There is a by Eric Weiner about his study of religion called Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine. His title about one person “seeking” God captures a refrain that I have heard countless times: when someone finds out that I am a pastor, he or she will often say, “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” The “but” means that “spirituality” and “religion” are two distinct things. Lillian Daniel has recently published a fantastic exploration of this idea, but it is not new.
In many ways, The Shack mirrors the last few decades’ movement away from organized religion to a more personal, individualized spirituality. Mack exemplifies this. He has been to seminary, goes to church regularly, and says grace at meals. But Mack wonders at times what it is all for, especially since his grief about his daughter’s brutal death is not alleviated by pat answers. “Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had,” the narrator explains. “[Mack] was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes.” Ouch!
As biting as this critique is, I am not threatened by this claim. In fact, I think Mack’s larger point has merit. But allow me to offer an opening rebuttal before exploring the positive aspects of this theme in the novel in later posts.
As something opposed to the positive concept of spirituality, “religion” is equated with an institution. Frederick Buechner, the great preacher and author, said that, when someone says that they’re spiritual and not religious, most often what they are really saying is that they’d prefer not to be part of a community! Yes, you can commune with God on a solitary walk through the woods; but you can also avoid the crying newborn, the chatty neighbor in the pew, the preacher in love with the sound of his own voice. In short, all the countless minor irritations found, not just in a church, but from being around other people. So, it is illuminating to notice that the development of this “spiritual but not religious” mindset has coincided with the creation of technologies that have larger catered to individual interests. Now, you can open the garage door from your remote control, enter your house to watch television and check the internet . . . all without speaking to a single soul face-to-face.
But the danger of spirituality at the expense of religion is greater than simply a dislike of other people. Left to our own devices, anyone of us will most likely confuse our personal emotions, needs, and desires with what is from the divine. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has a great line about this temptation: whenever someone claims to have heard from God, he claims, ask them to double-check and see if their stomach wasn’t just upset!
Practically speaking, belonging to a community is like a check-and-balance against the excesses, even abuses, of individualism. Yes, there are problems with people and our myriad of annoying habits; but more importantly, in the church, we are responsible to each other; we hold each other accountable. The biblical word for this is “covenant” (in Hebrew, berit). The interesting thing about the Hebrew term is that it is both a noun and a verb: whenever you make a covenant, you pledge to actively keep it and live into it: a covenant is also covenanting. Whenever a new member joins New Dublin, we all stand and reaffirm what we believe; then we pledge accountability to one another. This promise is both a noun and a verb; something we believe that is also something we promise to do. We are “spiritual” in that we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; yet we are “religious” because we live in community. As Hauerwas says rather provocatively, we need the church around us so that we have a chance of actually living like a Christian! He’s referring to the support and accountability that living in community requires and demands of each one of us. We are people seeking God.