell us how to deal with sin -- how to identify it, confess it, and by God's grace, overcome it. These aren't us-vs.-them statements, although they've been used that way. But note that Andy isn't pointing to these doctrinal statements, only to those who have lived them out in ways that might be inappropriate.

It's important to acknowledge how people fail in their spiritual lives, but that's a failure of application of doctrine, not of doctrine itself. Unless he's blaming the doctrines, in which case, I'd like to know which ones he has a problem with. But that might be a topic for a different thread. It's a can of worms.

Edited by Christian

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But to this day I'd much rather hang out with spiritual people than religious people

But would you necessarily rather hang out with people who say "I'm spiritual but not religious" than religious people?

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That would be my first stab at distinguishing between "religious" and "spiritual": To be "spiritual" means to seek fulfillment in relation to unseen or ultimate reality, or to supra-mundane ideas or values, apart from any authoritative guidance from a received system of tradition and religious hierarchy, while to be "religious" means to seek the same goods through the authoritative guidance of a received system of tradition and religious hierarchy.

Note that the "religious" ethos presupposes fidelity as a cardinal virtue: You will find the way above all by being faithful. The assumed cardinal virtue of the "spiritual" ethos is personal authenticity: You will find the way above all by being true to yourself.

To put a positive spin on "religion," and prescinding here from anything specifically Catholic or even Christian, it seems to me that a meaningful, sustained faith or spirituality of any form must find concrete expression in the regular practice of what I am going to call, with certain caveats, symbolic devotional acts.

Building on what I wrote in my first two posts above, I think it's a mistake to think of "religion" primarily in terms of "doctrinal distinctives." Doctrine, and belief in doctrine, has not historically been a defining component of religious adherence. The Judeo-Christian tradition has laid great stress on faith, but outside of that tradition faith is not nearly as important an idea. (Hindus have not historically been urged, I think, to believe in doctrines as a key part of being good Hindus.)

Rather, I think that the key distinction between being "religious" vs. being "spiritual" has to do with corporate adherence to a received tradition (which has as much or more to do with ritual and symbolic distinctives as any "doctrinal" distinctives) vs. individualistic pursuit of one's own path, often with little or nothing in the way of ritual and symbolic distinctives, or perhaps without any distinctives at all.

Edited by SDG

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Tribalism is a big problem in our culture in general, not just in religious circles. But ultimately, people who make distinctions in what they believe are just that -- distinctive. That doesn't mean they're the problem. They can be problematic in how they live out those distinctives, but it's not a prerequisite that "religious" people who hold to doctrinal distinctives are inherently problematic.

I think Andy would agree with that statement, but I felt like I needed to make it.

Andy seems to be saying that personal struggles with sin trump doctrinal statements. But those statements tell us how to deal with sin -- how to identify it, confess it, and by God's grace, overcome it. These aren't us-vs.-them statements, although they've been used that way. But note that Andy isn't pointing to these doctrinal statements, only to those who have lived them out in ways that might be inappropriate.

It's important to acknowledge how people fail in their spiritual lives, but that's a failure of application of doctrine, not of doctrine itself. Unless he's blaming the doctrines, in which case, I'd like to know which ones he has a problem with. But that might be a topic for a different thread. It's a can of worms.

I agree with everything you've written, Christian. Certainly the doctrines aren't the problem, per se. But there is a species of Christian -- and I am part of this peculiar people -- that is prone to substitute knowing the right thing for doing the right thing. And certain configurations of Christian tribes seem to cater to that species. I need to avoid these places like the biblical plagues, of which I can name all ten.

You're absolutely correct that there is not a dichotomy here, and that doctrine, when rightly emphasized, can and should lead to sanctified lives. All I can tell you is that it didn't work that way for me, and my anecdotal evidence is that it doesn't work for many people. I also believe that the distinctives, when held lightly and in humility, can be wonderful and life-giving things. Again, sometimes that happens, sometimes not. My primary issue with a focus on doctrine and denominational distinctives is that it's not that difficult. The gospel is good news at least partly because it is simple enough for little children to grasp. It's just very, very hard to live out the implications. And I want and need to be in a church environment where that is the focus -- how to live it out, not what to believe. I've pretty much experienced the gamut of what to believe within Christianity and have been membered in Catholic, Jesus Freak non-denom, Protestant mainline, and crazy charismatic churches, not to mention a brief flirtation with Orthodoxy. They've all been good experiences at times and utterly insufficient. And they've all been focused on their own little idiosyncracies and somewhat out of touch with what it means to change from deep down inside, slowly, over a lifetime. Of course, I am to blame here too. I wanted quick change, or, more relevantly to this discussion, I wanted to get lost in all the distinctives and doctrinal hair-splitting and not really deal with the deeper issues that needed to be addressed.

Obviously people experience healing and wholeness and genuinely become more Christlike in any and every church tradition. More power to them all. God bless you, every one. Seriously. But my theological distinctives these days are fairly straightforward. God, help me to be less of a jerk, to love my family, to love all those with whom I come in contact, including asshole bosses, to trust you in those areas where my mind screams out that you're not in control and that I am, and to constantly surrender my life to you. That's about it.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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You're absolutely correct that there is not a dichotomy here, and that doctrine, when rightly emphasized, can and should lead to sanctified lives. All I can tell you is that it didn't work that way for me, and my anecdotal evidence is that it doesn't work for many people.

Good doctrine won't necessarily lead to sanctified lives. Good doctrine has to be fully believed. A half-hearted assent won't take us anywhere. But good doctrine is, nevertheless, quite necessary, if only to distinguish from bad doctrine, which, in my experience, leads to bad places.

