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