John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | February

On Being Spiritual, Not Religious

[NOTE: This lengthy Commentary is broken into bite-size pieces. A PDF version to print and read is available here.]

 “After three days it so happened that they found him in the temple area, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who listened to him was astounded at his understanding and his responses.”  (Lk.2:46-47)

Left: The 12-year Old Jesus Teaching the Elders, Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528. The artist depicts the young Jesus with childlike features, as he takes center stage; and in contrast to the  befuddled and grimmacing faces of the religious elders who scrutinize the upstart, all the while while scouring the ancient texts to try to comprehend or confront the presence of this new authority in their midst.




An engaged couple asks if I will officiate at their springtime wedding ceremony, to be held in a barn in a Pacific seacoast town.  The bride-to-be and her family were once part of a congregation I pastored for many years.  Peggy grew up in the church, taking her turn with the leading role in the Christmas pageant, sailing through confirmation classes, and leading a team of acolytes.  As an adult, she says she has not been part of any formal faith community for years. I’m not surprised.

Next, her fiancé shares how he was raised Catholic, and was an altar boy himself for many years.  “But in all that time,” he confesses, “no one ever explained to me what it was all about.”  He then goes on to say that only in his adult life has he only recently come to recognize and explore some spiritual component in his life he calls God; to the extent that he’s made it clear to the woman who will give her hand in marriage that his relationship to this divine something or other will be given equal weight.

I make the observation, using the shorthand, “So you’re a SBNR type?”  Then, in response to the quizzical look on his face, I translate the popular acronym, “You’re spiritual, but not religious?”

“I’d never heard of that before,” he replies.

“Oh sure,” Peggy chimes in. “It’s a box you can check when filling out your profile on most online dating sites!”

Hardly a fringe group, one recent study reported nearly one-third of Americans considered themselves to be the SBNR-types, of one sort or another.  After all, religion can be problematic.  Religious types can sometimes go off the deep end, and send normal people running for their lives.  Been there. Done that.


Anything but religious

The other day a work colleague who rails against what she considers the rigid and controlling aspects of the church tradition in which she has been inextricably snagged all her life asks me, “You’re religious, you’re a Christian, right?”  My sense was she was using the two terms synonymously and interchangeably, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to being either.  After a brief pause, I replied, “Yes,” with obvious hesitation in my voice.  Here’s why:

The week before I’d attended a memorial service for an old parishioner at the request of his widow; both of whom had left the church when I did, and had not subsequently affiliated anywhere else.  The service was held 30 miles away in one of those non-denominational, independent mega-churches where one granddaughter was apparently a member.

Even growing up Catholic in a large Boston parish, my spouse had never seen anything on this scale.  The asphalt parking lot stretched as far as the eye could see, and the lobby to the sanctuary was big enough to easily hold the largest congregation I’d ever served.

Inside the windowless amphitheatre, the subdued stage lighting contrasted with a large back-lit cross hanging on the back wall of the stage, while surround sound recorded music filled the hall with a female vocalist singing a pop version of How Great Thou Art.  However, the two giant projection screens that hung to the left and the right of the cross … remained darkened, and the rock band’s drums and amps lay dormant onstage.

Presently a pastor on the staff of Golden Hills Community Church who’d been assigned to preside over the event entered and took his place before a microphone where our small gathering had assembled in the first few rows of the cavernous hall.  After a few words of welcome he acknowledged what I myself had felt compelled to do on many past occasions; and admitted his own handicap, namely, that he was probably the only one in the room who never knew the person we’d gathered to remember.

Then an honor guard from the local veteran’s hall marched in, went through their perfunctory drill, and marched out.  Strangely, in the quarter century in which the deceased and I had shared our life together in our former parish, I’d never heard him once mention his years in the military as a young man.

After that, various family members got up and shared their personal memories of their father, grandfather and friend.  Their remembrances and tears were touching and genuine.

No one mentioned Lee’s own church affiliation, or his religious beliefs.  That seemed fitting, since – despite his active involvement for years – he’d never spoken with me much about it either.  It was simply something that was unspoken.  But over the course of two-dozen years, I’d seen him through a couple of rocky times; and he and Wanda had certainly given of themselves in countless, untold ways as we lived out together what we always sought to be the most loving, compassionate and grace-filled expressions of a faith community that calls itself Christian.

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