Oh, I fully believed it. But that was part of the problem. I don't know if I was consciously taught this, but I certainly came to believe that salvation was a matter of believing the right things. This was, in fact, how I defined faith. And I could go down the doctrinal checklist, align it with the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian Creeds, and verify my orthodoxy. Whoopee. Anybody got any coke? One could question whether I really believed those doctrines if they didn't have any real impact on my life, but I would absolutely assert that I absolutely did. My beliefs were impeccable, and I made damn sure that they were, too. I would have punched you if you would have accused me of not believing the right things. That's how sure I was. God have mercy.

And I want and need to be in a church environment where that is the focus -- how to live it out, not what to believe.

But what to believe and how we live it out are inextricably related. It's not an either/or. It's a both/and.

You would think.

God, help me to be less of a jerk, to love my family, to love all those with whom I come in contact, including asshole bosses, to trust you in those areas where my mind screams out that you're not in control and that I am, and to constantly surrender my life to you. That's about it.

I wish I could cling to something as simple as that. Unfortunately, my life is rarely that simple.

I can make my life extremely complicated. I'm not imputing this tendency to you, Ryan, but typically when I do so it's a sign that I'm not loving and trusting God as I should.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Oh, I fully believed it.

If it wasn't manifested in action, then it isn't full belief. Belief, Biblically understood, is not just intellectual assent, no matter how firm that intellectual assent may be. As James writes: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?"

Sure. But welcome to one of the fun implications of Evangelicalism. Luther never liked that "right strawy book," by the way.

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Andy Whitman wrote:

: The gospel is good news at least partly because it is simple enough for little children to grasp. It's just very, very hard to live out the implications. And I want and need to be in a church environment where that is the focus -- how to live it out, not what to believe.

I dunno. This sounds to me like the evangelical emphasis on Lowest Common Denominator Christianity -- and it seems to me that the "I'm spiritual but not religious" crowd has simply pushed that kind of thinking even further, to what they perceive as an even lower common denominator.

I'm also not convinced that "little children" can "grasp" the gospel. A few basic points, perhaps. But a lot of the stuff we teach our kids to get them through these early stages of cognitive development need to be unlearned at a later stage (do we teach our children about historical-critical scholarship, or do we just tell them the basic stories of Adam and Eve, or of Jesus and the apostles, and save the critical thinking for later?). And of course there are deeper mysteries, such as the Trinity, that they can only begin to plumb as they get older. As time goes on, we need to take our kids deeper into the faith, not keep things simple and superficial. And, as with our kids, so with us.

BTW, you may think my comment about Adam and Eve is a troll-ish tangent. But I've got three kids between the ages of 2 and 4 right now, and one of the things I'm dealing with right now is how to introduce them to the basic gospel narrative -- and "the Fall", whether understood literally or metaphorically, is a pretty big element in that story.

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But what to believe and how we live it out are inextricably related. It's not an either/or. It's a both/and.
Not necessarily. Most denominational distinctives and niche religious beliefs have almost no real bearing on how we treat our neighbor. If anything, those distinctives have a tendency to magnify human weakness and obscure the more important matters of daily life.

Just to be clear: by distinctives i mean things like modes of baptism, contraception, predestination, speculation about details of the afterlife, perpetuity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, eschatology and the like. Any discussion about being "religious" almost inevitably drag in one or more of these peripheral elements. And from my perspective, none of those distinctives have any behavioral impact on how one loves their neighbor.

I also believe that the distinctives, when held lightly and in humility, can be wonderful and life-giving things. Again, sometimes that happens, sometimes not...
I like that. I for one, am a conditionalist and annihilationist. I do not believe in the soul's natural state of immortality. I also believe hell will be the absolute cessation of being. SDG and I batted this one around several years ago. I think the traditional views on hell and judgment do violence to the scriptures and to some degree, the nature of God. I have been very passionate on the topic(s) in the past. But the fact is, ultimately, I don't think for one minute that God is concerned about how any of us view the issue... unless of course it causes us to become less charitable to our neighbor, in which case it has now become an obstruction to "true religion" (spirituality). I find that when I engage others on issues like this, I become less charitable to others and more focused on religious posturing. Edited by Greg P

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Andy Whitman wrote:

: The gospel is good news at least partly because it is simple enough for little children to grasp. It's just very, very hard to live out the implications. And I want and need to be in a church environment where that is the focus -- how to live it out, not what to believe.

I dunno. This sounds to me like the evangelical emphasis on Lowest Common Denominator Christianity -- and it seems to me that the "I'm spiritual but not religious" crowd has simply pushed that kind of thinking even further, to what they perceive as an even lower common denominator.

I'm also not convinced that "little children" can "grasp" the gospel. A few basic points, perhaps. But a lot of the stuff we teach our kids to get them through these early stages of cognitive development need to be unlearned at a later stage (do we teach our children about historical-critical scholarship, or do we just tell them the basic stories of Adam and Eve, or of Jesus and the apostles, and save the critical thinking for later?). And of course there are deeper mysteries, such as the Trinity, that they can only begin to plumb as they get older. As time goes on, we need to take our kids deeper into the faith, not keep things simple and superficial. And, as with our kids, so with us.

BTW, you may think my comment about Adam and Eve is a troll-ish tangent. But I've got three kids between the ages of 2 and 4 right now, and one of the things I'm dealing with right now is how to introduce them to the basic gospel narrative -- and "the Fall", whether understood literally or metaphorically, is a pretty big element in that story.

Loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves is deep Christianity. It doesn't get any more profound than that. Or any more difficult. I have known far too many Christians, myself included, who can dot their doctrinal i's and cross their doctrinal t's, and who are supremely selfish jerks, emotionally clueless about their impact on others, arrogant and judgmental, and consumed by culture wars that make them look spiteful, whiney, or both. Who wants to sign up for that tribe? Not me, and I'm sympathetic to the cause. I can't imagine why non-Christians would give them the time of day.

