Greenbelt 2014, reflections…

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We are just unpacking from our road trip down to Greenbelt (topped off with a visit to family and a few hours spent at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.)

Greenbelt was great- new site was lovely, if a challenging place to get camping gear on and off (they must improve this for next year.) It has much more space and landscape interest than the old one.

Absolute highlight for me was meeting up with so many of the poets from the new Learning to Love book. The readings, even at 9AM in the morning,  went really well- in fact they felt very worshipful, particularly with Harry Baker and Chris Read’s contributions- their new EP ‘But in Silence‘ is an essential download.

I saw/heard very little this year- I spent far more time in conversation- including laughing a lot in the Jesus Arms with David and Mary-Lee, seeing our lovely old friends and former neighbours the McGoos and generally catching up with many people who Greenbelt gives me the pleasure of connection with.

Musical highlight for me would be Lau- who were simply brilliant, weaving folk magic from the mainstage.

I did not hear any of the main speakers- could not get into their venues, so need to download talks.

Main communion event made me weep. I think one’s bladder moves closer to the eyes as we get older. A field full of people singing gently, passing communion…

Here are a few photos, randomly selected;

How does faith survive the loss of our religion?

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Like many of you, my faith has taken a battering. Or perhaps to be more accurate, my religion crumbled away in all sorts of complicated ways, and I worried that my faith would go the same way. I was right to worry perhaps, as for many faith does NOT survive this process.

Many of you will also have experienced times when the structure of our belief breaks down, or the vehicle in which our faith travels runs out of road, or the set of lens through which we view the world suddenly seems full of distortions. The technical word for these structures/vehicles/lens is this one; hermaneutic. The danger is that we often confuse a hermaneutic with finite truth.

So how do we let go of the very real fear that we are ‘losing it’- that something precious and real is being stolen bit by bit?

There is a brilliant answer to this question on Rachel Held Evans’ blog by Brian McLaren that was so good I thought I would re-post it here;

From Daneen: I love Brian’s books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether?

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, “Can we get God back at a higher level?”

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn’t easy. The outcomes aren’t guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different “time zones” if you will, which is hard for many people to do – and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say.

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I’ve reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan’s and Peter’s more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism – not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)

If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)

And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)

The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)

… the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work.

First, Kearney asks, “So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an ‘irreligious Christianity?’ … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)”

I haven’t spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, “…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion.” (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it.

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about.

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming “impervious to new evidence,” but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that “I haven’t yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest.” Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership in small missional groups, reviewed…

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We took a trip up to Aberdeen yesterday to meet up with friends from Gairioch Church. As part of their planning/organisation, they have a bi-annual ‘sounding board’, where they invite some outsiders like us to come and be part of a conversation about where they are up to, where they are heading and to discuss challenges they are working through. Michaela and I always feel like frauds as what they have achieved is special, and the thought that we might have some expertise to offer seems to us a little silly- however, it all seems to come out in the conversation.

Yesterday a lot of conversation was caught up around the issue of leadership; particularly the kind of leadership that might be the best way to work with small groups of families and individuals engaged in what we have called ‘missional’ groups. It is an old theme for all of us involved in the essentially fragile practice of community. Some questions never quite go away;

  • How do we lead without becoming oppressive? How is power shared, or at least mitigated?
  • How do we lead in a way that does not create passivity and dependency on the part of those we journey with?
  • How do we lead in a way that creates safety, warmth and stability?
  • Who looks after whom?
  • How are specific responsibilities shared and encouraged?
  • Where does the buck stop?

Within my own community, these questions are still largely unanswered. We find temporary solutions only, which is a weakness but paradoxically also sometimes a strength.

My rough conclusions from conversation yesterday where that three things are vital in trying to deal with leadership in small groups; Context, purpose and developmental stage.

