Mercadante-a paradox about community

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.

Posted in Church, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mercadante-human nature

I once found to my astonishment that one older lady who had grown up and then raised her own family in the church thought that “thou shalt not judge” was one of the Ten Commandments. There is a powerful urge in our culture to reject the concept that anyone can judge another. A lot of post-Christian spirituality seems devised to eliminate judgement and negativity from human interaction.

According to Linda Mercadante in Belief Without Borders those who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) draw from Western psychology and Eastern religions in their view of human nature. They reject what they often see as Christianity’s view: that humans are born guilty in need of being saved. No, they affirm that people are born good and innocent. Some people act against their own and others best interests. But this is not because they are bad. It is because of genetics and environment. Or perhaps it is all part of a larger movement of spirit where people who seem bad get put into a situation where they will learn and grow in a way that contributes to the overall evolution of consciousness.

The people Mercadante interviewed were nearly unanimous in their view that humans are naturally and in essence good and pure. But they struggled with this. They were aware that human behavior is not always wonderful. Still, the idea that humans are basically good was a matter of faith and hope. The interviewees sometimes admitted that this belief went against the evidence. Mostly, though, they saw themselves as good at their own cores and projected this on others as well.

The SBNR often went further to say that people are divine, that you really can’t separate self from God. This is part of the monism that Mercadante discussed in her chapter on transcendence. One interviewee felt that there is a universal spiritual “blob”. Whenever someone is born a bit of this blob gets pinched off and seems to exist separately for a while.

Mercadante points out that many people in post-Christian spirituality do not have a good understanding of religion. For instance, she thinks that Hinduism and Buddhism have a less sanguine view of human nature, but that these Eastern religions get Americanized by the SBNR and brought into line with pop psychology.

Another misunderstanding is of the idea of original sin associated with Christianity. For many Christians this just means that we are born into a fallen world. So when some post-Christian people talk about how environment and genetics bring about destructive behavior, is their view that different from a Christian view?

For most of the interviewees the only firm point of reference was the self. “I have these conversations with my heart”, said one, “and I ask my heart questions because I feel like my heart can give me information I just can’t get from my head” (pg. 152). So there is a calling into doubt of logic and rationality as well as any authority beyond the self. This can lead to not caring much about inconsistencies and contradictions in their world-view.

Her interviewees did not talk about sin, but they believed in free will and free choice. So when people make the wrong choices it is on them. They should take responsibility. But SBNR folks hate to judge, so they tend to attribute any messed up choices to a blockage of the universal spirit within us. In language borrowed from Buddhism, they sometimes talk about the ego as a small mind cut off from the larger wisdom of the universe.

Perhaps a flaw in Mercadante’s approach is that she tries to categorize the views of post-Christians in themes like the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man that come from Christian systematic theology. Since much of the thinking seems self-referential and focused on personal well-being, I am not sure this works.

The deeper question may be what spirituality is about. I can only speak from my own perspective which is in touch with traditional Christianity (and Judaism, I think) but does not represent any particular denomination. From my perspective spirituality and religion are about grace. I often say that gratitude is the meaning of life. Unless, a personal God gives me life and accepts me, what am I grateful for? If I am part of some impersonal energy or force, then I see nothing astonishing about God’s love. What does love even mean for a non-personal energy? There is no amazing grace.

At the heart of a spiritual astonishment at grace, it seems to me, is the contrast between the divine and the human. If there is no contrast, what is there to be amazed about? What is there to be grateful for?

Posted in Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


I am reading the chapter on transcendence in Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders. One part of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) view of transcendence concerns what they reject from Judaism and Christianity. That was the theme of my previous post. But what are their positive theological beliefs?

She says that some have characterized the SBNR understanding as pantheistic (everything is God). She rejects this on the ground that pantheists would worship nature more than the SBNR. They see a spiritually helpful side of nature, but stop well short of worship.

At first this confused me because Western philosophical pantheism of the Stoics or Spinoza did not necessarily mean nature worship. But it turns out that Mercadante is thinking of Hinduism. I guess that is more relevant in this case than Western philosophy. (See below where she calls monism a view that I would have called pantheism.)

On the surface some Hinduism looks polytheistic or animistic. But Hindu thought (or one version of it) says that particular gods all manifest the One. Nature looks like a bunch of things and processes. But this is an illusion. Sensory data that seems to show a multifaceted, pluralistic world gives us a false impression. In reality everything is one. Mercadante will argue that many of the SBNR believe this, however they have skipped most of the polytheistic and animistic manifestations that crop up in popular Hinduism. There may be some “tree hugging”, but this is not really any kind of worship.