It's just not that difficult to understand. Die to yourself, and live for Christ. Love those with whom you come in contact. This isn't lowest-common-denominator Christianity. It is Christianity. And if it isn't happening then you're not much of a Christian, regardless of your (using "you" in a generic sense, and not in any way directed to the specific "you" who is Peter) understanding of doctrinal nuance and denominational tradition. Getting back to the original issue, this is the difference in many peoples' minds between religion and spirituality. I've had enough of religion.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I've had enough of religion.

I understand the sentiment. But the more I teach in the religious studies field, the more I realize that even on a case by case basis, spirituality will always be expressed in terms that can only be defined as religious. One may think that they are shedding the visible and traditional trappings of religion for a purer form of spirituality, but that never actually occurs. We can only really trade one form of religion for another. (Put differently, anything you are currently doing in the name of spirituality, someone else is doing in the name of religion.)

You say: "Die to yourself, and live for Christ. Love those with whom you come in contact. This isn't lowest-common-denominator Christianity. It is Christianity." And I think this is at the essence of what the New Testament teaches. But what you have proclaimed here is something intensely religious. It is steeped in the specificity of traditional Christian language. It is an injunction to behave a certain way based on the assumption of a given mythical/historical reality. It is an exclusive claim that other expressions of Christianity aren't as legitimate as the one that you have described. You were just doing religion in that very statement. And even worse, the very claim that what you describe is Christianity smacks of the inhospitable exclusivity of the Christian fundamentalism that I assume you would also reject.

I have no qualms with considering myself religious because I consciously and unconsciously do religious things on a daily basis. I practice the rituals, celebrate the rites of passage, and converse fluently in the social and doctrinal language that is characteristic of historic and contemporary Christianity. While I am aware that other people have sacred and spiritual experiences by means of different ritualistic practices and thought patterns, I can't divorce my own from the concrete forms they obtain in time and space - which are those of Christianity.

Edited by M. Leary

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But within the Church, my experience has been that those who would label themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious" are essentially equating "religious" with "Pharisaical"; obsessed with outward form and appearance, holding to the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law, etc.

I'd say this what "religious" means to a large number of people, believer and nonbeliever alike. I think the apostle Paul would describe that (and did) as "false religion," but if you've had a bad experience in a church (over 90% of non-church-attending people?), then I understand why you frown on "organized religion." Thing is, if you read the gospels, Christ had a problem with the "organized religion" of his day. When your religion starts becoming about following a list of rules, you no longer have Christianity. The sad problem is once you join the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, you suddenly find your describing yourself exactly like the pop psychology, Oprah spirituality crowd. Not cool.

Building on what I wrote in my first two posts above, I think it's a mistake to think of "religion" primarily in terms of "doctrinal distinctives." ... Rather, I think that the key distinction between being "religious" vs. being "spiritual" has to do with corporate adherence to a received tradition (which has as much or more to do with ritual and symbolic distinctives as any "doctrinal" distinctives) vs. individualistic pursuit of one's own path, often with little or nothing in the way of ritual and symbolic distinctives, or perhaps without any distinctives at all.

It was a revelatory moment for me when I realised this. SDG is right, religion does not mean having to follow rules or "doctrinal distinctives" but is instead associating yourself with a "corporate adherence to a received tradition." Again, I think it was Chesterton who said that ignoring tradition is flat out ignoring thousands of years of wisdom collected by fellow believers. Any ritual like baptism or communion is both based upon doctrine and actually affects you spiritually - it is impossible to divest yourself of that without losing Christianity altogether. Believers were given certain commands in the New Testament basically to practice certain traditions.

My primary issue with a focus on doctrine and denominational distinctives is that it's not that difficult. The gospel is good news at least partly because it is simple enough for little children to grasp. It's just very, very hard to live out the implications. And I want and need to be in a church environment where that is the focus -- how to live it out, not what to believe.

The main problem is simply that a church environment where living out the gospel is the focus is impossible without getting the essentials of doctrine right. Complaining about Christians fighting over doctrinal distinctions is tedious, not because there isn't a understandable reason to complain, but because distinctions in doctrine make or break Christianity. Tiny little things like whether Christ is God or god make a huge difference - essentially in how you are going to live out the gospel.

Most denominational distinctives and niche religious beliefs have almost no real bearing on how we treat our neighbor. If anything, those distinctives have a tendency to magnify human weakness and obscure the more important matters of daily life.

Just to be clear: by distinctives i mean things like modes of baptism, contraception, predestination, speculation about details of the afterlife, perpetuity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, eschatology and the like. Any discussion about being "religious" almost inevitably drag in one or more of these peripheral elements. And from my perspective, none of those distinctives have any behavioral impact on how one loves their neighbor.

This seems to be one of the main points of contention here. On the contrary, little distinctions in doctrine have a powerful bearing on how we treat our neighbor. For example, the way I explain the gospel to someone is entirely affected by what I believe about predestination. The witness I give to nonbelievers is a night and day difference if I'm focused on using miraculous gifts like tongues or casting out demons to try and reach them, instead of the message of Christ. My confidence in the gospel is vastly affected if I believe even my chances for whether I believe in Christianity or not are actually affected by whether my parents sprinkled water over me as a baby. Sure, you can get what you believe about God wrong, and, without thinking your beliefs through to their logical conclusion, still actively love your neighbor. In fact, you can get important doctrine wrong and act better towards others than many of those who have their doctrine right. But that doesn't excuse not thinking about it - or saying that it doesn't really matter.

