Christianity After Religion: When Religion Fails

I attended a small Christian college in the middle of Kansas during the mid-90’s. Having spent my youth doing everything I could to avoid church, I surprised myself by going nutty for Jesus in this college setting.

The college called itself “enthusiastically Christian,” so it was hardly a honey pot for the “spiritual but not religious.” We learned about those people, though, their faddish subservience to postmodernism and their blind devotion to their own feelings. We learned to point out that “spiritual but not religious” is a kind of religious claim, and to drop that assertion like a grenade in conversation and then triumphantly walk away, imagining as we did the beaming ghosts of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.

Diana Butler-Bass has a simple response to the self-satisfied recognition by defensive Christians that “spiritual but not religious” is more religious than it knows: “Duh! Of course it’s a religious claim. And as such it’s probably better than your brand of Christianity.”

“Spirituality,” she writes in the fourth chapter of her new book, “is neither vague nor meaningless . . . the word ‘spiritual’ is both a critique of institutional religion and a longing for meaningful connection.”

In Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening, Butler-Bass traces the evolution of this subset of devotees in the American religious landscape. In doing so, she very helpfully points up the events in the last decade that have soured the public’s perception of “religious” people and organizations (think gay ordination fights and clergy sex abuse scandals). As a result, we now have a growing group of (mostly young) people who want nothing to do with the trappings of church, be it Protestant, evangelical, or Catholic.

And that’s good. Despite all of the denominational hand-wringing over decline, Butler-Bass is holding out the possibility that all of this discontent with religion is a historic opportunity. “Discontent,” she says, “can be the beginning of genuine social transformation by inspiring courageous action.” She charts the evolution of the church as an movement and finds in that evolution a constant push-and-pull between the impulse towards experiential, “spiritual” expressions of the faith and “religious” expressions that seek institutional stability and control. What’s happening now has happened before, and when it has happened before it has deposited terrific things on the Christian landscape, like Jesuits, The Protestant Reformation, and Billy Graham.

So where do you see the impulses of spirituality–your own or other peoples’–giving rise to new and vibrant faith within traditional religious settings? And how do you describe yourself? Spiritual but not religious? Spiritual AND religious? Religious but not spiritual?

That last one has come to describe my faith as a clergy person. Much more of my attention and energy goes into church structures and ordered processes than goes into experiential connections with God. I’m working on that.

What are you working on?

Previous Christianity After Religion posts:

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

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