Month: March 2011
I sometimes encounter folks who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I wish I asked more often what exactly that is supposed to mean, though I am usually held back from asking by a strong suspicion that such a statement is not meant to undergo any sort of scrutiny. But what does it mean, anyway?
This post is a reflection on why people choose to be SBNR, along with an examination of its inherent problems as a religious movement and some answers from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I think this is a major question that needs to be addressed these days, as the SBNR are those who are often likely to respond to the Gospel not so much with outright rejection but rather with “Sure, whatever.”
Underneath, “spiritual but not religious” probably means, “I like certain religious things, but I have had a bad experience with religious people and don’t attend any sort of religious gatherings, at least, not ones I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning next week.” (In other words, they are the victims of people who are religious but not spiritual.) But I think most SBNR sorts don’t mean to put that out as a viable reason for their self-description. After all, that just sounds rather cowardly, lazy, etc. (And in many cases, it is.) But usually, once the SBNR person dwells on their SBNR state for a while, they eventually come up with their own theology—probably their favorite parts of what they used to have, coupled with some reactions to what they didn’t like. SBNR becomes itself a kind of religion, complete with its own (usually assumed but not stated) dogma.
Mind you, there are of course SBNR people who have never been involved in religious communities, and while on the rise, they are still not the majority of such people. Despite what you may see on television or read in newspapers (if anyone does that any more), “organized” religion in America is still quite strong.
At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people. Having been burned (or seen others burned) by connection with religious believers, the SBNR person withdraws and makes “spirituality” (what in any other context would still be called “religion”) subject only to his own private preferences. This makes sense in our culture, which (despite our constant tendency to out-source) still sees itself as a do-it-yourself culture. But what is not usually examined in this approach is that it is essentially Gnostic, a privileging of private revelation and opinion over corporate knowledge and tradition. It is also essentially Protestant, in that its basic movement is one away from community and tradition.
There are a lot of issues packed into this essential narrative of escape. Let’s look at three of them:
- Abuse: Religion is full of bad people. But so is pretty much every other pursuit in human experience. Bad apples do not, in human associations, spoil the bunch. Some bunches are spoiled from the get-go (e.g., the KKK), but just because the Inquisition killed people does not mean that Christianity is broken. (Indeed, one can easily argue from within the Christian tradition that the Inquisition was a betrayal of Christianity.) Religions should not be judged by their worst adherents, but by their best—those the religion itself holds up as saints. It should also be judged by its doctrine, not by those who fail to do what the doctrine says (e.g., Roman Catholic ephebophile/pedophile priests do not by their behavior render Roman Catholicism illegitimate).
- Authority: Once you escape from authority (other people who have legitimacy in telling you how you should live), where do you go? You have a choice between finding a better authority or making yourself the authority. The SBNR chooses the latter. He is the sole arbiter of what is true and good. If he realizes that he is not really an expert, then he will mitigate his theology with a strong dose of relativism: “This is what works for me, but I’m not saying you have to do it.” But if you’re going to embrace relativism, what’s the point in being “spiritual,” anyway? If spirituality is in any sense about becoming a better person, who defines what “better” means? At the bottom, there really is nothing noble about striving to meet a set of standards if you get to make the standards up for yourself. Or, at least, the relativist who believes in self-sacrifice is inherently no nobler or in any way better than the relativist whose goal in life is to eat more twinkies. If you think he is, then you have to dump the relativism, because you just embraced a transcendent truth, one that is not subject to what any of us think about it.
- Community: Where there is no authority, there can be no community. Community always requires hierarchy, and hierarchy means that someone will have a coordinating role. But where there is no coordination, there is no community. A group of SBNR people can, of course, function as a kind of spiritual club, but the longer they stay together, they will find they have either formed a religion or irritated each other enough that the whole thing will eventually dissolve. Community is a critical element of human life, which is why SBNR cannot bind it together, being inherently anti-communal. It is also why so many SBNR people eventually end up either completely non-religious (e.g., as atheists, agnostics, or “SBNR” who nevertheless never do anything remotely “spiritual” or religious) or as members of religions. It is an unsustainable way of being. Any philosophy or mode of life which makes claims about higher order issues such as spirits and religion has to resonate with essential humanity. And since humanity is communal, SBNR does not last nor can it truly satisfy.