I know a large number of kindly, loving Christian people who, because they get, oh say a few theological distinctions on temporal government wrong, say and do things in the public square that I believe significantly hurt how many nonbelievers view the gospel. This doesn't mean that they aren't still kind and loving people. This also doesn't mean that their theological errors don't turn a large number of nonbelievers away from Christ. So, if it's possible to love your neighbor and believe the right things about God, there is no reason whatsoever not to do both. This is why I still call myself religious. Regardless of all my bad experiences in church, I affirm orthodox Christianity down it it's last trivial doctrine and tradition, because it all does really matter.

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One of the most obvious rebuttals to the simplistic WWJD? approach is to ask, "Would Jesus get married?" Well, no -- no he wouldn't. But does that mean nobody ELSE should get married? Okay, fine, sure, any number of the Church Fathers took a dim view of sex and marriage because it meant you could never be a monk, or whatever. But seriously: who today would take that position? Even the most traditional churches out there have sacraments for marriage and the baptizing of children -- despite the fact that Jesus himself never had a family. Is this supposed to be a bad thing, now?

I think my lifting a couple excerpts from Spencer's book might have made it easier for his ideas to be mischaracterized - sorry about that. Of course, if you take WWJD absolutely literally, there are a whole number of logical objections. Spencer refined this a little more and preferred asking "If I spent 3 years in the company of Jesus, what would I think about ..."

In other words, when Spencer talks about "the Christian religion", he is referring specifically to topical studies, building programs, capital campaigns and attendance figures? Um, wow. That seems awfully reductive -- and probably, in some ways, culturally narrow.

Spencer's objecting to churches who focus on size and growth, who focus on your church attendance as an indicator for how spiritual you are, and who focus on getting involved in little programs inspired by whatever is the latest bestseller at the Christian bookstore. There is a large, large number of churches who do this. But yes, Christianity and attending church is about far more than that. What's useful to understand is a lot of people (rightly or wrongly) leave the evangelical church because they are sick of what they are expected to do and focus on while they go there.

If "I'm not religious but I'm a very spiritual person" equates to "I'm not married but I'm a very sexual person", then it sounds to me like Spencer is almost making an argument equivalent to the idea that marriage kills romance, so we should always stay romantically involved with someone -- we should keep on dating them -- but without actually marrying them. Because once we marry them, we have to deal with, y'know, all the annoying nitty-gritty stuff like where we hang the towels and who gets to pick up the dry-cleaning and all that other boring stuff.

True. Although I'd suggest Spencer is rather making an argument equivalent to saying that a marriage without sex is wrong. Where the analogy breaks down is where your commitment to one particular local church or denomination is not the equivalent to the commitment you make when you get married. The American Evangelical church as a whole is suffering right now from a whole number of problems. There's a reason a large number of believers are leaving it. I'm not one of them, but I understand why they are doing it.

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Most denominational distinctives and niche religious beliefs have almost no real bearing on how we treat our neighbor. If anything, those distinctives have a tendency to magnify human weakness and obscure the more important matters of daily life.

Just to be clear: by distinctives i mean things like modes of baptism, contraception, predestination, speculation about details of the afterlife, perpetuity of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, eschatology and the like. Any discussion about being "religious" almost inevitably drag in one or more of these peripheral elements. And from my perspective, none of those distinctives have any behavioral impact on how one loves their neighbor.

This seems to be one of the main points of contention here. On the contrary, little distinctions in doctrine have a powerful bearing on how we treat our neighbor. For example, the way I explain the gospel to someone is entirely affected by what I believe about predestination. The witness I give to nonbelievers is a night and day difference if I'm focused on using miraculous gifts like tongues or casting out demons to try and reach them, instead of the message of Christ. My confidence in the gospel is vastly affected if I believe even my chances for whether I believe in Christianity or not are actually affected by whether my parents sprinkled water over me as a baby. Sure, you can get what you believe about God wrong, and, without thinking your beliefs through to their logical conclusion, still actively love your neighbor. In fact, you can get important doctrine wrong and act better towards others than many of those who have their doctrine right. But that doesn't excuse not thinking about it - or saying that it doesn't really matter.

I know a large number of kindly, loving Christian people who, because they get, oh say a few theological distinctions on temporal government wrong, say and do things in the public square that I believe significantly hurt how many nonbelievers view the gospel. This doesn't mean that they aren't still kind and loving people. This also doesn't mean that their theological errors don't turn a large number of nonbelievers away from Christ. So, if it's possible to love your neighbor and believe the right things about God, there is no reason whatsoever not to do both. This is why I still call myself religious. Regardless of all my bad experiences in church, I affirm orthodox Christianity down it it's last trivial doctrine and tradition, because it all does really matter.

Which tradition? And how do you know your tradition is the right one to follow?

You know, when it comes right down to it, I guess I don't really believe what you're stating. Don't get me wrong. I do affirm Orthodox Christianity. But I don't affirm it down to the last trivial doctrine and tradition because I wouldn't even know where to begin to draw those kinds of lines and makes those kinds of distinctions. Some people solve this by resorting to the Oldest Is Best or the First Is Best approach, in which case, after the 10th century you start running into Which Oldest? and Which First? questions. And after 1500 or so it's a big free-for-all anyway. For what it's worth, I affirm the faith affirmed by the early Church councils and then re-interpreted through the lens of reformational Protestantism and then skewed by strong doses of Jesus Freakism, late-20th-century mainline Protestantism, and Pentecostalism, with a liberal (or conservative, if you like that better) sprinkling of Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy thrown in for good measure.

That's a true statement, by the way. Which is why I start to quickly conclude that I don't really care.

I've been involved in all those traditions. And, as best I can tell, they all were made up of people who took the Christian faith seriously and those who didn't, those who were there for cultural reasons and those who were there because they wanted to die to themselves and live for Christ. There were jerks and saints, and jerks/saints, and people running for political office. The rates of divorce and addiction were roughly the same in all of them. I would guess that the divorce rates were slightly higher than in the non-church-going population, and the rates of addiction slightly lower. But not by that much. Whatever doctrinal distinctives they held to didn't make a bit of difference between them in terms of how they lived their lives, except for the Anabaptists, who dressed funny.

