Today I close out my series of posts on Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders.
She talks about the implications of the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) phenomenon for the SBNRs themselves, for society, for religion, and for the church.
For the SBNR post-Christians, she has a challenge to something deeper and less self-focused. I have already covered some of this. I agree with her, except that one of her reasons seems to be that a more external focus would help them be better progressives, feminists, environmentalists, and social activists in general. I am not even close to being a social justice warrior, and I lament the current division of Christians in the political, culture and gender wars. (As I have said repeatedly, most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice. It looks more like divine injustice. Certainly the justice of God is elusive.) But Mercadante is correct that as much as some talk about a New Age, there is not enough cohesiveness among post-Christian Americans to do much about ringing in such an age.
For society, she thinks that organized religion through its social services has contributed greatly to public welfare. Some observers are optimistic that eventually the SBNR movement will also make its contribution. But others are pessimistic. Mercadante would like to hope, but she heard very little about coming together to benefit society in her interviews.
For religion, there are three directions the SBNR ethos might take American religion.
First, it might create a widespread feeling of “multiple religious participation”. In some Asian counties there is no sense of sectarianism or exclusivity that keeps you from being both a Buddhist and a Taoist, or Shintoist. Gurus and meditation teachers often tell their disciples that there is no need to leave their former religion in order to practice their new spirituality. So perhaps all religions in America will sort of blend into each other.
Second, an entirely new religion may take shape. Although, the SBNRs say they oppose doctrine, we have seen that they actually have some core doctrines. Could non-judgmentalism and anti-exclusivism become a core imperative around which people organize? Probably not. But Mercadante thinks it is worth a mention.
Third, the most probable reality is that we are seeing the result of several streams of religious tradition flowing together in America. Like streams merging, the Abrahamic religions; the Eastern religions; the unique American perspective; and others flow into each other to form new rapids, islands and splits. Particularly, the HIMM (Hindu inspired meditation movements) are having a profound influence on Americans, even those who claim loyalty to other religions. So spirituality in America is becoming broadly more experiential, more fluid, and more tolerant.
She finally discusses the implications of this for the church. Most SBNRs do not find either liberal, mainline Christianity or conservative, evangelical Christianity attractive. The first are trying too hard to be relevant and the cultural positions of the second are a turn off. They have even more negative attitudes toward Catholicism.
So what can the churches do to address the SBNR? Mercadante has argued that most of them are not just butt hurt about something that some church or religious person did to them. Most of them have genuine theological differences with the church. Some of them are misinformed or hold stereotypes about the church. But this is not the main problem. She found them profoundly open and hungry for dialog about faith. The churches need to do the hard work of thinking theologically so that Christianity becomes an interesting dialog partner for people who seek meaning in our culture.
Mercadante is a very good writer. Her book was full of anecdotes. I have skipped over most of them in order to present concepts. But here is just one that I found interesting. She interviewed a man who was training to be a interfaith minister. He had what she calls “a non-theistic Buddhist orientation and a Protestant background.” He was interning as a hospital chaplain. So Mercadante asked him how he would pray for her, a Christian.
He did not believe in a creator God who hears and answers prayers, so how would he minister to her if she was in his hospital and in spiritual need? He answered that he would let her talk about her faith and he would listen. Then he would use her words. If she spoke of God, he would too.
He thought that would suffice. So with confidence, he asked, “So, wouldn’t that be helpful?” She confessed that even though she would appreciate his concern, and even though she knew the existence of God did not hinge on his faith, nevertheless, she would feel it to be “inauthentic” to ask him to pray for her (p. 250).