Tag Archives: spirituality

Bill Lesher’s INTRAfaith Journey

blesherThere’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitled A Tribute to Bill Lesher.

William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.

I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:

“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.”  (bold emphasis mine) 

In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”

Dunne wrote:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. 

“Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with  new insights and understandings.  

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Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

Is Your Faith an ‘Innie’ or an ‘Outie’?

Or a Both/And?

This is a partial reprint of the Q&A column published each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder of The Christian Left. I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion. 

Kay from Florida, writes:
I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?

Dear Kay,
Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.

Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”

When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those from The Inclusive Bible.)

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.

Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.

Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.

The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.

 

 

When It’s Just Too Hard to Talk to the Other Side

she likes itI know. I know I know. I’m the cheerleader for conversation among people who have differences of opinion. Mostly I talk about religion – how Christians of various stripes can come together and learn to respect one another’s differences. Lately I’ve been convinced that this is the same process that can help us bridge out political divides as well.   

But I’ll be honest. Right now it’s just too hard. These past six months have been so wearing, so discouraging, so maddening. Yes, this week I’m encouraged by the defeat of the latest version of “get rid of Obamacare.” But oh what it took to get there. Only three brave Republicans stood up for what I am sure many more knew what was right. The whining of Mitch McConnell after the vote only served to highlight the lunacy of what politics has become. No, it didn’t start with #45. But we have certainly sunk to unprecedented depths since he took office. Add to this dis-ease the ranks of evangelical Christians who have bought into this madness. 

So no, I’m not inclined to talk with “the other side.” I’m too angry. I know there are good people over there, but I’m afraid I just can’t listen to them right now with any kind of charity. This may be an indictment of my own spiritual malaise,  but I believe in full disclosure. For me, the primary goal of life right now is spiritual. 

Every day I get a thought for the Day based on my Enneagram type from the Enneagram Institute. Here’s yesterday’s:
What would happen if you expressed your Virtue of Serenity today?

How would you think, feel, and behave?

So here’s my answer:

  1. I will acknowledge my anger. Too many people have told me throughout my life, “Now, Susan, don’t be angry.” I refuse to “eat” my anger and silently accept bad behavior. It’s not good for my emotional or physical health. Having said that, I will also try not to act on that anger inappropriately. When I am with someone with whom I disagree, I will be respectful while speaking my own truth.
  2. I will cut myself some slack. If I’m not ready to dialogue, then I’m not ready. This is an important learning for me as I seek to encourage others. I remain committed to dialogue when I am ready, however I acknowledge that we all may need to take a break at one time or another.
  3. I will keep up the Resistance. This is a great channeler of righteous anger. And I’m overjoyed to hear of the impact that grassroots organizing and protesting is having.
  4. I will limit my exposure to the unending news cycle. I read and watch enough to know what’s happening from trusted sources and stay away from endless commentary. And I will look for and celebrate good news. It is out there. Good people doing good things. This makes me happy.
  5. And the most important thing of all: I will continue to maintain and nourish my spiritual practice. It may seem counter-intuitive that deep breathing and silent meditation can inform how I respond to the dysfunctionality all around me. It may seem to be an escape from it all, but it is not. It’s the ground from which my way of being in the world springs. When I realize that my anger is getting the best of me, when I’m  not able to feel charitable toward those with whom I disagree, I know it’s time to retreat for a while into sacred space. I discovered the week after the election that the peace I found in my practice was what gave me the ability to face the new reality that had been unleashed. So I must contiunue to seek the serenity that I can find there.

Now I know that I have the luxury of serving a congregation that is deep blue. I have friends and colleagues who are in what are now called “purple churches” and they have to remain in relationship with people of varying opinions and beliefs. But I think my advice would be the same. 

The time will come when we’re able to talk. If that time is not today, that’s OK, too.

Moving toward Pluralism Sunday 2.0

firstsundayheader1
Since I’ve taken over as coordinator for Pluralism Sunday, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Former coordinator Jim Burklo sent me his files with participating congregations, names of clergy, and email addresses going back to the beginning in 2007. I figured the first thing to do was update the list. So out went an email to 1) introduce myself and 2) ask if they wanted to remain on the distribution list. As you’d expect, a flood of mailer-daemons immediately filled my in-box. There were also a few messages from former participants who were now retired from ministry and didn’t want to continue.

But the surprise was in the messages from former participating clergy who asked to be removed because their congregations emphasize pluralism on a regular basis anyway. I brought this to our worship planning team and found that they agreed. They wondered why we would have one Sunday a year to celebrate religious diversity when we did that all year round.

Well now, I thought, this is an interesting development. I’ve just taken over as coordinator of Pluralism Sunday and my own congregation wants to opt out. Even though for the past four years, we’ve had not just Pluralism Sunday but Pluralism Summer – 12 weeks of guests from a wide variety of traditions (I guess if you put it all together, we’ve actually had 48 Pluralism Sundays in those 4 years alone!).

And we’re not really opting out. Our liturgy has continued to transform into a more interspiritual – although still rooted in Christianity – format. For this year, we’ve decided to have something during the year around the holy days of other religions, inviting some of our interfaith friends back to share their traditions.

Then it occurred to me that something is happening here. It’s clear that some clergy and congregations still need to be encouraged to dip their toes into interfaith waters, especially in the context of Sunday worship. But it’s also becoming clear that many have moved beyond the toe-dipping stage and are swimming in the deep water. And I think these clergy and congregations have something to contribute: resources, experiences, collective wisdom, etc.