Others have characterized the SBNR as Gnostic. But ancient Gnosticism had an elitist element that does not sit well with American ideals. Some of the SBNR that she interviewed expressed views that seem Gnostic (a hierarchy of divine emanations), but the secret knowledge revealed only to a few does not work for American individualists who want to do their own thing.

I wonder about this. There are gurus. There are psychics and channelers connected with this kind of spirituality. So I am not convinced that there is no analogy to Gnosticism here.

An idea that popped up in many of her interviews is that God is evolving with us. God is maturing. God is identified with a kind of universal consciousness. And as consciousness evolves, God evolves.

But the one positive understanding of God that she found widespread in the SBNR is monism. Monism is a belief that seems close to monotheism, but departs from the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions. Monotheism says there is only one God. Monism says all reality is one and often identifies this oneness with the divine. The practical meaning of this is that a monist can say “I am god.” with a straight face. This means that I am a part of the one reality that is divine. A monotheist will not say that because she sees herself in an external relationship with the divine, such as the relationship between creator and creature. For the monotheist God may permeate all creation, but is not identical with it.

Sometimes this monism gets taken up and accommodated in modern Christianity. Mercadante tells of attending an Episcipalian retreat center in the Midwest (emphasized to show that it was not in California, I guess). For an hour-long session people entered a circular meditation room, took off their shoes, covered their street clothes with brown robes, and participated in chants. The hour ended with the affirmantion, “We are all God.”

This “God” was usually seen as an impersonal force or energy. Sometimes this was loosely connected with a popular notion of what modern physics says about energy. It is everywhere and it consists of particles or waves that you can’t see. So it sort of fits with the idea that the reality we see and sense is all an illusion.

I guess what bugs me most about idea, which I admit I have been running into even in the church since the ’70s, is the lack of scientific, historical, or theological rigor. There is a lot of pseudo-science, history-that-never-happened (like from the History Channel), and theological straw men involved.

A particular pet peeve of mine is the loose way the idea of evolution gets used. Some of the interviewees talked about some people being more evolved than others. They applied the idea of evolution to their personal self-actualization. But the truth is that evolution takes eras, millions of years. None of us has time to evolve individually or even as a society.

Of course, if you combine evolution with the idea of reincarnation, I guess you could posit evolution over thousands of lifetimes. But evolution is a scientific theory based on rigorous observation. Reincarnation is something else. If you believe in a doctrine on other grounds, it is fine to speculate how it might fit with an evolutionary world-view. Christians and Jews should do that too. But first, you need to understand that evolution leads to many dead-ends and happens over really long periods of time.

So far Mercadante is trying hard to give the SBNR a fair hearing. She is being very patient, although she occasionally will point out that they may misunderstand traditional religion.

She is being more patient with them than I am being. But I should point out that, as a pastor, I have had to deal with New Age thinking or Post-Christian thinking. I have had to point out that the biblical heritage differs from it. This has often met with resistance from folks convinced that all religions are the same. So it is not a theoretical issue for me.

(A few years ago I was co-leading an adult study with a female United Methodist pastor. One of her members said something half seriously about what she was going to do when she was reincarnated in her next life. My colleague very calmly and with a smile said, “ You know we don’t believe that, right?” I very much admired this way of responding.)