Context might mean the place where people meet, the nature of the group in terms of comfort with one another, experience of individuals within it etc. Leadership has to emerge from what the group is comfortable with. Our context is a small town in which most of our members have done with ‘religion’- we have been inoculated against the formality and rigidity of leadership structures, at least in part because of our own and others failure. Leadership for us had to be small. It had to be shared.

The purpose of small missional groups will of course have some variability. At times we work together on specific tasks- food banks, art installations, kids events, worship services, community projects. Some tasks clearly benefit from a leader, an organiser, an agitator. Someone needs to see the big picture and hold everyone else to account for delivering what they said they would deliver. This probably does not need to be the SAME person each time, as we all have different skills and experiences.

However, the starting point of most small missional groups is community. Our hope and conviction is that our activism will grow out of our connectedness, our common place of becoming. We are a constant experiment of turning an inside outside; of practising the art of love so we can learn to be deliberate in our love of others outside the group (an easy thing to write but an extremely difficult thing to achieve.)  If this is the ultimate purpose of our group then leadership is probably much more akin to facilitation. The role of the leader is to create safe space for others to adventure in, not necessarily to direct what happens within it.

Interestingly enough, the skill set required to create (or curate) this safe space is not one that many of we pioneering far-horizon kind of folk find easy to operate within. Safety and predictability bores us. Our pushing at the edges frightens others. This tension is very real to any of us who have been in these groups. Currently I am sweating within mine as most people are content with what is but I am wanting more…

Which brings me to the issue of developmental stages. Groups like ours have a trajectory that typically involves something like this;

dreaming – gathering – planning – forming – conflict – reforming (repeat last two stages several times) – ending.  

Leadership at different parts of the groups life may need to be very different. I think there is also a need for EXTERNAL leadership (or at least facilitation) at times to bring new perspectives and refreshment.

I have great hopes for Garioch church. They are a lovely bunch of folk who are asking all the right questions. The model of church – deliberately small enough to be around a table, but networked with bigger relationships – is one that really appeals to me.

If you are interested in this issue, you might be also find some use in a few previous ramblings on the subject;

Leadership, networking and the trajectory of pioneering groups.

Leadership in small missional communities.

Church in the margins- gender and leadership.

Rollins on leadership.

Leadership in the new context, lessons for post-charismatics.

Leaderless organisations.

Reflecting on the life of small ‘missional’ groups.

Leaving Church 2- discussions with Jason Clark…

(Part of a series of reflections around an exchange with Jason. The previous one was posted yesterday.)

open door, rock chapel

6. I’m not arguing for institutional church and reject the ‘black and white’ thinking that because we have buildings, staff, programs (alongside experiences and life changing growth), that what I say is aimed at promoting institutions. I actually believe we all believe to institutions, the current preference being for the self in consumer society. What imaginations drive the way we relate about church is what interests me the most.

You lost me a bit on that one I am afraid.

I think you may have been reacting a little to my suggestion that people who are part of large institutional Churches, with their paid staff and building/admin costs have a lot at stake when faced with people leaving. It is an understandable pressure on those whose life has been in faithful service of these institutions and each time someone leaves it can feel like a real kick where it hurts. It is hard to then maintain relationships and remain open to learning from that rather hurtful event. Those who remain will also likely see the leavers as having betrayed them in some way- they will now have become ‘the other’, and it will be a natural tendency to make easy judgments. Of course this works both ways. The end result is that the gap widens.

I would reiterate however that I am someone with a love for the Church- and am puzzled by my current situation on the outside (trying to find other ways to do church.) Gifted pastors are a treasure (I know several of them who need a pay rise) and in our climate a good roof is rather necessary.

But you also used that word ‘consumer’ again, as if leaving Church was primarily a consumer choice for most of us. Can I push you a little on this one too?

In an age where we have been hammered into being consumers above all else, it is not surprising that our Church members make consumer choices- including changing their religious outlet when better spiritual bargains come on the market elsewhere. But surely the same is true of those who stay. They are perhaps expressing consumer satisfaction- niche product though it may now be.

