I was part of a discussion on Facebook the other day around Institutional Religion’s discomfort with people like myself who identify as SBNR, or spiritual but not religious. It started out with an observation by someone who had heard uber-snarky Lillian Daniel prattle on about how, in her mind, SBNR folk are little more than intellectually marginal folks who are afraid of community and so claim nature as their church. Most of the comments in the thread came from people who are involved in institutional religion, and it showed, though some were able to be balanced in their comments.
Institutional religion is in the process of imploding, so people whose job it is to support institutional religion or who earn their living from it are scrambling to prop it up – so much so that they are resulting to ad-hominem attacks to do so. The problem is that such attacks are fallacious. They throw in a bit of the reductio de absurdum (reduction to the absurd) fallacy for good measure and the result says that SBNR folks have no community they connect with at all and just walk in the park for their spirituality. Nonsense.
Perhaps it’s time to define some terms. SBNR folks have voluntarily stepped away from religion – most often institutional religion – because they found it necessary to do so in order to find God. In fact, countless SBNR people have told me they needed to leave the Church to find Jesus/God. Why? I could claim the reason to be lukewarm preaching and the avoidance of controversy at all costs (have they even read the Gospels?), but I believe the primary reason is the religion is in the thought and behavior control business. Once religion became institutionalized, its primary purpose became perpetuating itself, not spreading the Good News. The result is an almost countless collection of versions of God – countless Gods, really – and competing Churches that require you to believe their version in order to belong, all the while claiming to be monotheists who believe there only is one God. If you’re not confused, you either aren’t paying attention or have a vested interest in the system.
So, if you want to belong you had better toe the line – and the line is restrictive to one degree or another depending on your tradition. At various times in recent history the Institutional Church has encouraged women to stay with their abusive husbands and refused them Sacraments when they left them to save their lives and the lives of their children. The Church still, in some places, refuses to give women full status including ordination because they have vaginas and Jesus and the twelve had penises (presumably one each, but who knows?). Minorities are still clamoring for full inclusion, as are LGBT folk, addicts, ex-cons, and just about every other group that doesn’t conform to lily-white American Christianity’s idea of northern European Jesus. Priests have screwed our children; pastors have screwed our wives and our husbands, sometimes both, while taking a crack at the church secretary for good measure. Gatherings of clergy across denominations are little more than thinly disguised orgies, and sexual harassment among clergy is rampant. Fundamentalist pastors preach hatred as morality while grooming young men in their congregations to be their boy toys. Treasury money disappears without consequence, but it’s the people in the pews who are jacked up? C’mon, man!
Who wouldn’t need a little fresh air after all that?
More importantly, SBNR people don’t say that nature is their church, but many of us do say we find God in nature – which is precisely what St. Paul said and more than can be said for conservative Christianity, which is trying to destroy the planet so Jesus will come again faster! What’s more, SBNR people DO gather in spiritual practice communities that are decidedly non-institutional, that don’t force a particular view of God down their throat, that don’t claim that there is only one way to understand God, that don’t emphasize doctrine because doctrine by its very nature is a tool of exclusion, that give people credit for being intelligent beings capable of examining at their beliefs and experience for insight. Are we not, after all, adults? Perhaps most importantly, SBNR communities strive to be non-institutional institutions. What does that mean?
Traditional institutions exist to perpetuate themselves just as they are. The goal is that they will never change. The world can change all around them, but by God they will preserve the faith of the Saints just as it was. Traditional religious institutions are mausoleums of the faith. Come, visit the dead faith of dead people. Don’t mind the cobwebs and the foul odor, rejoice! Would you like a donut and a cup of coffee? Gosh, sign me up for that!
Sooner or later, when a group grows large enough, a structure starts to form. Such structures are called institutions. Non-institutional institutions exist in the hope of continuing to exist in order to allow people to find their path to God. We recognize that everything changes all the time and so their it is extremely unlikely that the current understanding of God will fit like a glove one hundred years from now – and that is exactly as it should be. We seek to build flexible frameworks with a minimum of hierarchy and to look at ourselves with a sense of humor as we seek to engage the questions while tug at our hearts. We understand God to be (among other things) Truth, and so we look for truth wherever we find it and refuse to be straight-jacketed by the beliefs of long dead dominatrices.
So, please, snarky institution people, get a grip. The very arguments you use against those who have left reflect the reason we have left. You can’t really be foolish enough to believe that if you just kick us long enough we will have to come back. can you? Go back to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and stop embarrassing yourselves with these tantrums. On the other hand, if you really want to revitalize the Church, start by looking within at your own flaws and setting them right. You might just construct an attractive place for people to be. Of course, that requires humility. Say, isn’t that a Christian virtue?