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Encountering the “spiritual but not religious”

Encountering the “spiritual but not religious”

UCC pastor Lillian Daniel writes on the regular encounters with the person who, upon hearing she’s a minister, declares him/herself to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets…

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature.

Harsh? Probably. Funny and accurate? Oh yes: I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Rev. Daniel goes on to make her point:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

She has a point, but I would add a caveat: eight times out of ten, what the person telling me that they are spiritual but not religious is really trying to do is justify to me (clergy) why they don’t go to church. And behind that reason, usually, is either wounded (or turned off) personal experience, or world fed assumptions about religion.

In truth, they owe me no explanation: as Rev. Daniel said, the spiritual not religious viewpoint is “now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture.”

However, there is opportunity here. Engaging in the conversation is a great place to be interrupted by God. By asking things like “Can you tell me more about your Spiritual life?” or “How does it impact your daily life choices?”, I not only learn their language for God, but I actively help break the stereotype that clergy have (or think they have) all of the answers.

There is also the invitation to talk about the value of religious community.

After all, in the term “spirituality”, most people are referring to their encounters with the holy and divine. By saying that they are “not religious”, they are telling me that they are not part of an established way of understanding the meaning. I think this comes from an assumption that religion primarily defines rules for where one is to see God, what one is to believe, and how one is to live.

I think this understanding misses what religion is supposed to be about. Religion, at its base, is asking the “so what” questions that often comes from the spiritual encounter: what meaning does this have, what does this point to in terms of the world, how does it affect the way I live my life, and what does it say about my relationships to others.

Additionally, the word “religion” assumes community. Human beings grow and are challenged by the depth of their interactions with each other. Hearing the viewpoints of others (even if we don’t come to agreement) keeps us from wrongly assuming that we have the complete picture, and holds us accountable both to further relationship with others and committed to personal growth. Within the context of a “religious way”, we wrestle with not only the lives of other people living in today’s world, but also with the recorded struggles of peoples past.

It is worth remembering that “the Church” often fails to remember that the “so what” questions are far from answered, and that our offering to the world is the opportunity to explore the fabric of life’s meaning within the context of community (past, present & future).

And people might just discover the promise in being religious…


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Kurt Wiesner


I don’t know if your comment will be the last one posted on this particular forum, but if it is, it’s an insightful one. Thank you.


Mary Caulfield

Initially I saw something valuable in Lillian Daniels’ piece and posted a link to my Facebook page. What I saw in the piece was refreshing frankness: an acknowledgement that church wasn’t always as nice as other ways to refresh and replenish, but that it offers us a way to be challenged and grow. The reactions were (in retrospect) predictable. My churchgoing friends liked it. My “seeker,” non-Christian, and atheist friends said that the attitude revealed by the writer confirmed their worst fears about how clergy see lay people. One friend in particular (a man who has sincerely tried to engage with various worshipping communities and who has a heart for social justice) was deeply hurt and angered by the piece.

It took me a few days to let go of my own lens, but as I read both the short and long articles again, I am aware of a disturbing attitude that I have trained myself to filter out. Torey’s and Ann’s responses here give me some hope – but for all of the concern I see about becoming a new and welcoming church, the dominant attitude is still thinly veiled contempt by the insiders for the outsiders. Until we address that, we can hold all the seekers’ groups and pub nights we want, but we still won’t be an accepting community.

For anyone who has made a commitment to a worshiping community, parish life is difficult and complicated. Those of us who are in this world have been socialized to accept its shortcomings, but that hasn’t helped us grow very much.

The longer version Lillian Daniels’ article that appeared in Christian Century has some wonderful and important things to say, but my friends were still put off by the combative tone of the first couple of paragraphs. I have to wonder who intended audience was. If she was addressing other church folk, great. We can all feel better about who we are and what we do. But if not, the article has driven a curious and sincere person even farther from the mainline church.


Here is a lot more from Lillian on this topic. The tone is much different.

Clint Davis

I don’t think it’s this complicated. Most people these days just aren’t joiners. That’s it. In a way, the Roman model of a parish church being a place where you go get your sacraments rather than a place of community first and foremost seems almost more useful these days. Evangelical churches operate much the same way if you think about it, except instead of sacraments, you go get your “inspiring message” or “spirit led worship” or whatever they’re peddling to get people in the door. Then you either form smaller group communities or you just go home. Mainliners, incl. Episcopalians, aren’t wired this way.


Hi Jack. Thank you for your comments.

I’m sorry that you concluded from my post that I believe “If you are spiritual but not religious, there is something wrong with you.” That is not my understanding nor my intent with this piece.

I addressed this in the framework set by Rev. Daniels. That scenario says that the telling of “spiritual but not religious” happens because the person realizes they have a clergy person sitting next to them. I have found that people enter these type of conversations with me in this way when they find out I’m clergy, and usually not before. I think that my angle on this assumes that one has to respond in context to being clergy (or identifying as rather religious) and not just what two people who know nothing about each other talk about in a conversation. Then having said that, I think the “religiously identified person” (in my case, as clergy) has the opportunity to engage the other as a fellow questioner, and not as someone with all the answers.

Of course what you say is true: there are many different paths, and different paths can (and should) exist in harmony and to the other’s benefit. That doesn’t mean that the conversations that people have won’t include reasons why one is religious.

But in having those conversations, I would additionally suggest that it is the responsibility of the clergy-type to make clear that the way they “see things” comes from being in community and struggling with the questions together, and not by learning the right answers at seminary (or by having the authority of church).

(And there are many, many viewpoints in the Episcopal Church: I hope you will not change your thoughts of the Episcopal Church being “good” just from my article.)

Thanks again,

Kurt Wiesner

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