There is a lot more one could say here (e.g., about SBNR being just another form of consumerist, “have it your way” religion), but down underneath all of this is the question of whether God actually cares about His creation, which is why I believe that these issues touch upon the very heart of the Gospel.
If God does not care about His creation (deism), then of course there is absolutely no problem with being SBNR. But there’s also no more point in being SBNR than in being a golfer. The golfer probably isn’t making any claims to higher order knowledge and experience, though. (No offense, golfers!) But he’s just as much entitled to do so as the SBNR person, because God hasn’t bothered to let us know that He even exists, much less that there are transcendent truths to which we are all responsible. Thus, once again, the proper response is, “Sure, whatever.”
I can certainly agree that deism is a logical conclusion to come to—the world is so complex and interesting that there has to be a Creator. But anything beyond that (e.g., chi, spiritual energies, wisdom, goodness, virtue, nobility, and even love) is really just anyone’s opinion. It still falls down the Nietzschean hole, however—with no revealed truth, it’s finally all about power. If there are no revealed truths, then why should I not just take whatever I want, because I can?
At its heart, I believe that the SBNR person simply does not want to worship. At least, he doesn’t want to worship anything other than himself. (This sounds really bad, and it is. But we all do it, SBNR or not.) Worship is fundamentally about giving oneself over in complete union to the Other, which involves sacrifice and risk. It is love, but it is a much higher order love than the “love” which is spoken of in the idolatrous language of popular eros. Worship requires submission, freely offered, and that is something the SBNR person is simply not going to do. Once there’s a divine Thou to go with my I, then that means there’s religion, for religion is the reconnecting of what was separated (re+ligio). When there’s connection going on, then that means there must also be some sort of arrangement between those being connected, and that is, once again, religion.
Fundamentally, the SBNR person is cheating himself out of the real transcendence he is probably dreaming about. After all, transcendence means ecstasy (ek+stasis), standing outside yourself, and that means that your own ideas about what’s true don’t matter in the face of what really is the truth. There cannot be “your truth” and “my truth” in transcendence. There is only the Truth. After all, if we are transcending to a somewhere, then it’s certainly not a somewhere that we make up for ourselves. Nor is it a place that can be navigated by our opinions. One does not step into outer space without a spacesuit.
The Gospel is simple, though: God speaks to us. That means He’s real, and that He has an objective existence apart from our opinions of Him. Seeing our disconnection from Him, He sent us His Son, Who became one of us. He entered into the whole human experience, even death itself. And when death met the God-man, it began to work backwards. And if we want to have that same conquest over death, we have to follow the God-man and be united to Him.
That’s the path to God. There aren’t any other paths to Him, because He didn’t build any others. And no civil engineer, no matter how spiritual, can build one in place of that one. Why would you want another one, anyway? Conquering death is where it’s at, folks. Let’s do it.
A friend recently weighed in on a theological question that made the New York Times. One should always be suspicious when newspapers start talking about theology, because, well, newspapers seldom know anything about it.
The piece of theology essentially goes this way: There really is no hell, and God is too loving to send anyone there. How could God possibly be so cruel to damn people to hell who accidentally happen not to believe in Jesus, maybe because they never even heard of Him? (Gandhi is of course the poster boy for the heaven-deserving non-Christian.) Or what about those who simply messed up? “…can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus?” The question, of course, assumes a certain answer—namely, that God will cut everyone a break, because He’s nice, and so everyone gets saved, no matter what. There are various names for this. Universalism is the most common, and it is really beyond me why this is making news today.
