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?