When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Is Not Enough

Lillian Daniel's study of what people who opt out of religion are missing is funny and refreshing.

When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Is Not Enough By Lillian Daniel FaithWords 224 pp.

As growing numbers of Americans go through life without any religious affiliation, they’re missing out on more than they know, according to author Lillian Daniel. Her funny and refreshing new book, When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' is Not Enough, aims to illustrate what they’re missing.

Start with self-awareness. Those who think they’re being original by going it alone, seeking God in solo strolls on the beach and allowing no room for accountability in spiritual life, receive a wry newsflash: “You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture.”

“There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself,” Daniel writes in a chapter that previously went viral on the Net as a blogpost. “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.”

Shortcomings of do-it-yourself spirituality provide a jumping off point for this collection of 32 personal essays, but the book doesn’t dwell there. Instead Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor in the well-off Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, leads readers on an interpretive, conversational tour of church life from the inside.

She describes spiritual communities that are far from perfect, which makes them endearing and likeable. A congregation she once led in history-obsessed Connecticut made a big to-do about its anniversary celebration, only to discover it had the wrong year. The anniversary had been the prior year. Oops. Members, however, found a way to redeem the mistake by honoring a different church construction milestone from the preferred anniversary year. Problem solved. Sin forgiven.

She chuckles at tendencies, including her own, to get competitive in church life, only to be providentially humbled by the tradition’s emphasis on higher pursuits. She imagines what Jesus would say when it comes out that her successor has replaced her lovingly restored chapel pews – intended to be Daniel’s legacy – with blue vinyl chairs. One day in eternity, she writes, Jesus surely “will tell us which one of us was right about the chapel.” But no such luck.

“Pews, vinyl chairs, get over yourselves,” Jesus says from his throne. “You are here for eternity, people. So here are the keys to your eternal homes all next door to one another on clergy row, behind the next cloud.”

After a bold start that confronts dilettante spirituality head-on, "When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Is Not Enough" loses some of its steam as Daniel examines her own personality and religious style. She struggles to sit still, for instance, and isn’t the meditative type. Reading this chapter, I found myself saying, “That’s nice, but where is all this going? What happened to the case for church-based spirituality?”

Laid out over 215 pages, the case turns out to be more implicit than explicit, more grounded in a diverse assemblage of anecdotes and sermonic lessons than expository arguments. Readers follow along like tourists whose guide keeps them smiling and thinking but never furnishes the map they wish they had.

At times, Daniel appears prone to the same individualism that, in her view, interferes with spiritual growth. She amusingly chides her neighbors for their myriad yard signs and warns that “people who worship their own opinions will at some point have to come face-to-face with an idol that like all idols will disappoint.” But sometimes her opinions, too, seem quite enshrined.

Example: worshipping one day in a liturgical setting, she defies her host church’s policy of restricting the Sacrament to church members. Rather than abstain and pray as requested, she partakes. She justifies it by saying she was being truer to Jesus’ intentions for Communion than this congregation was. Ironically, such presumptions of enlightened individualism lead many in the "spiritual but not religious" camp to say they appreciate Jesus but have no need for church. After all, why heed the ways of a community when I see more clearly than its members do?

But showing herself to be a work-in-progress helps Daniel sustain an authentic, much-needed voice. Her book speaks into multiple chasms that need filling. She makes a down-to-earth case for the benefits of church life in the vernacular of a Gen-Xer, whose occasional light sarcasm and “get over yourself” attitude resonates with the under-45 set. She challenges rampant fallacies, such as the tendency to write off all churches on the basis of one bad experience, or to reject Christianity because of outrageous things done somewhere in Christ’s name. She gently, entertainingly invites readers to glimpse Christian life in community and to consider how the tradition shapes mature moral perspectives, even if they’re not ready (as many aren’t) to darken the door of a church.

Daniel’s book might strike a chord with young Christian adults in need of a guide or role model who’s not stuffy, not holier-than-thou and speaks their language. It feeds those who’ve long suspected, or already concluded, that “spiritual but not religious” represents a type of poverty that’s self-imposed and ultimately self-deluding. Far from the last word on the topic, it nonetheless marks a creative step to bridge cultural divides and share the riches of Christianity with a rising, spiritually curious generation.

Monitor correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is author of "Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul."

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