Are consumer choices not the main reason for individual Church growth in the UK? People leave to go somewhere else– where the music is better, the preaching more entertaining, the seats more comfortable, the congregation younger, trendier and more dateable. Are these always poor choices? Do we rail against this kind of consumerism when it delivers corporate success? (To be fair, I know that my friend Graham has really struggled with this in his Church.)

Also (and most crucially)- what alternative to consumerism is Church really offering? Is there a danger that we ask people to reject consumerism as far as church is concerned but change nothing else? Drive to church in the same cars, from the same big houses, full of the same gadgets? The logical extension of what you say might be to continue to attend a Church even if it tears you apart, as to NOT go would be to serve the institution of Consumerism.

There are other movements challenging consumerism head on- questioning the nature of our economic system, proposing cash-less transactions, time banks, trying to live simpler more sustainable lives based around shared common resources. I know Christians are involved in many of these movements but can you honestly say that Church is characterised by this kind of engaged criticism of the core of consumerism in our culture? I wish that we were, but most of our activists are fully engaged in something more pressing within the institution of Church…

Can we really complain of consumer choices within a Church that is fully participant in the consumer marketplace?

I would suggest that people (like me) leave Church for other reasons too. To categorise leavers as somehow having sold out to easy consumer choices might risk not listening what is going on at a deeper level. It also means that re-engagement with Church for people who have left is that much harder.

7. My post was not a diatribe against non attenders trying to get them to attend. The future of the church is not in attendance, but in participation. I just think people mistake non attendance with participation. We are all attending something weekly, and participating on ways of life, the only choice is what sets the agenda for that participation and regularity.

But given that your post was in relation to people attending corporate worship, what is the difference between attendance and participation? Can one participate without attending? The fact is that we attend less and less ‘club’ like activities as a nation- increasingly we live in interior spaces, with the odd foray into collectivised consumer ‘events’. I suspect that, like me, you would regard this as problematic on all sorts of levels, but it is a fairly well understood trend that Church has a few possible responses to;

  1. We can condemn it as another example of what is wrong with the sinful world.
  2. We can demonstrate an alternative in the form of a flowering of all that relational Holy Spirit fruit. People would then know the Church by the love we have for one another.
  3. We can take note of the new social landscape and start to re-imagine a Church that fits within it.

I would sadly suggest that there has been too much of 1, not enough of 2 and 3 is a work in poor progress. (This is a generalisation from my limited perspective, and is certainly not intended as a description of any one Church!)

8. I get tired of being pitted against fresh expressions, and consider my church to be one. But having new christians, sundays, and facilities means we are instantly labelled as institutional. Again a black and white correlation I don’t accept 🙂

Sorry if you felt that I did that in my earlier comments- I certainly did not mean to. I was more suggesting that the Fresh Expressions movement was an attempt to move Church away from corporate worship in the more traditional sense- as in meeting to sing and hear preaching in a large building.  Again, not that there is anything in the slightest bit wrong in doing just that, my suggestion was that the cat gets skinned in many different ways.

9. The state of the church in the UK is dire. If I wasn’t planting one, I’d probably struggle with the ones local to me. I hope I’d choose the one that offended me the least and let me serve, give, pray and engage in mission with others. I’d want to be part of the solution and not just walk away, which is what I hope I have done.

Me too.

But there might come a time when we all have to walk away. Your reason might be different to mine, but our hope is that the faith journey would not end there- rather we would be looking to start again.

We usually have to start small- with a few friends. Some of us will be carrying wounds and scars from the leaving. We may avoid using words like ‘Church’ and we will be suspicious of how people use power. What we start will be very fragile, shot through with the same imperfections as we are. Most of our projects will not survive- particularly without support from Church.

What this support looks like is unclear, but we will probably not be easy to support as we will be very sensitive to (perceived or actual) judgementalism. We will tend to keep away from those in Churches who do not understand the journey we have been on.