I'm concerned about how I live my life. I think this is what God is concerned with as well. And I think that every church tradition contains Christians who are concerned about how they live their lives. Good. I think that should be the focus. But the doctrines haven't made an appreciable difference that I can see. Or, perhaps more correctly, there is one doctrine that seems to make all the difference, and that is whether the people in the pews/Samsonite chairs understand that they are broken, and poor in spirit, and desperately in need of fixing they can't do themselves. I like those folks. I'll hang out with them anytime. The rest is gravy, or juice, or wine, or whatever your tradition prefers.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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When I was a part of a Presbyterian Church, I didn't give a rip about being Presbyterian. I wanted to be a Christian, and, as best I could tell, the local Presbyterian Church was endeavoring to teach about and assist people with being Christians. But there were people there -- religious people, I might add -- who were deeply offended that I tended to ignore (I wasn't malicious about it; I just didn't care) the particular denominational trappings.

I've been involved in all those traditions. And, as best I can tell, they all were made up of people who took the Christian faith seriously and those who didn't, those who were there for cultural reasons and those who were there because they wanted to die to themselves and live for Christ. There were jerks and saints, and jerks/saints, and people running for political office.

Your first statement got me to respond because I thought it was broad-brush, but I see now that you weren't saying that everyone at that church was the way you described. The second statement explains this a bit, and I appreciate it. Yes, the church is a mixed bag of "those who take the faith seriously and those who don't." I'm more comfortable with that distinction that I am with "religious"/"doctrinal" etc. vs. "spiritual," because my experience is that relgious/doctrinal people are often, not always, the ones who take their faith seriously.

Taking one's faith seriously, BTW, is no guarantee that one is correct. But maybe I'm just talking in circles.

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Which tradition? And how do you know your tradition is the right one to follow?

That sort of needling doesn't get us very far. Sure, there are a variety of opinions out there on practically every subject, religious or otherwise. We can throw our hands up and say, "Well, I guess we can't know anything," and walk away from the discussion. But that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and life doesn't really let us get away with that, either. At the end of the day, we have to call things like we see it.

Odds are we're gonna be wrong. If not on the core things, then on most things. But that's why Martin Luther wisely said we have to sin boldly. If we make an error, we make an error, and we repent and move on, just as we should continually pray that God will make us aware of the errors that we don't even know we're making. Repentance needs to be our lifestyle. But fear of error shouldn't paralyze us, and it shouldn't end theological discussion. These contested topics, generally, are important. And yes, they do have repercussions. Maybe not in terms of which congregation is more "sanctified," but there are repercussions for how we understand ourselves in relationship to God. Some of these discussions are more important than others, that's true. Christ's nature is a far more important discussion than the precise nature of the Eucharist. But that doesn't mean the discussion needs to be thrown out.

From my point of view, throwing away the discussion is essentially throwing away concern for sin. Because, yes, theology/doctrine and action are interrelated. There are some abstract theological/doctrinal concepts that will probably have little direct effect on my action. That's true. But whether I'm sinning or not by using birth control is a theological/doctrinal question, and it's an important question. Somebody on that discussion is right, and I'm not about to say it doesn't really matter. God might be concerned with the heart, but he's concerned about particulars, too. The Old Testament demonstrates that very well, and frankly, the New Testament doesn't do much to dispel that sense of severity, and it places a strong emphasis on right teaching. Our God is the God who killed a man who, with apparently good intentions, tried to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling.

Look, God has enough ammunition against me to zap me a thousand times over if that's His desire. But what I'm stating has everything to do with sin. I'm stating that if you're a selfish asshole who doesn't care much about his family or so-called friends, let alone his enemies, then perhaps you should let the whole Transubstantiation/Consubstantiation debate go and focus on being a better human being. If you're a stellar human being and don't have issues in that area, then by all means engage in theological debate, or build model airplanes, or whatever your heart desires. But don't be a theologically correct asshole.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I haven't seen a correlation between theological views and holiness. There are addicts, fakers, hypocrities, and hopelessly conflicted human beings in every church tradition. I'll let God sort it out. But I think it's best to be non-addicted, real, and non-hypocritical, so those are the things I'm going to focus on. And that all has to do with dealing with sin.

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Look, God has enough ammunition against me to zap me a thousand times over if that's His desire. But what I'm stating has everything to do with sin. I'm stating that if you're a selfish asshole who doesn't care much about his family or so-called friends, let alone his enemies, then perhaps you should let the whole Transubstantiation/Consubstantiation debate go and focus on being a better human being.

What a great devotional thought for the day. There's nothing I could possibly add to this statement.

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There has been so much great thought here that I haven't had much to add.

I haven't seen a correlation between theological views and holiness.

But isn't "holiness" itself a theological term, carrying real meaning only when it rests on a judgment made (on some level) about the nature of holiness that can only be called a theological view? Such judgments do not occur in individualistic vacuums. In other words, I would submit that you and I can speak meaningfully of holiness, and hence of the disparity between talk about holiness and holiness itself (which I don't think anyone would deny), precisely because of the hard theological work interpretive communities and traditions have done in passing on, well, religion. In still other words (don't worry, I have several dozen more words at my disposal), if the many generations of Christians before us were truly spiritual-but-not-religious in the sense in which some Christians today seem to mean, the word holiness and that which it entails might well be alien to us.

M. Leary pretty much sums up my thoughts when he observes that the spiritual-but-not-religious path, whatever may be laudable in its intentions (and certainly there are often honorable intentions behind it all), offers what is ultimately another way of being religious rather than an alternative to religion. I do not denigrate the category of "the spiritual"; I simply do not believe that it carries any real meaning outside of religious contexts.

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There has been so much great thought here that I haven't had much to add.

I haven't seen a correlation between theological views and holiness.

But isn't "holiness" itself a theological term, carrying real meaning only when it rests on a judgment made (on some level) about the nature of holiness that can only be called a theological view? Such judgments do not occur in individualistic vacuums. In other words, I would submit that you and I can speak meaningfully of holiness, and hence of the disparity between talk about holiness and holiness itself (which I don't think anyone would deny), precisely because of the hard theological work interpretive communities and traditions have done in passing on, well, religion. In still other words (don't worry, I have several dozen more words at my disposal), if the many generations of Christians before us were truly spiritual-but-not-religious in the sense in which some Christians today seem to mean, the word holiness and that which it entails might well be alien to us.

M. Leary pretty much sums up my thoughts when he observes that the spiritual-but-not-religious path, whatever may be laudable in its intentions (and certainly there are often honorable intentions behind it all), offers what is ultimately another way of being religious rather than an alternative to religion. I do not denigrate the category of "the spiritual"; I simply do not believe that it carries any real meaning outside of religious contexts.

I understand your point (and M. Leary's). I can't disagree with it, although part of me very much wants to distance myself from religion. I do understand that none of this can be lived out outside the context of a doctrinal/theological framework that defines the terms. And I'm okay with that. I suppose what I ultimately object to is the ugliness that so often characterizes these doctrinal/theological divisions. I've seen it, I've been the victim of it, and I've been the perpetrator of it, as I suspect many of us have. And perhaps because I'm such a theological/doctrinal mongrel (or worse), I've seen what I believe is the ultimate futility and silliness of the debates, at least when they're conducted as a substitute for a life genuinely surrendered to God. I can make that switch very easily, without even realizing it. Perhaps others can as well. See how these Christians wrangle with one another. Praise God.

For what it's worth, I don't get the impression that that's happened in this thread, and I'm thankful for that.

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I agree with what you are suggesting, Andy.

(Which becomes maddeningly confirmed routinely in my own biography: raised in what can best be described as a contentious anabaptist dispensational setting, weaned on talk radio in the Great Culture Wars, schooled through the heated evangelical linguistic turn in the late 90s, and then granted a brief breath of fresh air in the Anglicanized British dialogical paradise. I returned to the States feeling enlightened, refreshed by the idea that decent Christian conversation actually occurs, only to re-discover that there are many in the American church that are into theology because, as far as I can tell, they really like to fight with people. They are like an army. I often just give up and return to writing lecture notes.)

When I come home, sit on the couch, and look at my family, I hear God telling me: Be holy because I am holy. Be holy because that will be the greatest gift you will ever be able to give this wife that has loved deeply you even though her private fears about you were right: that you are weak, lost, and confused. Be holy because at least for now, you are all these two children know about Me. Teach them how to feel what they need to, think what they need to, fight through what they need to - and ultimately to know that the only real honor or shame they will accrue in this life is contained in their relationship to Jesus. All this is to say, I sympathize with your impulse to practice a form of Christianity that actually means something on a daily basis.

I suppose the only valid function of theological wrangling is that described by Jude: "Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear— hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh." Which is to say: I am willing to argue for your freedom from shame and despair. This is similar to Paul's constant pattern of logic: Believe the gospel I left with you because it is our only avenue of freedom. This was constantly misunderstood by his audiences, who thought him boastful, unstable, and perhaps even in it for the cash. But he wasn't. Paul just really wanted people to see what he saw on the way to Damascus.

Edited by M. Leary

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I suppose what I ultimately object to is the ugliness that so often characterizes these doctrinal/theological divisions.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

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For what it's worth, I've really appreciated the conversation here, though I have little to add. (Side note...since I work with ad copy so much at work, "add" and "ad" have become intertwined. Ugh!)

Anyway, one of my friends posted this today on Facebook. I only skimmed it, but it touches a bit on the above conversation:

"Culture: Christ-forgetting & Christ-haunted," by Ellyn vonHuben (from Fr. Robert Barron's blog)

Approximately one in five Americans self-identifies as “spiritual but not religious.” These are often the people who have problems accepting the teachings of an organized church, regard organized religion with suspicion and may even carry with them some history of hurt and legitimate grievance in their experience with religion. Since there is no governing body that sets the parameters for what is regarded as spiritual orthopraxis, the beliefs of this group can run the gamut from Wiccan magic circles, Tibetan singing bowls and leprechauns... all the way up to their Own Personal Jesus.

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I have a Phd to write in about three weeks, and so can't really follow the discussion properly, but I wanted to chuck this in:

It seems to me that in large part the ambivalence displayed by someone like Andy (and I include myself) towards the role of doctrinal commitment in Christian life is linked to a more general question about the intellect - and this in turn is closely linked to the religion vs. spirituality debate (hopefully).

Something like this: there has been a bit of flip-flop thing going on in the West regarding the place of the intellect in human life - both in group life (church doctrine, etc) and in the life of the individual. The Enlightenment tended to make the reasoning self right at the centre of the human person; various counter-Enlightenment movements react against this by asserting the opposite - that we become more human through feeling, spontaneity, and impulsive action. In some ways, philosophical post-modernism displays the same flip-flop movement - if the reasoning, autonomous subject can no longer be seen as autonomous, sovereign, etc, then the opposite must be true - we are just a product of social forces, linguistic constructs, etc.

But as with any oppositional reaction, I suspect that opposites are complicit with each other. It's either/or thinking - if the intellect cannot be everything, it must be nothing; if there is no longer the possibility of (a certain kind of) truth, then there must be no truth.