Posted in Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


In reading Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders I’ve come to the theological substance of her interviews with people who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). She said she asked them about four basic topics: God, human nature, community, and life after death. She starts with a chapter on transcendence. It is a long chapter. I’ll take at least two posts to cover it. The word “God” is not always positive for the SBNR, but they believe in something beyond themselves. Sometimes they talked about a higher power. This probably comes from the twelve-step movements several of them had been involved in. In the twelve-step movements the higher power is not specific. It can be different from person to person. This fits with the free choice and individualism of most of the SBNR. One of the things they usually rejected was a masculine image of God. This was especially true of Baby Boomers and older. So the second wave of feminism was likely an influence. Such people tended to associate God with images they got from medieval paintings and bad parents. They associated maleness with anger, rigidity, and distance. The masculine God was a demanding God who did not invite inquiry or interaction. More serious (to my mind) is the rejection of a personal God who is involved in human affairs. This means that spirituality can include meditation, but not prayer. At least prayer doesn’t make sense without an involved God whom you can address as a person. But many found turning away from such an understanding of God liberating. For one thing, it meant you did not have to try to please God anymore. God was not the kind of being who knew or cared what you did. It also eliminates the problem of reconciling the goodness of God with hurtful things that happened if we are all just swept up in an impersonal force. Also it takes away the idea of sin and salvation. The idea that God sent Jesus to die for sins was particularly rejected by some. Yet some of the SBNR were inconsistent about this. For instance, some felt themselves called. Some felt themselves guided. Some felt mysterious interventions in life events. Some struggled with the notion that there might be some kind of a plan beyond themselves. Those who looked for self-help in spirituality often felt that, although there was no personal God, there was a kind of divine energy that you could plug into. Sometimes they just referred to the transcendent as the Universe. Many of us who are still religious and connected to churches struggle with the same issues. And yet we find it unnecessary to reject a personal God who cares about us. I think it is unnecessary to get hung up on masculine images of God. In Judaism and Christianity there are feminine images too. Why is it that negative traits like being distant and demanding get marked as masculine. Doesn’t anybody but me know distant, demanding women. There are plenty of angry women too. So that is not a masculine characteristic. Male god-figures in the movies, like George Burns and Morgan Freeman, do not seem overly menacing. Why take the images from medieval paintings so seriously? Moreover, the New Testament gospel metaphor of God as Father is well-known. The parable of the prodigal son is well-known. So there is a handy masculine image of God as the opposite of the usual stereotype. Do people literally think God is one sex or the other? Aside from Mark Driscoll and a few other extreme examples. I don’t really see Christians pushing a masculine God, Jesus, or religion these days. It is precisely the opposite in my church. So I do not get what people are rejecting when they reject a masculine (or feminine) image of God. The rejection of the notion that God cares about people seems by far the more serious and difficult-to-counter problem with post-Christian spirituality

Posted in Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mercadante-SBNR and the belief that all is one

Is there anything cohesive about the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR)? In other words, is it possible that this is just a movement to individualism and intellectual anarchy with each person going their own unique religious way? Linda Mercadante in Belief with Borders says that in interviewing these people she came away with the insight that there is some coherence and that we can talk about common themes.

Some have characterized the thinking of SBNR people as New Age. Mercadante found that a lot of them rejected that term. They thought this was a term for marginalized or “cultish” people. They did not think of themselves as out of the mainstream, but as representing a new mainstream and majority. However, there is some truth behind the SBNR as New Age if you understand the phenomenon as a critique of traditional Western religion and culture.

A better term, she says, might be “Post-Christian Spirituality”.

Still, it does not mean a total break with Western religious thinking. Mercadante holds that the “Protestant principle” is both assumed and celebrated in the SBNR ethos. This principle holds that it is bad (idolatry) to absolutize the relative and that questioning and criticism must be part of religious faith.

One of the specific themes of the SBNR ethos is the rejection of religious exclusivism. They reject the idea that there is one true church. They reject theologies that speculate about who will be lost and who will be saved for eternal life. Some of the interviewees grew up in churches that actually preached exclusivism. But some just have the impression that religions are inherently exclusive.

Another common theme is that the SBNR object to the ethical claims of religion. This is partly a feeling that religious people and communities do not live up to their own ethics. Mercadante does not deal with specific ethics at this point. My own experience is that the objections usually start with sexual ethics as young people struggle with sexual thoughts, masturbation, pre-marital sex, and so forth.

Another common theme was the idea that religion is a matter of personal choice. Many of them had been taught this be their parents. Some had even been taught this by their original churches.

Another word she uses for a common theme is “detraditioning.” Once they have let go of religious authority, they also begin to let go of traditions connected to religion. Many are attracted to the traditions of other religions. But they seldom feel comfortable fully adopting them. They tend to end up following their own intuition and living without lasting spiritual traditions.

The SBNR usually felt that they somehow had access to a truth higher than any specific religion. They felt that they could discern the ways in which all religions resemble one another. Differences between religions resulted, they thought, from “human error, institutional exclusivism, non-essential teachings, or down-right manipulation” (p. 81). This often meant that their actual theology or world-view was monistic. In other words, they tended to believe that all is one and that seeming differences in the world are not real.

This belief that at bottom all religions and spiritualities are about the same leads these folks to have little problem pulling bits and pieces from different traditions. The idea that this involves taking these items out of context or cutting them off from the their sources and communities, makes no sense to many who identify as SBNR.

But some, especially younger people, are questioning this. Some criticized the “blissy, blissy” attitude that tended to deny suffering and blame things like cancer on people’s attitudes and thought life. Another criticized the “totally pop-culture fluff stuff” which lacked any intellectual rigor.

There is a belief that you must know spirituality from experience. Some left religion because the promised experience that would come with “accepting Jesus”, for instance, never came. So they look for spiritual experience elsewhere. Nature is a major source. She says that this is pronounced in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I believe this. I lived in the Northwest in the late 1960’s and mid 1970’s and nature was already recognizable as the spirituality of many of the people.

