A Mainline Critique of “Spiritual, but Not Religious”

I can’t imagine that too many pastors serving a United Church of Christ congregation have had their arguments featured in multiple evangelical publications within a three-day period, but that’s what Lillian Daniel of First Congregationalist Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois accomplished earlier this month.

First, Christianity Today ran a review by Andrew Byers of Daniel’s newest book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. Byers explained the title, and the surprising background of the author:

Daniel, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not EnoughSpiritually inclined yet religiously jaded, many of us seem to want a spirituality liberated from the shackles of organized religion and its uncomfortable pews.

Okay, enough, rings a voice of frustration. Please stop, because you spiritual-but-not-religious people are boring me. But that voice does not belong to a hidebound archconservative eager to defend the traditional church against the onslaughts of a hostile culture. The voice belongs, instead, to Lillian Daniel, minister of a mainline Protestant church that might seem quite at home touting spirituality over religion. And her complaint was not originally aired on an evangelical Christian television network. It appeared at the Huffington Post, in an article (“Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me”) now expanded into her latest book…

As Byers intimates, that the critique comes from a UCC liberal is surprising. (Contrast what she has to say with the “Christianity after religion” promoted by fellow progressive mainliner Diana Butler Bass.)

In Byers’ summary, Daniel is

simply unimpressed with any sort of spiritual life extracted from the messiness of a community. Finding God outside a tradition in which spiritualists (or religionists, as the case may be) have wrestled for centuries over the wonders and trials of life and faith? This has no attraction to her: “Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Then Daniel herself reiterated that argument in a recent op-ed for Relevant magazine, in which she responded to the widely-reported excerpts from an upcoming Rolling Stone interview with Marcus Mumford, the frontman of the Grammy-winning British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons.

Lyrics like “Can you kneel before the king / And say I’m clean, I’m clean?” and “I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud / I’d set out to serve the Lord” and the fact that Mumford’s parents are leaders in the evangelical Vineyard Church have led many to speculate about his own faith commitment. But when asked about it by the Rolling Stone reporter, Mumford neither doubted the existence of God nor accepted the descriptor “Christian”:

I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, “Jesus was awesome” – they’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus. I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.

Marcus Mumford
Daniel: “In a culture of narcissism, the easiest way to follow Jesus is from a distance on a solo stroll to the beat of the same drummer you have listened to your whole life: your own personal preferences and already held beliefs” – photo of Marcus Mumford licensed by Creative Commons (Mike Mantin)

Daniel pushed back. Building from her book, she critiqued the notion of loving God outside of and apart from the Church:

A few years ago, I grew tired of people claiming to be “spiritual—but not religious,” because I do not believe this is enough. In a culture of narcissism, religious community matters. In our “have it your way” spiritual marketplace, religious community that is rigorous, reasonable and real is still the most nutritious item on the menu.

Yet often when I say this, as a minister myself, it is received with howls of complaint from people who want to do the God thing solo.

Their argument goes something like this: I like the idea of Jesus but I can’t stand the Church. Therefore, I want to identify directly with the primary source, Jesus, rather than with the annoyingly fallible human beings who have tried to follow Him but failed.

They describe to me a personal privatized journey free of the sins of the historical Church but with a direct hook-up to the guy who got it all started. What all of this implies, however, is that the person who loves Jesus privately is somehow better at it than those who try to do it with other people.

Lillian Daniel
Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel – First Congregationalist Church, Glen Ellyn, IL

While she had no desire to be associated with a “Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve” and refused to apologize “for a church I am not a member of,” she also rejected the lazy stereotyping of Christians that passes for “wise, brave or original” but is actually “uninformed and insulting.” The Church is much bigger, better, and more complex than its fringes. And, in any case, it — as a community — is absolutely indispensable to Christian discipleship.

And so she concluded:

Certainly, Marcus Mumford got one thing right—the Church is something you enter at your own risk.

Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you, and realize how small you are standing before such a legacy. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.

Now, for all my well-established love/hate of Mumford and Sons’ music, I would caution that we should probably read the entire interview before saying too much about one rock star’s beliefs. But as a general critique of the tired “Spiritual, but not religious” theme, what can I say but “Amen!” to Daniel’s arguments?

And “see my own comments on it.” 🙂

UPDATE: Or see my follow-up post, asking why Jesus spent so much time with people we might think of as “religious, but not spiritual.”

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