Linda Mercadante interviewed a bunch of people who say they are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). Her book, Belief Without Borders is about those interviews and her theological evaluation of SBNR spirituality.
She asked them about community. Many of them valued community, but had problems with actual religious communities. Part of this is because they valued personal development over group identity. Also they tended to think that no one had any right to tell them what to believe or how to behave, and they saw religious communities doing that. Many of her interviewees “made an almost ‘moral’ judgment against those who claimed to know truth at all. In other words they believed it is wrong to think you are right” (p. 182)
What the SBNRs have done is reject any authority that might reside in religious communities and seek religious authority within themselves instead.
Many of the people she talked to “did much more than ‘question authority’. . .Instead, they relocated it within, relativized it to each person, and detached it from any particular community.” (p. 185).
They seemed influenced by postmodern attitudes about truth. You can deconstruct most truth claims by questioning the motives of those who advocate them. Today we automatically do this because we know there are people who want to sell us things that are bad for us or that we can’t afford. We apply this to religious truth claims as well. This leads to the rejection of external truth. The only truth that you can trust is internal, your own truth.
This makes community very difficult because there can be little shared truth around which people can gather. The SBNRs usually affirmed the (objectively false) idea that all religious are really the same. However, they seldom seemed able to find a long-term community home, because they ended up disagreeing with the leaders or the ideas of the community.
Authority is a problem. And I feel for the struggle lots of people today have about that. Having studied church history, I know that it is not really a new problem. In the past, though, people dealt with it by splitting off from groups they disagreed with and forming new groups. People today, though, often just form a group of one and become a religion unto themselves.
I am not a committed denominationalist. I belong to a religious community and served it professionally for nearly 40 years, but I sit loosely with it. I am a Christian, but I sometimes call myself a messianic gentile (a play on the messianic Jews) because I hold a deeper sense than many about the importance of our Hebrew roots. I haven’t found a community that matches these beliefs–certainly not in the rural Midwest where I choose to live. So my immediate community is not the main religious authority for me.
For authority I look more to the historic tradition that spans Judaism and several branches of Christianity. There is a classical or grand tradition.
This is important to me, because it frees me from having to find authority entirely within myself. In 1993, when my 20-year-old son was killed suddenly, the spiritual props were knocked out from under me. I did not have the luxury of retreating from life to figure things out. My calling required me to talk to people about religion or spiritual things every week. I found the Bible and the grand tradition stemming from it to work as an inexhaustible resource.
That does not mean that I am uncritical of the tradition. If you read through this blog you will see how critically I sometimes operate. However, it does mean looking outside myself. It seems to me we know some things from history and science. To just go inward seems like an evasion of reality.
I don’t expect this to convince anybody. If you think that truth is relative, that the plurality of realities we see in the universe is an illusion, or that all religions are really the same–then we hold contradictory assumptions. I just hold up the possibility that people who look for spiritual truth inwardly might want to occasionally look outward. Maybe there is something there.