Church may chose to ignore us, watch us inevitably fail but this would be a dreadful mistake. Many of the people I have spoken to who find themselves outside Church are the very ones who have been the Church planters, the worship leaders, the youth workers, the street preachers, the messy church makers, the alternative worshipers. They burned out on Church, but are people of vast experience. They can not go back, but they might go forward with the right kind of encouragement.

10. Context is everything, and I fear people reading the comments here will do so without listening to my talk and the context within which it was made!

Fair point Jason. Observer bias in blogging is pretty hard to fight! I hope I have not been disrespectful of your comments in responding in the way that I have.

All the very best to you and yours.

Meeting men from the internet…

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Just met a lovely bloke for a coffee in Glasgow. My kids laugh at me when I meet people in person who I have met via ‘tinternet- as if they might be axe murderers or something. However this was another meeting that bucked the trend, not only did I survive unscathed but had a really great conversation about all sorts of things close to my heart.

The meeting was with David Anderson, who is one of the leaders of Garioch Church, a baptist church unlike any other. What they are doing, to people who are interested in new expressions of church as I am, is fascinating. They have an ethos based around small house church gatherings, with an emphasis on community, living lives in connected and honest ways, but also networking these small gatherings, and meeting as a larger group a couple of times a month. Kind of sounds a bit familiar right? A bit New Testament?

Today we talked a lot about the ups and downs of community, and our hopes for a life of faith that escapes from the old religious ghettos.

We also wondered why the climate of religion in Scotland makes some of these things more difficult, at least on the face of things, than south of the border.

It was great to share stories, and to dream of how our communities, at different ends of the country, might support one another in the future.

I think my kids were slightly disappointed that he was not armed with an axe however.

Worship thingy…

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We are starting a new worship thing next Sunday night- a simple, quiet,  mainly music led thing. We have not given it a name as this would imply greater pretension than we have been able to gather.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my ramblings around the use of music in worship- I am a reformed ‘worship leader’ in the auditorium stylee- and thought never to return. However, I still love to play and sing and the question that I have found myself asking continually concerns what role if any singing songs of worship may play in our on going journey away from CCM monoculture.

Following thoughts gathered during a recent silent retreat I decided to set aside angst and just sing.

Andrew, a friend and local Episcopal vicar/priest/canon/ pope (pick suitable title!) had already asked if we could do something like this- something primarily about private worship, made collective in the small sense, and so we decided to go for it.

If this is of interest to anyone local, you are more than welcome to join us- 7.30, Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon.

Half and hour to an hour of music, quietness and contemplation.

If it feels like it has the wind of the Spirit, we might even give it a name…

Being ‘spiritual’: it is bad for you?

sundial and one of the three Lichfield spires

“I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” How many times have you heard someone say this? I suppose, given the devaluation of the word ‘Christian’ with western culture, and the post-modern slide into an elastic pluralistic individualism it is one of those sentences that increasing numbers of us would use to describe themselves (as can be seen from the recent Census data.)

Despite my continued attempts to hold to the ways of Jesus, the idea of a religion-less spirituality appeals to me too; leaving behind all the baggage and rigidities of proscribed doctrine and setting off on my own spiritual adventure…

However, Sam Dawlatly kindly  sent me a link to a story in the Telegraph. Here are a couple of quotes;

People who said said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.

In addition, they are more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

Professor Michael King, from University College London, and his fellow researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.”

…The researchers concluded: “We conclude that there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.

“The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.”

What is going on here then?

Firstly, we must look at the numbers a bit more closely- the study is not huge even though statistically significant;

The study was based on a survey of 7,403 randomly selected men and women in England who were questioned about their spiritual and religious beliefs, and mental state.

Of the participants, 35 per cent described themselves as “religious”, meaning they attended a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Five in six of this group were Christian.

Almost half (46 per cent) described themselves as neither religious nor spiritual, while the 19 per cent remainder said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion.

Members of this final group were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They were also 40 per cent more likely to be receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs, and at a 37 per cent higher risk of neurotic disorder.