I have come to the following conclusion regarding intellectual life, and the role of intellectual understand in the Christian life: doctrine is made for humans, not humans for doctrine. The intellect is a good servant, but a bad master. I am wholeheartedly committed to pursuing understanding of Christianity with rigour, fearlessness and intense curiousity. My mind is an incredible gift, and 'gives into' my life in profound and indispensable ways. But my intellect is not the sole point of contact between 'me' (whatever that is - I suspect it is a multiplicty only held together in a meaninful unity through a presence that is greater than me - hemmed in behind and before) and 'God'. All kinds of activities, relationships, and aspects of myself mediate to me the reality that is 'God'. The intellect is one of these.

As a result, I think that it is important for me to pursue God with my intellect. This seems to include both intense doubt, and intense conviction, increasing subtly and nuance, argument, elaboration, confusion and clarity. If the intellect is a servant, it is important to work out exactly how it works best, so that it can give what it gives most fully. For me, this seems to mean a large amount of provisionality about any doctrines, and a perpetual openness; as well as a growing commitment to certain ways of expressing things, linking things up, etc.

This growing conviction about the role of the intellect as servant goes along with a certain of spirituality, so far as I can see, and it's no coincidence that through becoming more and more involved in intellectual exploration of my faith I have found that meditation and contemplative prayer are more important, because they emphasis the limitations of thought.

As an intellectual involved in church life, I notice that there is a fair amount of distust of the kind of intellectual pursuit I am committed to. As far as I can see, this is because people are afraid of the flip-flop - or more specifically, the 'flop' part of it. They are afraid that if one thing comes undone, then everything must be wrong - it's either/or. I can't help but think that if the church moved out of the either/or approach to the intellect (in which fervantly confident evangelicals become definitively vague post-evangelicals in a very short space of time, for example), then it would easier for people to see the worth of specific beliefs, traditions, etc; i.e. the worth of 'religion'.

It's a case of understand that how we believe what we believe is just as important as what we believe.

I have to go and finish a chapter...

-Stu

Edited by stu

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I have a Phd to write in about three weeks, and so can't really follow the discussion properly, but I wanted to chuck this in:

It seems to me that in large part the ambivalence displayed by someone like Andy (and I include myself) towards the role of doctrinal commitment in Christian life is linked to a more general question about the intellect - and this in turn is closely linked to the religion vs. spirituality debate (hopefully).

Something like this: there has been a bit of flip-flop thing going on in the West regarding the place of the intellect in human life - both in group life (church doctrine, etc) and in the life of the individual. The Enlightenment tended to make the reasoning self right at the centre of the human person; various counter-Enlightenment movements react against this by asserting the opposite - that we become more human through feeling, spontaneity, and impulsive action. In some ways, philosophical post-modernism displays the same flip-flop movement - if the reasoning, autonomous subject can no longer be seen as autonomous, sovereign, etc, then the opposite must be true - we are just a product of social forces, linguistic constructs, etc.

But as with any oppositional reaction, I suspect that opposites are complicit with each other. It's either/or thinking - if the intellect cannot be everything, it must be nothing; if there is no longer the possibility of (a certain kind of) truth, then there must be no truth.

I have come to the following conclusion regarding intellectual life, and the role of intellectual understand in the Christian life: doctrine is made for humans, not humans for doctrine. The intellect is a good servant, but a bad master. I am wholeheartedly committed to pursuing understanding of Christianity with rigour, fearlessness and intense curiousity. My mind is an incredible gift, and 'gives into' my life in profound and indispensable ways. But my intellect is not the sole point of contact between 'me' (whatever that is - I suspect it is a multiplicty only held together in a meaninful unity through a presence that is greater than me - hemmed in behind and before) and 'God'. All kinds of activities, relationships, and aspects of myself mediate to me the reality that is 'God'. The intellect is one of these.

As a result, I think that it is important for me to pursue God with my intellect. This seems to include both intense doubt, and intense conviction, increasing subtly and nuance, argument, elaboration, confusion and clarity. If the intellect is a servant, it is important to work out exactly how it works best, so that it can give what it gives most fully. For me, this seems to mean a large amount of provisionality about any doctrines, and a perpetual openness; as well as a growing commitment to certain ways of expressing things, linking things up, etc.

This growing conviction about the role of the intellect as servant goes along with a certain of spirituality, so far as I can see, and it's no coincidence that through becoming more and more involved in intellectual exploration of my faith I have found that meditation and contemplative prayer are more important, because they emphasis the limitations of thought.

As an intellectual involved in church life, I notice that there is a fair amount of distust of the kind of intellectual pursuit I am committed to. As far as I can see, this is because people are afraid of the flip-flop - or more specifically, the 'flop' part of it. They are afraid that if one thing comes undone, then everything must be wrong - it's either/or. I can't help but think that if the church moved out of the either/or approach to the intellect (in which fervantly confident evangelicals become definitively vague post-evangelicals in a very short space of time, for example), then it would easier for people to see the worth of specific beliefs, traditions, etc; i.e. the worth of 'religion'.

It's a case of understand that how we believe what we believe is just as important as what we believe.

I have to go and finish a chapter...

-Stu

Good thoughts, Stu. For what it's worth, I certainly value intellectual knowledge, including doctrinal knowledge. That's part of the reason I've now gone back to school four times, trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Plus there is a part of me that is simply stimulated by the environment. I like to learn. And so I am not denigrating the role of the intellect in any way.

