Much buzz has gone on over the past few years regarding Lillian Daniel’s critique of people who are spiritual but not religious. Basically, her argument boils down to the suggestion that the spiritual but not religious label is in most cases a thinly veiled narcissism; the problems that so vex us in organized religion are not in fact the problems of such organizations per se, but rather problems common to humanity – in going off into our own private, self-pleasuring spiritualities, we are in fact refusing to love our neighbors. As Daniels puts it:
“Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”
While I would suggest that things are perhaps much worse than this – many of us are too cynical even to see God in a sunset – I think the overall point is apt. What I mean to do here is suggest that it is also applicable to another group of people, whom I will acronymize as CBNT – Christian But Not Traditional.
If you have frequented Evangelical/Protestant churches for a while, you will know what kind of people I mean. Basically, such people recognize the history of the church – or a certain part of this history – as particularly embarrassing. Yet instead of condemning the perpetrators as bad Christians – which I think is the Christian response – they assert that these perpetrators are or were not Christians at all. Much as the sunset-seeker conveniently leaves behind the the complex humanity of his pew-neighbor for the much less “tainted” vision of the sunset, so such a Christian abandons the complex humanity of Christian sinners past. Not only does this set up the illusion that one has found the “pure” church in the present, free from a benighted past, but the abandonment of past Christians makes it much easier to abandon other Christians in the present. It also sets us up for a hard fall, for when we discover ours is not in fact the “pure” church – and that its corruptions are identical to the ones we thought we jettisoned with tradition – we will become disillusioned, and will cause others to become disillusioned. In the worst cases, we cause people to walk away from the church (and therefore God) entirely, because we have catechised them such that they have learned that walking away is the only way of dealing with corruption. To further this irony, those espousing such an ecclesiology are very often the same people lamenting cultures of divorce and the lack of commitment in younger generations. You can rant and roar all you like about the evils of secular humanism, the Enlightenment etc., but bear in mind that these favorite bogeys may in fact be the bastards of our own illegitimate ecclesiologies, the scandals we have walked away from lest they should taint us.