I read Linda Mercadante’s chapter on community in Belief Without Borders.
There is a paradox in the American way of thinking about community. Americans support community and lament a perceived lack of it. Yet we are pretty individualistic in our attitudes.
Those who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) double down on this paradox. They not only support community, but idealize and spiritualize it. They tend to believe that if we could only see it, all humankind already constitutes an interconnected community. Many of them see a new age dawning where the barriers to community will fall and we will all recognize how connected we are. Yet, at the same time, they usually see actual communities as rigid, dogmatic, and repressive.
Why are these folks so critical of religious communities? Well, she asked some of them and found that they participated in American social life pretty much as much as other Americans. They were not especially individualistic. However, when it came to spirituality, they had a hard time sticking with any community. When asked who their principal spiritual support was, many said, “I am.” One said, “I am my own church. I am my own congregation.”
One said, “I get weird about organizations. They collect money. And if I don’t put money in, are they going to talk about me?. . . And they want you to be on committees. … That’s the sad thing about things that get organized: people” (p. 163).
I get this. When I retired I said I would do anything in the church that did not involve having to go to meetings. I do not do too much now, because almost everything does involve going to meetings. Yet, for me, it was pretty simple to establish this boundary. I still get to be part of the community.
The problem post-Christians have with church goes beyond the fear that people won’t respect their boundaries. According to Mercadante, they have, as part of their world-view, the idea that spirituality is supposed to be an individual and personal thing. To adhere to any particular group would limit their options. Even the seemingly open-ended evangelistic stance that it is ok if you don’t believe Christian teachings now, but you will eventually come around seemed horrifying to some. It would mean giving up the freedom to always make your own decisions.
Another belief they seem to share is that if they achieve happiness by following their own instincts, this happiness will shine out to others. Thus, their focus on self is not really selfish. It benefits everybody. But it has to begin with every individual expressing his or her true nature. And this true nature is something you discover on your own.
The goal of spirituality was usually individual, finding peace, joy, or happiness. Transforming the world was not their main concern. One said that her goal, so far as others were concerned, was to do as little harm as possible and to be loving and kind to the extent that this did not involve sacrificing herself. There is a faith that everyone cultivating their individual development supports the common good.
Mercadante goes back over something she has brought up before. We might assume that the SBNR rejection of organized religion comes from bitterness about some hurt they suffered at the hands of churches. She did not find this. They may have disagreed with the churches and seen hypocrjcy there. But those who had been brought up in the church or had once gone to church often had good memories about that. Their current distance from religious community came more from cognitive dissonence and inadequate answers to questions about life and meaning.
Many were disappointed in spiritual communities, both traditional and alternative, but few felt they had been abused.
A good number of the interviewees had experience in addiction recovery groups. This experience causes some to contrast the honesty found in the confessional nature of a twelve-step group with the interpersonal superficiality of Sunday morning church.
Ok, I see that I am going to have to do this chapter in two posts.
I found it interesting that Mercadante, when she set out how religions differed from the SBNR, said that Christianity seeks social transformation through grace. She did not say that social transformation is a thing more for Mainline Protestants than for others. But it seems to me pretty one-dimensional as a description of what Christian community is about.
In a way I found that I agree more with the SBNR attitude that changing the world is not something we know how to do. Their idea that a new age will dawn agrees in some ways with the views of those who take the apocalyptic tradition in Judaism and Christianity seriously. In substance though, apocalypticism with its notion of resurrection, seems distant from SBNR spirituality.
It is quite clear that most of these post-Christians think of themselves as engaged in an inward quest and would disagree with or not understand my contention that humans are not so constructed as to be able to do that.