The NYT defines the opposition to universalism as “traditionalist.” And those who embrace it are “liberals.” Those labels alone should let you know that the NYT doesn’t know what it’s talking about here.
After all, is someone like St. Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Orthodox saint, a “liberal” because he taught apokatastasis (the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ)? And is someone a “traditionalist” who insists that there will, like the Bible quite frankly says, actually be ramifications for how we lived in this life, for what we did with the light we were given? These labels make no sense, and they reveal rather the narrow theological lens through which this question is being framed, namely, a particular corner of Western Christian soteriology, mainly Protestant.
I have long believed that the God Who punishes people because they made Him mad is the God Whom atheists do not believe in. It seems some Christians don’t believe in Him, either. This is no surprise, and it’s a question that is many centuries older than these corners of Evangelical theology (and their recent occasional forays into liberal Protestantism) actually reveal. It’s not as if every “traditional” Christian for twenty centuries has believed in a God Who zaps the unrighteous and the ignorant, and now suddenly, we have this idea that perhaps God might love someone, might even be merciful(!).
Even though this question is really not a major one in Orthodox Christian circles, and even though it would be tempting to be triumphalistic about this (we’ve always believed in God’s mercy, you see), there have nonetheless been attempts to address this perennially Western theological question, such as Alexander Kalomiros’s “The River of Fire.” Yet Kalomiros really goes too far when he would seek to eliminate all language of God’s “wrath” or “punishment” from Christian vocabulary. (The best take I’ve yet read specifically on the question of apokatastasis is Metr. Kallistos Ware’s essay “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”)
Let’s face it: It’s in there. Now, I suppose if you’d like to chuck the entire Bible and the whole Christian tradition, you can come up with something else. But then, let’s face it: You’re not really a Christian, then, are you? Christianity is a revealed religion, not something some smart people made up to enslave millions and which us modern enlightened folks can just revise in order to enslave a few more millions (or maybe just get their money).
So what is one to do with all that embarrassing hell-talk in the Bible and in what really is “traditional” Christianity? For one thing, let us not assume that we have to look at the question of salvation in purely penal/legalistic terms. Yes, that language is in the Scripture, too, but so is a lot of other stuff about healing and mercy. And let’s not forget glory.
I really think glory is the key question here. The afterlife—heaven, hell, whatever—is fundamentally about apokalypsis, the “pulling away of the veil.” On the other side of death, we will experience the glory of God. There are a lot of ways of describing that experience, depending on the capacity with which we receive it. But whatever we bring to that experience, we know that it will be essentially unmitigated. God’s glory will be revealed to all of us to the extent that we are able to receive it without being annihilated in the process.
For some, that revelation will be pretty freakin’ awesome. For others, it will be pretty horrible. Why? Because one does not step into outer space without a spacesuit. Because one does not jump off a building without wings. Because one does not dive into the ocean without SCUBA gear. Whatever metaphor you want to use, the truth is that coming face to face with God is going to require some preparation, because we’re broken.
Now, God wants to fix that brokenness. He wants to provide the spacesuit, wings, SCUBA gear, etc., that will enable us to enter into the greatest of all adventures, beyond the most fantastic dreams of the human race.
But God is too loving ever to force those things onto us.
That’s really the crux of this matter. Ironically, the “liberals” seem to believe that they’re preaching a God Who loves people too much to allow them to experience His glory as pain and suffering. But what they really want is a God Who will override the human will. They want a God Who will make you love Him, Who will make you be in communion with Him.
But that’s not love, folks. Love sets you free. Love takes the risk. Love always gives freedom and never forces anything out of the beloved, even if it means losing the beloved. God loves us all too much not to let us fail.
But let us be clear about what failure is. It is not simply accidentally never having heard of Jesus. I’m sorry, but that’s really too arbitrary a criterion to be taken seriously. (If you want to dance with Calvin, then go ahead, I suppose. God damns certain people, maybe by never sending them a missionary, whether they like it or not. That being the case, let’s stay home on Sunday and watch football instead. Really.) Failure is also not a matter of having slipped up, having “faltered” and committed a sin. Sin does not keep one out of that awesome experience of glory. (If it did, again… football!)
