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People and religious communities suck, but that’s the point.

September 1, 2011

Over at Doves and Serpents, Brent has been writing a series in his Mormons In the Cheap Seats column to try to discuss the real story of those who leave or disaffiliate or disaffect from the church. He employs a river tubing metaphor:

river tubing…Imagine you’re sitting in an inner tube—one of those big black ones—floating lazily down a slow-moving river.  It’s a sunny day, and the water is pleasantly cool.  You’re with a group of friends and you’re enjoying yourself.  Both sides of the river are lined with trees and other vegetation.  You can tell from your reclined position in the inner tube that the river runs between two fairly steep embankments—and that it would be a difficult climb through trees and underbrush to get to the top on either side.  You start to say something to your best friend, but then notice that he (or she) is busy paddling to the shore.  You watch as your friend gets out of the water and begins the difficult hike up the side of the embankment.

There are two questions that need to be asked about this metaphor.  First, why is it difficult to get to the top of the embankment?  Second, why would somebody want to?

The framing, which I challenged, seemed to me to suggest that church activity was autopilot…one just lazily drifts in the status quo. Leaving the river is this insurmountable effort in contrast to going with the flow.

I thought the new framework was too simple. It cheapened religion and the struggles both of those who stay and those who leave. I can see why it would be alluring to reframe the discussion as such, but it’s a very flawed metaphor.

Nevertheless, the one takeaway that came to mind recently was this: leaving and becoming independent in your spiritual or ethical or moral journey may be the road less taken, and may be the difficult path, and perhaps everyone should think about that for a moment.

Jana RiessWhy did that takeaway come to my mind recently, though? It was because of another article I read that appeared to me to be its complete opposite. At Flunking Sainthood, Jana Riess writes about the inadequacies of a new popular identification these days: “spiritual, but not religious.” Her article, however, is in response to an even more pointed criticism of the same movement by a senior minister of a congregation within the United Church of Christ, Lillian Daniel.

Jana writes:

Although I think that Daniel’s post ignores one very important reason why some people gravitate toward the “spiritual but not religious” crowd (they have been deeply burned by organized religion), she raises some excellent points here. Like that anyone can find God in nature (including people who are invested in religious community), but that it takes a certain maturity to cultivate faith in the context of an established tradition:

…I get asked all the time, in some iteration or other, how I can possibly stay Mormon when I have problems with the tradition as a feminist who is ecumenical and an advocate for gay marriage. My answer is that I have a hard time envisioning a loving, self-sacrificial future for myself without the Church. It constantly pushes me to be a better Christian, one who doesn’t just talk the talk about forgiveness and tolerance. It forces me to reach out of my comfort zone and walk alongside the poor, not just send them care baskets.

It’s not just the LDS Church that does these things, of course, but many different kinds of religious communities; Mormonism happens to be where I am happy to be called to pitch my tent. But I do know that faith happens best in communities, in groups of flawed but striving people who resist the lure of a narcissistic DIY spirituality in favor of something richer: what Daniel calls the “mighty cloud of witnesses.”

Seth R., who comments everywhere but cannot be so easily found because he never blogs at his own blog, says some similar things. Most people are kinda sucky people, and would continue to be sucky people without a community to compel them to be less sucky. The Mormon church, for whatever else its worth, puts people in the line of interacting with others that they probably would not have interacted with and of helping and serving people they probably would not have served otherwise.

But if Daniel ignores one reason why people gravitate to the “spiritual, but not religious” category, then Riess at the very least underestimates the implications of this center of gravity. To the extent that this is becoming more popular, it’s because religious communities are sucking more.

So Jana must be asked “all the time, in some iteration or other,” how she can possibly stay Mormon when she has problems with the tradition on all sorts of grounds. She does it because otherwise, she wouldn’t be as self-sacrificial, as good of a Christian, a doer of the word rather than just talker. But at the same time, the church doesn’t help her be a better feminist, except to the extent that she gets practice through opposing it. It doesn’t help her be more ecumenical, except to the extent that she herself independently reaches out to others and builds those bridges. It doesn’t help her advocate for gay marriage. So, while she advocates for religious communities, she has to do so much of the things she advocates for independently.