What I am questioning is the role that the intellect has been given in the Church. Certainly there is a movement afoot culturally where the whole Enlightenment enshrinement of rationalism is coming under increasing criticism. Welcome to the PoMo component of the Emergent Church. But it's more than that, I think. I think that there is a part of the Church -- primarily Evangelicals, I would imagine -- who have grown up with the model of stuffing information into our brains. "Christian maturity" has been defined, at least in part, as acquiring knowledge; attending Bible studies, reading the latest books from IV Press, going to seminary if you're a spiritual superstar, or want to become a spiritual superstar. Let me be clear here. There is nothing -- NOTHING -- wrong with any of that. But it's simply not Christian maturity. It can be a tool that can lead to Christian maturity, but it's not the end in itself. The problems arise because some segment of the Church -- and I've been a part of this group -- has substituted the acquisition of knowledge for Christian maturity. I may have shared this story before, but I distinctly recall a time in seminary when I read a 100-page discussion of whether Paul was writing to north Galatia or south Galatia as I was smoking a joint. What's wrong with this picture? That's an extreme example, of course (although I have lots of other stories involving other people that I won't share). But it's illustrative of the fundamental disconnect that was at work. Feed the head and numb the soul. I was all about it.

I don't think, by any means, that the solution is to empty our heads. I appreciate your pursuit of intellectual rigor and precision. Good for you. But that, in itself, is not enough. And I think you're acknowledging that too. I think about two groups of people who are currently in my life. Both groups are members of my church. The first is a young woman with three little kids, ages 6, 4, and 6 months. Her husband died of cancer two weeks ago. The second is a middle-aged husband and wife whose 19-year old daughter disappeared three months ago. She was a difficult kid; always in trouble, drifting toward drugs and prostitution. Last week her body was found at the bottom of a pond, full of stab wounds. The adults in these stories are bright. Certainly they have a good intellectual grasp of Christian doctrine. And it simply doesn't matter. Doctrine always comes a-cropping at the intersection of inexplicable tragedy and horrendous loss. It doesn't matter what you know. It's the difference between the rational C.S. Lewis of The Problem of Pain and the undone C.S. Lewis of A Grief Observed. One is a tightly reasoned book and one is a mess. But only one is real and not hypothetical. Whatever is needed in these two situations -- and it appears to be quite a lot -- has nothing to do with acquiring more knowledge.

I think the only thing that may help is to sit with these people, mostly shut up, weep with them, cook them food, mow their lawns, do the kinds of things that still need to be done when they don't have the energy or will to do them. It's not nearly enough. But it's perhaps the best that we can do. I don't know where religion fits into that picture, but I suspect it both provides the context for the caring and is supremely irrelevant. You're right that it's not an either/or proposition. It's both. But I also know that if we don't care for these people then we're lousy Christians, regardless of what we know. For so many years I was a lousy Christian because I didn't care about situations like that. I'm trying to make up for lost time.

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M. Leary wrote:

: You say: "Die to yourself, and live for Christ. Love those with whom you come in contact. This isn't lowest-common-denominator Christianity. It is Christianity." And I think this is at the essence of what the New Testament teaches. But what you have proclaimed here is something intensely religious. It is steeped in the specificity of traditional Christian language. It is an injunction to behave a certain way based on the assumption of a given mythical/historical reality. It is an exclusive claim that other expressions of Christianity aren't as legitimate as the one that you have described. You were just doing religion in that very statement.

Exactly. Loving people might make you a better human being, but, in and of itself, it does not make you a Christian, not even one of the better ones. Living "for Christ", on the other hand, can only be understood in a theological sense.

Persiflage wrote:

: Spencer's objecting to churches who focus on size and growth, who focus on your church attendance as an indicator for how spiritual you are, and who focus on getting involved in little programs inspired by whatever is the latest bestseller at the Christian bookstore. There is a large, large number of churches who do this.

Yeah, I grew up in a large church that did a fair bit of this stuff. I remember there being discussions about whether or not we should move to an abandoned school because it would be bigger etc.; in the end we stayed put and tore down the old sanctuary and replaced it with an education centre that included a gym and a kitchen. But as significant as these events were, and as much as I heard the occasional person grumble behind our pastor's back about the egotistical reasons that may or may not have been fueling some of his plans, I don't recall any of these things being all THAT big a part of my church life. You didn't have to focus on them if you didn't want to; for me, church was still all about sermons and Bible studies and ministries both to people within our community and to people outside our community. And frankly, when I hear people say they're tired of "religion", I assume it is THAT stuff that they are tired of -- the ritual, the Bible study, the singing, the moral standards that people may or may not be legitimately holding them to, etc. -- and not the size-and-growth stuff.

: Where the analogy breaks down is where your commitment to one particular local church or denomination is not the equivalent to the commitment you make when you get married.

Well, actually, it is -- or it can be, depending on your ecclesiology. Orthodox and Catholics, for example, are very much committed to the communions to which they belong -- and, for the Orthodox at least, there is also the expectation that we will have some sort of relationship with our local priest (or spiritual father) that goes beyond simply treating him as the food-prep guy who gives us the Eucharist.

I saw things differently when I was an Anabaptist, though, of course. And the particular Anabaptist stream in which I grew up was definitely the sort that emphasized Lowest Common Denominator Christianity... or, rather, Evangelicalism... rather than anything too particularly Anabaptist.

stu wrote:

: I have come to the following conclusion regarding intellectual life, and the role of intellectual understand in the Christian life: doctrine is made for humans, not humans for doctrine.

Well, maybe. But to me this sounds a little like saying "Scientific theories are made for humans, not humans for scientific theories." Scientific theories attempt to say something true and useful about the objective observable world. Doctrine, similarly, tries to say something true and useful about a world that is just as objective even if it has only been revealed to us in bits and pieces and cannot be subjected to the same kind of experimentation that science relies upon. So, yes, doctrine, like science, is done for the benefit of humans -- but without it (or, at least, without a doctrine that tells us something true about the objective world), humans suffer.

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