Failure is to choose darkness over light, again and again. Those who sit in darkness are given many, many chances of emerging into the light, so many that, by the time they cross over to the other side, it’s really clear that that’s what they prefer. They prefer pride over humility. They prefer indulgence over abstinence. They prefer the self over the selfless. This is not “faltering.” It’s our criminal justice system that beats you up when you falter. You can make one mistake and get sent to prison for years for it.
But God is not our kind of judge. He’s the kind that looks at a whole life and discerns what that person really wants, and then He gives it to them. All will be resurrected, and all will get what they really want. Some want communion, and they’ll get it. Others want self-sufficiency, and they’ll get that. Both will receive the natural consequences of going into the afterlife with those sets of equipment. God gives mercy to all, but He forces it on none.
So, yes, as my friend quoted from that song, it really is all about mercy. God loves you too much to make you love Him. But He is also a consuming fire. So let’s make sure we’re ready for the flame, shall we?
The Sunday of Forgiveness, March 6, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“They say Aslan is on the move.” With these whispered words, the seventh chapter of the allegorically Christian novel by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, introduces the character of Aslan. “Aslan is on the move.”
I happened to hear those words again this week when watching the film version of this story with my daughter. We began reading the book together, as well. Those of you who have read the book perhaps feel a bit of the excitement of those words: “Aslan is on the move.” But for those who haven’t, here is the next thing that Lewis writes:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
I, too, felt something curious upon encountering those words, words I’ve been seeing again and again for many years since I first read them as a child. What occurred to me this time was this juxtaposition: “Lent begins next week. Aslan is on the move.”
In Lewis’s tale, Aslan is a great lion. He is not only a talking lion, but happens also to be the rightful king of Narnia, the fictional land into which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble. Narnia is at first dominated by the White Witch, who makes it always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas. Yet Aslan is more than a lion, for he is also a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when the four children first hear his name, they have no idea who he is. But they know that he is coming, and with him, comes the springtime.
In most languages, the holy season we are about to embark upon is called simply the Great Fast, but in English, we have inherited our terminology from Latin, and it is called Lent. The word Lent now is used almost exclusively to refer to this season in the Church’s calendar, but its older meaning has nothing to do with fasting or extra church services leading up to Pascha. Lent means “springtime.”
We have had a fairly heavy winter here in the Lehigh Valley this year, and if you are at all like me, the coming of spring is most welcome. Indeed, I feel a strong sense of anticipation for some sunshine, warmer air, and for signs of life to begin emerging. And here, precisely where we are balanced between winter and spring, weary of the heaviness and darkness of the past season, here we encounter Lent, the springtime of the Church.
I think many people greet Lent not with a sense of anticipation but, many times, with dread! Such people, if they are trying to be serious about their spiritual lives, may feel what Edmund does in the book, a sort of “mysterious horror” or perhaps drudgery, as they think about the fasting, the extra church services, the sermons about repentance, and so on. They may even think that this attitude of suffering is what God wants for them. And if they are not serious, Lent is probably all the more tedious, because here is yet another thing impinging upon their perfectly busy lives. They are probably hoping to stay insulated both from winter and springtime, kept in a perfect box of perfect weather with a thermostat to keep their spiritual life from being anything but utterly bland all the time.
But we do not have to be those people. For a great adventure is now beginning. We can, like Peter, feel “suddenly brave and adventurous,” that there is a great task set before us that will define us and fulfill us. Or like Susan, Lent can be “as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by,” a time of intense and often heart-rending beauty. Or perhaps we greet Lent like Lucy, with “the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer,” for freedom is at hand, and everything becomes possible.
Springtime is precisely about freedom. We are able to go outside again, to stretch our arms and legs, to reconnect with life. This is the time to stretch not only our limbs but also our spirits, to clean not only our homes but our hearts. Repentance, the theme for Great Lent, is not fundamentally something dark and negative, but rather beautiful and powerful, because, like springtime, it is the cleaning out of our hearts, the rededication of ourselves to what truly matters. In this spiritual springtime, we emerge again from the traps we’ve devised for ourselves so that we can be watered with the showers of divine energy, to turn our faces clearly toward the sunshine of the love and healing of God, to grow toward Him once again.
This Sunday is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, and this evening at Forgiveness Vespers we will give and receive from each other precisely that great gift. If we do not forgive, if we do not show up and make that forgiveness real, then we cannot expect that God will forgive us. Indeed, we essentially pray again and again that He will not, because we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. And if you are at all like me, you need forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the restoration of relationship. It is when we come home by the path of repentance. In this Great Lent, most especially if you have never done it before, come with us on the journey. This journey cannot be taken only by coming to church on Sunday morning like you always do. Lent is almost invisible on Sunday morning, because Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection. But in the bright sadness, the secret glory of the Lenten services during the week, something else emerges, something that gives that resurrectional celebration its true meaning.
When I was watching the film, and it came to the part where Aslan was going willingly to be sacrificed on behalf of a traitor, to give his life in exchange, I became a little concerned that my four year old daughter was perhaps not quite ready to see that sort of thing on screen. But although the film makes it clear what happens, the act itself is essentially done off-screen. But all my concerns were wiped away by what happened a few moments later.
You see, after the grief of Susan and Lucy at seeing the great lion killed, they hear a great crack, for the stone table on which he had been sacrificed breaks in two. And then his body disappears. And suddenly, he’s back, standing on the crest of a hill in glory. At that moment, my little daughter’s face lit up in a way I’ve never seen before, and she immediately said, “Oh, I love him!”
When I asked her at the end of the movie how Aslan was like Jesus, she said right away, without any hesitation, “He rose again!” And he did.
So here we now stand, perched once again at the edge of the great adventure, the turn of the season from the dark entrapment of winter to the refreshing freedom of springtime. Will we follow the King the whole way? Will we enter into His time of glory? And when we see Him emerge from the tomb on that Great and Holy Day of Pascha, will we quite naturally say, “Oh, I love Him!”?
May it be so for you.
May the God of forgiveness and of resurrection, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
A recent encounter by my wife with a Unitarian Universalist has set me thinking again upon what I believe is one of the great Christian evangelistic questions of our time: We now have to make the case for dogma. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that the person in front of us believes that there is Truth, that there is an objective reality and an objectively appropriate way of living in that reality to which we are all responsible, whether we like it or not.
Now, it is not as if, in earnest conversation with someone, he is likely to tell you, “See here, now—I am a relativist, and therefore any positive truth claim you may make to me will fall on deaf ears.” (I suppose it is possible one may find such a rare chap now and then, but he is exceedingly rare.) It is more likely that you will hear something like this: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to believe.”
That basic anti-authoritarian attitude regarding philosophical and spiritual truth has ironically become something of a dogma in its own right, but instead of turning its adherents into dyed-in-the-wool, doctrinaire relativists (he says, with particular irony), the doctrine instead plays itself out into a moral and spiritual system. That is, it dictates behavior and attitudes and even piety. Or rather, one might say it engenders a sort of allergic reaction. When in the presence of dogma, he will react immediately to it and seek some sort of balm or pill to deal with the symptoms. He rarely asks whether its claims are actually true, because doing so would open up the possibility of becoming responsible to those claims.
Yet one of the inherent ironies of this position is that the believer typically will still place authoritarian faith in another kind of priesthood, something called “science.” “Studies show” that “science” is always right. (Though there is that problem of credentialing: What does one call a “scientist” with whom one disagrees? It is not enough that he has impressive degrees from otherwise trustworthy institutions—institutions that we trust because, well, they’re trustworthy, you know.) He will accept that he is responsible to the claims of “science,” but his will (unfettered, or rather, unstrengthened by other dogma) will still probably not help him to lose weight.