But another source for experience, surprisingly, is Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religious ceremony. Some SBNR folks find in the Mass an impressive spiritual experience, which they apparently can separate from the theology and ethics.

A point Mercadante repeats is that, although the SBNR seem to abhor theology, they actually have theological beliefs. They may not be well thought out. They usually are not interested in where they come from. These beliefs are sort of “in the air” in contemporary culture. They come partly from popular versions science and psychology. They come partly from cultural values that, in reality, have religious roots. Mercadante names some of these values: “progresssivism, egalitarianism, free choice, pragmatism, and individualism” (p. 90).

Posted in Ethics, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A misunderstanding of cult

Here is a link about new find in Israel.


A massive cult complex, dating back about 3,300 years, has been discovered at the site of Tel Burna in Israel.


I do not know what we will ultimately conclude about the Tel Burna dig.

What interests me is that in the comments people have completely misunderstood the word “cult”.  To say that this was a cult complex is not a judgement on the kookiness of the religion these people practiced.  In this context, “cult” just means it was a place for religious ritual. Archeologists and other scholars call Israel’s temple in Jerusalem a cult center too.  And priests of any religion are called cultic officials.  It has nothing to do with the modern term for off-beat religions.

Posted in Ancient Israel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mercadante-types of nonreligious spirituality

I am reading further into Linda Mercadante’s Belief without Borders. I am having a little trouble summarizing because she uses a lot of anecdotes. This makes the book more interesting, but I can not do too much with them in a summary.

She is intent on showing the diversity within the spiritual but not religious identity (SBNR). She says there are five broad types.

First, there are the dissenters. A few of these are reacting to a bad experience with religion. But she did not find many of these. More are rejecting particular teachings of some religion. They have theological and ethical objections to religion. Or they object to the whole notion of religious or church authority. Many of the baby-boomer and older groups are reacting against the religion they were raised in. Not many from more recent generations were raised in any faith. So they are usually not dissenters. She did find at least one Millennial who, based on the problem of evil, rejected the goodness of God, a doctrine he saw as held by many religions, even though he had not been taught it by any particular religion.

Second, there are the casuals. They use spiritual ideas and practices to cope with stress in their lives or find inner peace. Some come out of twelve step groups and have found spirituality helpful in dealing with addiction. Their spirituality is functional and does not involve long-term commitment. They tend to drop anything spiritual that does not help them feel better. Their resort to spirituality is in response to need. It is very much a therapeutic approach.

Third, there are the explorers. They are sometimes confused with seekers. But they are not seeking a spiritual home or journeying in hope of arriving at a destination. They just love the adventure of exploring spiritual ideas and practices. They often mix and match pieces from different traditions. Mercadante found the explorers to be a large component of the SBNR people she interviewed. There were especially numerous among representatives of the Boomer generation.

Fourth, there are the seekers. Sometimes Christian leaders have characterized the whole group of SBNR people as seekers. They hope that Christianity can accommodate to their needs and call them home. But many of the seekers themselves doubt their own ability to settle down. They come close to affiliating, but before long move or drift along.

Finally, there are the immigrants. These people are actually trying to connect to a religion or church. Some have gotten seminary or other advanced religious training. They are trying to settle down in a new religion. Some, attracted to Eastern spirituality, identify as Buddhist. They are trying to set up an outpost in new territory. But they are usually uncomfortable and feel that they do not fit. Moreover, Mercadante found only a few of these people.

One of the interesting things she brings out is the difference between generations. People who grew up before the seventies, tended to be exposed to a particular religion in childhood. Some remember when practicing a religion was the norm. But those who have grown up since then either had parents who exposed them to more than one tradition and expected them to find their own way, or had non-religious parents. Parents were often divorced. Many times the parents were religiously divided.

Now I think she wants to go on to show some broad common themes among the SBNR folks. So this typology of five varieties is to show that they differ and vary among themselves. This will save her from over generalizing when she says they also have some things in common.

I can’t anticipate exactly what common themes she will find. But I am already noticing something. There seems to be a high value given to personal authenticity. Mercadante says that many of those who try to connect with some existing tradition have a hard time because they can’t balance living with both doubt and faith. To accept both into their spirituality seems to them inauthentic. What I notice is that this often drives fundamentalism as well. Fundamentalist think they find authenticity be eliminating any doubt. But it seems that the same kind of thinking may lead others to reject any fixed faith as long as they have remaining doubts and questions.

Posted in Church, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment