Emerson and the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Crowd by Rev. Fred Howard

It seems that everyone loves to tell ministers what’s wrong with the church or with religion in general.  I thought being a Unitarian Universalist minister would’ve insulated me somewhat from that role and that I’d be less likely to be a lightning rod for the religiously disgruntled – seeing as how our faith tradition functions as a sort of refugee camp for those who’ve left the institutional church – but I was wrong about that.  Just like my colleagues, when I’m out in the community and someone discovers that I’m a minister, its presumed that I’m always ready and willing to lend a listening ear, that I’ll keep smiling and be unfailingly pleasant and accommodating while they tell me all about some terrible experience they’ve had at church – usually a church that bears no resemblance to the one I serve.

Now, when I find myself in a conversation with a teacher, I don’t automatically start telling them how much I hated high school, when talking with a lawyer I don’t feel the need to start out by criticizing the court system, but with ministers it seems to go with the territory that we have to function as a doormat so that the muck from someone’s last church experience can be removed.

Given how ubiquitous this experience is for ministers and how frustrating it can be, I expected that one day it would erupt into a public controversy.  That day came recently after the Rev. Lillian Daniel vented some of her smoldering resentment in an article in the Huffington Post.  Rev. Daniels is a UCC minister, UCC being one of the most liberal Christian denominations.  Her article caused quite a stir.  Here’s what she had to say about her similar experiences:

“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What IS interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”[1]

On one level I have to agree with Rev. Daniel.  Obviously her rant comes from a person who is deeply invested in furthering the institutional church in general and her denomination in particular, and it would behoove us to read her piece as coming from someone with that agenda.  And, while I took her obviously sarcastic comments as just a little good-natured needling of the spiritual but not religious crowd (rather clever, actually), quite a few people found its tone snarky and undeserving of a minister.  Aren’t ministers supposed to meet people where they are, some of the protestors asked?  After all, isn’t it rather arrogant for church goers to suggest that non-church goers lack spiritual depth, that when someone finds inner meaning in activities outside church walls they are being self-indulgent and narcissistic, and that real community just isn’t possible unless it happens at a church sanctioned event?   I’ll concede all those points.  Yes, it certainly can sound arrogant to say what Rev. Daniel said.  And that’s part of why I took serious note of what she said.  It took real guts for her to say something that needed saying even though she obviously risked being labeled as arrogant for saying it.  It needed to be said and if she had made nice when she said it, no one would’ve noticed – and then gotten motivated enough to respond to her and so begin a meaningful online conversation.

How can we call ourselves a minister, how can we say we love others, when we meet people where they are but fail to challenge them, even when they probably aren’t going to like it?   Though her tone was rather snarky in what she said, the point she makes is still valid and, as I said, on one level I agree.  Spiritual development that happens in isolation is incomplete.  Meditation and walking in nature are necessary but not sufficient for the development of our soul. We need the challenges of religious community for the full realization of our humanity and spiritual potential.

That’s the level on which I agree with Rev. Daniel.  However, on another level I’m right there with that guy on the plane.  There are very good reasons for avoiding churches and finding our own way to the life of the spirit.  After all, today the headlines are full of priests and ministers abusing their power.  History is littered with inquisitions, witch hunts, and wars fought in the name of religion.  More personally, some of us have negative childhood memories of church being a place of suppression and being told what to think.  There’s really nothing more unfriendly to spiritual wonder than heavy handed religious orthodoxy.  I still have nightmares myself about being forced to learn the Westminster Catechism in the Presbyterian Church where I was raised when I was thirteen years old.  I had to endure that terror while at the same time having my very legitimate questions completely ignored.  Questions like “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” or “How did Moses write about his own death?”  It’s not hard at all to understand why fully one fifth of all Americans today identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  And I don’t think Rev. Daniel’s little article in Huffpo is going to make much headway wooing the spiritual but not religious crowd back to the church anytime soon.

Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ might be fashionable right now, but it’s really nothing new.  The Transcendentalists were saying much the same things in the early part of the nineteenth century.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading Transcendentalist voice, issued a sort of declaration of independence of the spirit from the religious establishment in the opening of his essay Nature.  “Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”  Emerson had trained to be a minister, like his father, and pastored the Second Unitarian Church in Boston, but found the role rather stifling and had left the ministry after only two years.  He struck out on his own and made his way as a writer and lecturer, and it was in these roles that he at last found a way to blaze new trails for the life of the spirit.  Emerson found inspiration in his daily walks around Walden Pond, in a community of friendships that became known as the Transcendentalist Club, and in his extensive readings of world literature and the sacred texts of other world religions.  Emerson and the Transcendentalists looked beyond the Bible and church tradition as the sole sources of religious authority.  In their way of thinking and processing, personal experience and intuition could be authoritative for the spiritual life as well.  Emerson championed the idea of the oversoul, that God is not separate from the world, but that the divine dwells both within us and within the natural world.

In 1838 Emerson was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard Divinity School.  In this speech, perhaps his most famous, he outraged the religious establishment of his day by criticizing the preachers of his day as “corpse cold.”  He urged these young aspiring ministers to abandon the hidebound focus on the Bible as the sole source of religious truth, and instead look to their own experience of the divine.  “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, – cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with deity.”[2]  His most inflammatory comment was his dismissal of the miracles in the Bible and his elevation of nature and life itself as the real miracle. “Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression.”  “It is not one with the blowing clover and falling rain.”[3]  What the Transcendentalists like Emerson were doing was showing us a way to be spiritual that takes us beyond the way outlined by religiously orthodox; that’s where the name transcendentalism comes from – “transcending” or climbing over the rather rigid thinking on religious life as it was delineated in traditional churches.  Transcendentalism arose because the churches in New England, even the Unitarian ones, were stifling to the spirit.  They were “religious but not spiritual.”    Transcendentalism issued a corrective to this and brought a breath of fresh air to the religious and cultural thought of that day.  No, spiritual but not religious is nothing new.  It’s been around for nearly two centuries.

Whenever I encounter someone who claims the spiritual but not religious identity, I try to make it a point to scratch below the surface of this designation to find out just what the person means by religion.  Mostly they take religion to be all the beliefs, all the accumulated institutional dogma they heard at the last church they attended.  That understanding might be convenient for them and it may make it easy for them to be dismissive, but that’s not what the word means.  Religion comes from two words “re-ligios” to re-link or link back.  It means connecting with the accumulated spiritual wisdom of our forebears.  It means not having to re-invent every single facet of the entire meaning of life in every single generation.  There are some things we can learn from our spiritual forebears without every single one of us having to make it all up again and again as we go.  These are the benefits of having spiritual traditions and keeping collections of wisdom teachings and scriptures.  These are the things we can learn by being in religious community together.

I can see why being spiritual but not religious has grown in popularity.  It’s fun to mix a little Zen here and a little yoga there, throw in a smattering of the Tao and come up with a spirituality that is tailor made for us.  And demands very little of us.  Or at least no more than we WANT to invest in that particular segment of our life.  But is it supposed to be that easy?  When we try this and try that in hopes of finding the perfect match, is it possible that what we’re really doing is being spiritually promiscuous? More and more it seems to me that being spiritual but not religious is like partying but having trouble holding down a job.  Isn’t it supposed to require discipline, isn’t it supposed to require us to do things that we don’t particularly like to do – like getting up and going to work every day?

Parker Palmer, the Quaker writer and teacher, says, “Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.  And if that person moves away, then someone else always arises to take his or her place.”  No matter how much our values and principles here appeal to you, unless there is a commitment to and an investment in the life of the congregation there will be little or no meaningful spiritual growth.  I’ve heard a saying, “You aren’t a real Unitarian Universalist until you’ve been really angry or disgusted with your church – and stayed anyway.”  I think this conveys so well the hard truth of just what it takes to be in religious community.

Another way that we deprive ourselves when we go our individual ways with our spirituality is we dissipate our power.  When we refuse to be a part of a religious community that shares our values, we fail to gain our share of the institutional strength that community gives us.  By pursuing our individual spiritual paths to the exclusion of involvement in religious community, we never come together and do the hard work that building consensus requires.  Therefore, we never build religious communities with the critical mass of members that can speak with one voice, a voice that can be taken seriously when we speak on issues of local and national concern.

Emerson wanted to right the imbalance of his day by calling his community out of its “religious but not spiritual” state.  Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and again we are off balance.  Perhaps we have gone too far in the direction where each of us has our own unique, convenient personal religion and we’ve gotten too far away from our religious communities where people may call us on stuff, people may disagree with us.   Was Rev. Daniel doing much the same thing as Emerson, seeking to bring balance back to our spiritual lives, when she called on us to go back to the church?  She’s received lots of criticism for what she said.  But let us not forget that Emerson, too, was regarded as arrogant by many people after he gave the Divinity School Address.  His remarks were also said to be “inappropriate” for the setting in which he made them.  Time has redeemed Mr. Emerson.  I wonder if time will eventually redeem Rev. Daniel.

Emerson closed out his Divinity School Address by saying, “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse all good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”[4]  I think we misinterpret what Emerson meant by that when we take “refus[ing] good models” to mean that we can ignore the teachings contained in our great religious traditions.  Yes, he WAS urging us to see the validity and value in our own experience and not limit ourselves to models given to us by others.  But he was not advocating that each of us create an inner life devoid of outside religious authority.  Emerson was a well versed in the classical writings of antiquity.  One of the most disciplined scholars of all time, he kept himself constantly immersed in the wisdom and writings of others EVEN as he sought after his own path.  We do him an injustice when we cast him as championing easy, feel good spirituality.

For it to be well with our souls, for us to have a healthy inner life, a balance must be struck.  We are called to be spiritual AND religious.  We are to find sustenance for our inmost being by both personal spiritual practice and participation in a religious community.  Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”[5]  The first affirmation of Buddhist practice includes both, “I take refuge in the Buddha and I take refuge in the Sangha.”  We are called to be a part of something larger than ourselves.  We are called to be in spiritual and religious community with one another.  May it be so for all of us gathered here.  Amen.


[1] Lillian Daniel, Huffington Post. Sept. 13, 2011.

[2] Channing, Emerson, Parker: Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, p. 108.

[3] IBID, p.31.

[4] IBID, p.108.

[5] Matt 18:20 NRSV