And people can see the discrepancy. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that her religion and religious involvement is consistent with her ideals. I would almost say that she supports most of what she does in spite of the church, not because of it, but she has already implied the counterargument:

…The church helps her because of its stubborn nature. As she writes, “faith happens best in communities, in groups of flawed but striving people who resist the lure of a DIY spirituality in favor of something richer” (but not on the cutting edge of human rights, noticeably). This itself is an argument that Eugene England made way back when in his “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” Flawed humans in a flawed institution? It’s not a bug; it’s a feature!

Perhaps. I just think that more people are not putting up with that situation (not the flawed humanity or the flawed institutions that they build…but the idea that you can have flawed humans in a flawed institution, and still insist exclusive access to inspiration or divinity or whatever.)

…all this is not to say that I think there are no valid criticisms of the “spiritual, but not religious” idea. The identification is opaque. What is “spiritual”? (It’s like asking what is faith?) I don’t know what it means, and no one yet — not even those who identify as such — can seem to explain it well. And even when they attempt, it’s always very different from other people’s conceptions.

So, that’s one thing.

Secondly, what Brent’s posts at Doves and Serpents presume is thoughtfulness…that the action of leaving, of going out on one’s own be in some way more strenuous than just lazily drifting down the river. What I suspect drives much of the criticism of the “spiritual but not religious” is the fact that people who identify as such probably aren’t putting a lot of effort into whatever that is.

…but this isn’t a criticism for the “spiritual, but not religious” alone. This is a criticism across the board, religious, nonreligious, spiritual but not religious, or other.

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10 Comments
  1. Paula permalink

    I think of myself as spiritual but not religious. I went through a crisis of faith years ago that led me to being more convinced than ever that there is something out there that is bigger than I am, but less convinced than ever that I have any idea what it is. I don’t fit within most religions because they insist on identifying God in specific ways while I don’t know or care what God is. I am not an atheist or really an agnostic, though since I am willing to believe that my concept of God or the Spirit is linked to quirks of brain chemistry if that were to be proven might put me in the agnostic category. I think we have a spiritual side to us and it should be nurtured, but my experience of organized religion is that it strangles it instead. I know people who are better for their faith communities and am fine with that, but I am not. As for it being the easy way out, that’s not true at all. As a Mormon, I could rely a lot more on checklists of behaviors and programs to teach my kids and convince myself I was okay spiritually. As I am now, I have to really think through what I believe nourishes my spirituality and find ways to serve others and to teach my children to be moral, other-oriented people without relying on others or institutions to do it. I do this because I think I do a better job of it than the Church does even though it is much harder. I don’t get to rely on “because someone else said so.” But I also don’t have to suffer from “because someone else said so.” Like Jana, the things those someone elses with power were saying caused problems with my connection and service to others such as homosexuals and women outside traditional gender roles. I can’t understand how she thinks it is better to stay within the church, but more power to her if it is. My connection to the spirtual and to my fellow man is stronger outside the church.

    • Seth R. permalink

      I think that a definition of diversity that runs “the ratio of leftists and feminists in the gathering” is… well… lacking to say the least.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    Well, I think the “I took a tougher and more macho path than you did” debate is probably futile.

    So many ex-Mormons I read online talk about the relief, happiness and freedom they experienced upon leaving, then in the same breath, they try to tell us all how “tough” they were to make these hard choices.

    It’s like – freaking make up your mind.

    And the active Mormons like to go on about all the hard work needed to be in the LDS Church authentically (I certainly feel like I fought for my place in it), but then like to in the same breath tout how it’s all tea and skittles in the Church and they can’t imagine why anyone would want to miss out on it.

    So which is it?

