By Dennis Teall-Fleming
Wow, I have to say, while I really like some of Lillian Daniel's work over at Huffington Post, her book When 'Spiritual But Religious' Is Not Enough is terribly disappointing. Rev. Daniel might think she's doing someone a favor with this book - maybe Christians who don't think they're spiritual enough? - but what she's actually written here is just another Christian diatribe against an "Other", in which Daniel uses what I'll call the Classic Dichotomy to "prove" one's faith better than this Other, and/or that this Other falls short of being genuine, meaningful, and authentic.
This begins right away in the first chapter, "Spiritual but Not Religious?", in which she describes this new and very real category of religious identity, for millions of people (I'll abbreviate it as SBNR) in very derisive and juvenile ways:
"Let me guess, you read The New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of it than the sermon....And don't forget the sunset. These people always want to tell you that that God is in the sunset....So you find God in the sunset? Great, so do I. But how about in the face of cancer? Do you worship that as well?" (pp. 5-6)
SBNR people "have set up a vacuum in which the answers [to classic questions about existence, theodicy, etc.] get invented without any formation or guidance." (p. 7)
SBNR families feel so fortunate to have so much material and financial success, with no real introspection on what being this "lucky" may mean for the great majority of people in the world that don't have these things. "Feeling lucky is another religion altogether, one that says that the gods pick one teenager to live in the suburbs of the richest nation on earth and another teenager to starve. In a worldview of luck, righteousness is really not at home." (p. 10)
SBNR people don't realize that "we are stuck with one another", and just want to associate with the people that are exactly like them. (pp. 12-13)
The criticisms she creates about SBNR ideology could just as easily be, and are easily drawn as, caricatures for every religion, including Daniels'. I've seen so many of these "straw man" critiques of other religions, and Daniels' creation of this Classic Dichotomy here- comparing the worst in "Them" with the best in "Us"- is just as sad to read through. Christians like Daniels have done this for millennia, to Judaism, all forms of Paganism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism....and on and on. The reality of how these Others actually live their religious lives is so much bigger than the caricatures we Christians want to create in our imaginations.
Now that last reference is a place where Daniels admits that "The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I personally do not want to be associated with a lot of it." (p. 12) So I think I'll reverse her critique at this point, to show how embarrassing a simplistic diatribe like Daniels' work looks. I'm certain that lots of SBNR people wouldn't want to be identified and lumped in with the category of SBNR Daniels contrives, and I trust that most SBNR are not this caricature. So, as a fellow Christian, I'll reverse the entire critique, to show how easily contrived and caricatured this kind of Classic Dichotomy is in a Christian context:
"Why would I want to be a Christian, or even consider that a valid way in the world? I've encountered LOTS of Christians like you in my lifetime, I almost don't need to have a conversation with anymore, because I know exactly what you're gonna say!
Let me guess, you read the Bible every Sunday, four whole passages each time!, and you get more out of it than anything else in the real world....
"And don't forget the church you attend. You people always want to tell me that that God is in that building....So you find God in that building? Great, so do I. But how about in the face of cancer? Do you worship that as well?
"You Christians have set up a vacuum in which the answers [to classic questions about existence, theodicy, etc.] get invented without any formation or guidance.
"Christian families feel so fortunate to have so much material and financial success, with no real introspection on what being this 'lucky' may mean for the great majority of people in the world that don't have these things. Feeling lucky is another religion altogether, one that says that God picks one teenager to live in the suburbs of the richest nation on earth and another teenager to starve. In a worldview of luck, righteousness is really not at home.
"You Christians don't realize that we are stuck with one another, and you just want to associate with the people that are exactly like you."
Plenty of Christians that Daniels, and I, are embarrassed by, and don't want to be associated with, fit easily into this critique. We wouldn't want our faith to be defined by them, and I at least don't want anyone trying to convince me to abandon my faith and way of life because of the way these other Christians represent it. It's time to retire such Classic Dichotomies, because they just don't describe the reality very well, for any one Christian, for any one SBNR person, or for any other person of faith or way of living. Every religious way can be praised or panned, depending on what you read or who you encounter. Both SBNR and Christianity span a spectrum from the sane to the silly, and Daniels' plead to SBNR people to leave their silliness for her sanity is simply dishonest.
Daniels also needs to realize something else here: it's not an issue of a "trial separation", from following Jesus and/or being part of Christian community, for most SBNR people (chapter 32), because there's no plan or process for SBNR people to return in which they'd find authenticity. As much as Daniels and I might appreciate these gifts in our own faith lives, SBNR people just, might, not, really care about the importance or Jesus, or how meaningful being a part of a community of his followers might be. I would hope that someone as thoughtful and insightful as Daniels would understand this, but maybe she doesn't: SBNR people just might not care about Jesus. And why should they? It's pretty clear to me that you don't need Jesus to stay away from judgmentalism, or from setting up false "We"'s and "They"'s (chapter six) (Daniels needs to take her own advice here, because this is exactly what she has done in this book- set up a "We" Christian against a "They" SBNR category!); you don't need Jesus to welcome all to the table (chapters 12 and 14) or to be hospitable (chapter 15); you don't need Jesus to welcome immigrants (chapter 21) or to know that God isn't done with us yet (chapter 30); and you definitely don't need Jesus to recognize the beauty of nature (chapter 20). It's terribly obvious to me that most people in the world today- Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, et. al.- don't need Jesus to see these things, to live into these truths. I don't see why we would expect this SBNR category that Daniels contrives and critiques to need him in these ways.
And lastly, the final takeaway from reading Daniels' book is the most important for me to say: Jesus really doesn't care about Christianity...
Whether I need Jesus in my life or not (which I desperately do), whether I find ultimate meaning and value in being a participant in Christian community (which I certainly do), I just can't believe that the Jesus I know would ever really care that everyone else in the world need and find those things, too. I think Jesus celebrates human authenticity even in people that couldn't care less about him, or the communities of disciples that work to follow him. Jesus really doesn't care about Christianity, because the Christianity that Daniels and I struggle to live within is not what Jesus ultimately cares about. Whether I look at the Christian scriptures in the New Testament; the other Christian scriptures excluded from that canon; the best sources from the rest of Christian history, witness, and tradition; or the Jesus alive and present in my life today, I just don't see how he could confine himself to just caring about whether people become Christian or not.
Jesus doesn't care about Christianity. He certainly cares about Christians, but he also cares about the other 80% of human beings that have existed throughout the centuries. What I'm certain Jesus doesn't really care about is whether any one person becomes a Christian, especially if that's not something that will help that person become the most authentic person God calls them to be. What Jesus does care about is each human being committing to That Which helps them to become the most genuine and authentic person possible. For people like me and Daniels, that will, most likely, always be in a Christian context and community. For everyone? SBNR, Jewish, et. al.? Well, it just seems to me, well, no.
Jesus doesn't care about Christianity, but he will always care about all humanity, and in that all of God's creation, long after Christianity is gone. I invite Daniels, and everyone else like her, who take such a disparaging view of any person that isn't Christian anymore, and/or people that never were—SBNR or otherwise—to consider this way of seeing things, the way I'm certain Jesus does.
Rev. Dennis Teall-Fleming is a Commissioned Minister in The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Leading Minister at Open Hearts Gathering, Gastonia, NC and Mad Monk! for Asheville Monastery, Asheville, NC.