The interesting thing is that this study is in contrast with a lot of previous research about the impact of religious belief on measures of psychological and sociological health- which sees faith has having clear benefits, even if more recent research has suggested that some of the self esteem benefits depend on the wider societal norms towards religiosity.

Accepting that this research may simply be a rogue study, there seem to me to be a few possible reasons why those who consider themselves Spiritual (but nor Religious) (SBNR) might appear to be vulnerable as a wider group.

Self selection

The link may well not be causal, but correlational. Perhaps those of us who are spiritually seeking outside the edges of organised religion are doing so because life has driven us there. Perhaps even our negative experiences of church has driven us there. It is hardly surprising that we might be seen to be stressed, troubled and even unwell. These things are not necessarily measures of the futility of the journey, but more part of any real human experience- part of the process of changing, becoming, learning to inhabit our own skin. We learn far more about ourselves in crisis than we ever do in prosperity.

The question might remain as to why this is NOT also the case for the religious? Are they not also  being challenged, shaped and changed by their contact with scripture/teaching/existential challenge? All I can say is that in my experience in Churches, this is rather rare. The pews offer comfort more than adventure.

In this sense, the idea of spiritual travellers on the road, nursing wounds on the way seems not necessarily a negative- rather it offers hope for our humanity. Despite it all, we still strive for connection with the divine.

Belonging

A lot of the presumed benefit of religion at  both a sociological and psychological level seems to be the given sense of belonging, of inclusion and connection to a wider family. Even accepting that in-groups can have all sorts of other problems, this benefit appears to be rather universal. It should not be surprising then that those who are attempting spirituality without community do not experience this benefit.

I have written elsewhere about my conviction that we experience the divine through scripture, through revelation, but perhaps most through community. We humans were made to love- and this is not an abstract proposition divorced from the mess of human contact. Nothing strips us bare, opens us up, sustains us, breaks us down, wounds us, heals us, like community. I also beleive that our approach to theology should also be one of ‘small theologies’ (HT Karen Ward) worked out in community- in respect of ‘big theologies’, but not enslaved to them.

Having said that, it seems that there are surface benefits too in just demonstrating some kind of collective respectability- even if this depends on a wider societal respect for the religious badge that we wear. I confess to less concern about this kind of religiosity. It sounds too much like the stuff that Jesus had no time for.

The lesson here then might be to encourage our spiritual seekers to connect with one another. In these times of total (but fleshless) communication, the deeper community connection described above is a rare commodity, and where it happens it is a precious flame that we should nurture.

Believing

Finally, I have been thinking about the nature of faith itself. We have many models- faith as journey, as destination, as therapy, as national identity, as absolute truth, as means of rescue from hell. From the outside all of these organised expressions of faith appear rigidly codified, doctrinal, dogmatic. They seem to demand blind observance of rules and regulations often policed by male power. Small wonder that we would be suspicious about joining such an organisation. Small wonder that pilgrims remain outside the sites of pilgrimage.

However, I am reminded of this;

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson

Under the Unpredictable Plant

Perhaps like others who are more comfortable with being SBNR I prefer to regard faith as a journey of engagement with the God-in-all-things. To look for the marks left by Jesus on the whole of creation. But in doing this, It has become clear to me that in order to journey we need a means to travel. We need a road, and shoes to walk it with.

Like it or not, this means of travel is religion.

It is the corrective to the self centred me-first spirituality that can often characterise SBNR journeying. You know what I mean- a pick and mix spirituality tailor made to make me feel better about the choices I have made, and the lifestyle I want to live. A situation where morality and love of strangers are elasticated around our own comfort zone. (Not that these characteristics are not to be equally found in churches of course!)

It challenges us towards connection to others who have journeyed first.

To all of those SBNRs out there- I think you are the hope and the conscience of our generation. The depth and meaning you find in the mess of western civilisation will be recorded in art, law, history and handed on to the generations to come- so may you journey well…

journey's end