    Obviously it’s both in both cases, and this “anything you can do, I can do better” song and dance is starting to wear on my nerves (yes, I realize I’ve engaged in it too).

    I also dispute that religious communities are “sucking more” or that being in one is somehow less appealing now than it was 100 years ago. Organized religion has ALWAYS been a rough row to hoe. One of my uncles in my ancestral line marched across the plains with the Mormon pioneers and wound up excommunicated because he refused to give his irrigation rights over to his opportunistic Stake President. There were the disaffected, the complainers, the rebels, and the just plain non-church-going crowd in EVERY age of the LDS Church’s history. You think everyone liked Brigham Young? Anyone who does extensive family history work in Utah knows that isn’t true.

    I think sometimes we don’t give our ancestors enough credit for independent thought. They were just as much of a handful as anyone on the Internet today is.

  3. This post is simply brilliant.

    I consider “spiritual but not religious” in the same way I view “Independent” in the political realm: too lazy to fish or cut bait. In religious terms, I think it means that “I have some pink fuzzy feelings about Jesus or Buddha but I don’t like going to church or sangha and I’m afraid to say I’m an atheist because God might strike me down or my mommy won’t like me.” I don’t think one has to jettison culture or ritual to be an atheist. One can still participate in seders or Midnight mass or meditation because one would like to without buying into superstition or magical thinking (although I’m a firm believer in the friendly beasts;). As for being placed in a position to interact with people one wouldn’t otherwise have to, just how many radical feminists or leftists does one meet at a Mormon meeting? In a tiny organization like Morg one is more likely to find homogeneity than otherwise.

    • The independent connection is interesting (especially since, iirc, there is an uptick in “independents” as well).

  4. Seth,

    It seems to me in some ways that the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have something that is in some ways extremely draining and painful (e.g., from an *external* sense, it’s extremely painful and draining to have your social network stripped from you), but in other ways liberating and joyful (e.g., from an *internal* sense, not trying to force yourself to believe something you just can’t)

    And the same would be true for active Mormons…it’s not like Mormonism is one block experience.

    Moving on…I think religious communities have cycles of sucking more and sucking less. I think that you address the fact that there are ALWAYS disaffected, complainers, rebels, etc., but what I’m saying is that in any given time period, the trends may be different (are there a growing number or a declining number of these elements?)

    When I say religious communities suck these days, what I mean is something like: no one will say in the future that this era was one of an organized religious revival or great awakening; that’s for sure.

    For whatever it’s worth, I think our ancestors had plenty more independent thought. That’s why reading old religious sermons/arguments/debates/etc., is loads more interesting than reading what passes for general conference these days..

  5. Andrew, I don’t think this will be remembered as a Great Awakening in any sense. However, I do see a sort of clustering. Religious people, if they’re not disaffecting, are speaking louder, taking more and more conservative positions. Homogenising, at least mentally, more.

    Also, the metaphor at the top sent my mind straight to this ancient VHS version of Mormon Messages. Rafts and 80s hair and a GA voiceover. Couldn’t find it on YouTube, though.

    • I think I remember that video, or one like it. One of the rafts tipped over or something, and one of the boys in the water almost drowned a girl trying to save himself from drowning.

      But they were all saved, except everyone saw what the kid did, and somebody said, “He pushed her under!” and everyone looked at him like “You piece of human garbage” and he had this expression like “Oh, I’m such scum!”

      And the whole thing was meant to be some sort of extended Law of Chastity metaphor. Good times.

      • Seth R. permalink

        Yeah… I think I saw that one in seminary.

  6. Robbie,

    Of course, the clustering you describe is also a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. I was reading something the other day that pointed out that people who exit matter because they affect the religion they left. So, one could argue that religious people are becoming louder and more conservative, and thus others who don’t fit those criteria are leaving…OR one could argue that liberal religious persons are disaffecting/leaving, and the people who are left in the pews then happen to be more conservative.

    If someone can find that video, that would probably be hilarious.

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