But let us dispense with the irony and face this question head-on: What do you say to someone who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? I don’t know what you say to them, but I typically tell them that they can believe anything they like, because they can.
Why? At the heart of the anti-authoritarian dogma is the desire for freedom. I believe a lot of people who feel this way believe that they’re being put into some sort of straitjacket when someone tells them what is true and what is not. Yet if we are Christians (“little Christs”), then we look at the example of the Christ: He preached the truth—and well He should, for He is the truth—but He never compelled anyone to believe in Him.
Orthodox Christians often make the point that the truth is a Person, not a set of propositions. That is not really something one can wrap one’s head around (ever try to wrap your head around a person?). Yet there are things one can say about that point, and one of them is that the encounter with a person, especially the divine Person, is precisely the opportunity for freedom. We can engage or not. We can love or not. We can hate or not. We can ignore or not.
And that brings us back to dogma.
Dogma comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” and its use in Christian theology begins in the New Testament itself, from that first council of the Apostles, when they laid down some dogma, saying that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.”
Dogma is therefore not the speculations of ivory tower academics or professional philosophers. Rather, it is what has been revealed by God as true. The Apostles did not say that their pronouncements merely “seemed good to us.” Rather, it was an act of the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Trinity Who inspires flawed human beings to see the Truth, Who is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This same “seems”—dogma—has also been pronounced down through the ages by those whom the Spirit has similarly inspired.
Now, of course the anti-authoritarian crypto-relativist will not believe any of that, and he doesn’t have to. But he is usually not very thoroughgoing in his relativism. He probably believes that it is better to be kind than to be cruel. He probably believes that it is better to love than to hate. He probably believes that human beings have an inherent worth to them. But none of that is apparent from a merely scientific examination of the material world.
Scientific observation can say that humans are composed of certain kinds of elements in certain amounts, that certain kinds of behavior make for longer life, more efficient energy processing, etc. But they cannot make pronouncements of value. Why should kindness be better than cruelty? Because it makes more people live longer? Why is that a laudable goal? Why should we honor the value of every human person? Says who?
But these are precisely all dogmatic claims. To say that life is better than death is to make a transcendent claim over and above the observable facts of material reality (assuming we even have the ability to observe all that’s there). It is to say something about that material reality beyond merely what is to what should be. But most people would find countering such dogma so absurd that they would not even countenance mounting a defense for it. So such dogma remains unarticulated or at least ungrounded in any sort of compelling transcendent narrative. Yes, life is valuable, but why? Because you happen to like it that way? So what?
Anti-dogmatism therefore finds itself defenseless against well-grounded materialist ideologies, such as militant communism, which has a proven record of not valuing human life above its own philosophical dictates. If millions must be sacrificed, then so be it. Since there is no God, there is no One Who is going to enforce the value of human life, neither now nor in the next life. The Kingdom Come becomes the Kingdom of Now, and in the Kingdom of Now, whoever has the biggest gun wins. But few of those who do not believe in truth will actually admit this terrifying reality. Nietzsche knew, of course, and he was willing to face the horror of unmooring humanity from transcendent dogma.
That brings us once again back to our practical question: What are we supposed to say to the person who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? Don’t tell him. He won’t believe you. But at the same time, there really is no verbal defense against love. If you love someone—that is, if you sacrifice yourself for him in meaningful ways without expecting anything in return—then you are communicating the One Who is Truth to him. When you love, then you are displaying the image of God within yourself, connecting to the image of God within the other, which is what makes us all worth the king’s ransom that we each are.
No matter what he might say, everyone believes in something. Some only believe they’ll have another drink. Okay, fine. But why is it worth it to make yourself feel good that way? What are you worth? Why?
And that’s dogma.