So I’m wondering if we need to be thinking about Pluralism Sunday 2.0. I know that I’d appreciate discussion on being a Christian church seeking to embrace pluralism. Issues around liturgy, biblical interpretation, hymnody come to mind. Also addressing questions and concerns in the congregation thoughtfully and pastorally.

So the next stage is to revise the website. And not only update information about this year’s Pluralism Sunday, but add a 2.0 page as well. I hope those congregations who’ve opted out will opt back in and participate. I hope that others will join in, too.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

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Lent from an INTRAfaith Perspective

she likes itWe’re going to use my book, The  INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Mattersfor our mid-week Lent discussion group this year. You might be thinking that it’s an odd choice for a Lent study.

I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.

Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.

The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)

A helpful resource here is Sermons without Prejudice. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti-Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Another is Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson. These would be excellent places to start.

But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?

If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did –  that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.

So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:

  • The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
  • New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
  • Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
  • Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
  • Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
  • The Mystic Heart
  • Evolutionary Christianity

It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So  if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .

she likes it

The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation

semper-reformanda1About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. –
                                                            Bishop Mark Dyer

Change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as “emergent,” “post-denominational,” “post-modern” and “progressive” attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what we should keep and what we should give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At First United’s rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus.

The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included  both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Gen X and  if we’d just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We actually bought a program like this in my former congregation.

We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant! We envisioned our little congregation in a Northeast rustbelt city grow1381770_10201458045106340_670873635_ning by 200-400%. Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the laws and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot. Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our preschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighborhood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some twenty years after our venture into church growth. The congregation is still small, but they’ve partnered with a congregation in the suburbs and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration last year, one of the things I enjoyed most was the cookout held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree. Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings.

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society*,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

Imagine my delight in arriving at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to work on my doctorate in this area and discovering a course called “Martin Luther and Buddhism”! In the class I became immersed in a fascinating convergence of Lutheran and Buddhist teaching. I was mainly interested in learning about a tradition other than mine. After all, I knew about Lutheranism. But to my surprise, the primary benefit of the course for me was an invigorating renewal of Luther’s theology of the cross. Through study of the Buddhist concept of dukka (suffering), I was able to reimagine the central symbol of Christianity that I had not been sure I could espouse any longer. My rummage sale item could still be a keeper.

• What is an aspect of the Church that you would like to give away?

• What do you definitely want to keep?

• What are some components that you think might be redeemable with some work?

 

*Phrase coined by Bishop John Shelby Spong to describe those who have left the church

 

(excerpted from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?_

 

 

New Voices in the Conversation Part 1: Spiritual Independents                                                                                         

51UJ1PNsX6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Those of us who are still in the church must accept the fact that for many people the old categories of Catholic/ Protestant, Episcopal/ Methodist, high church/ low church, contemporary/ traditional, etc. just do not matter. There are new voices contributing to the religious scene, although most of them would not like to be referred to as religious. These voices deserve to be heard. They may have left or never been part of the church, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot to say about spirituality, the meaning of life and how to make a difference in the world.

Spiritual Independents
A piece of accepted wisdom among many involved in interfaith dialogue is that one must first be grounded in one particular tradition. This is reflected in the quote by Mahatma Gandhi that . . . our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” However, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under thirty – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

We often refer to these folks as the “spiritual but not religious” or “Nones.” But I agree with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who has declared that these designations are too negative and has coined the more positive “spiritually independent.”  In Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent he says:

“Most of these so-called Nones are not dismissive of God or spirituality but simply find religious labels and affiliation too narrow and constraining. This is why I choose to call this segment of the population by the far more positive and accurate term spiritually independent.”

In another positive take on it, the Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, a Board Trustee for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, writes in “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”: “I know a lot of Nones and many of them are Alls. They celebrate the Winter Solstice, and Easter sunrise, they may do yoga or meditate, and they give thoughtfully to charities, all in no particular order, but depending on where they are, how they feel, what seems to be called for. They resist labels produced by media-saturated culture to represent certain predetermined sets of characteristics. They distrust such prepackaged beliefs, and also distrust religious institutions that are so often corrupt and hypocritical. Yet they value human spiritual heritage, often in great variety, and many of these people are more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one.”
“The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”

In the new emerging community being formed by Mission Developer, Pastor Anders Peterson under the sponsorship of my congregation, First United Lutheran Church, we are finding the truth of these perspectives. Mission, defined as converting people to Christianity, does not work with this group. Openness to other religious traditions is essential. This is not to say that we deny or water down who we are; we do our work in the world as Christians. But we do it as Christians who have worked through the intrafaith questions that are raised by many as they are confronted with this population. According to the Rev. Bud Heckman, senior advisor to Religions for Peace USA in New York City:

“A couple of decades ago this category accounted for no more than a single-digit percentage of the population. Today it accounts for one of every five people in the States, and one in every three amongst those under 30 years of age. The numbers are even higher in Europe and China. This means there is a great deal of fluidity in identity that is socially permissible in ways that simply were not true before.”
“Five Things Changing the Way Religions Interact

We do not know what Mahatma Gandhi would make of our world today. However it is clear that, both within Christianity and on the interfaith scene, the spiritual independents must be part of the interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

  • Do you know someone who would be considered spiritually independent? If so, have you had or could you have a conversation with that person about what they believe?
  • Are you a spiritual independent? How would you describe your spirituality?