There is phenomenon sweeping through a younger generation of evangelicals known as deconstruction. If you yourself are, or were, an evangelical and have not gone through it, you almost certainly know someone who has. Deconstruction is the process where one takes apart various aspects of their belief system, piece by piece, and analyzes whether or not the system makes sense for the them anymore. I have undergone this process, and am actually writing a book about it that will be published through Wipf and Stock Publishers. Many who have undergone this experience have opted out of church and organized religion altogether. While we are seeing an unprecedented decline in church attendance in America, that does not mean all or even most of the people leaving our churches are taking the deep-dive into atheism. More and more people every year are referring to themselves as spiritual but not religious. This means there is an outstanding level of openness to spiritual things for those who will not worship in the four walls of the church anymore. And you can understand why many choose this route. There is freedom to explore the Divine without the harsh rigidity many have experienced in church. It allows for new ways of experiencing God without feeling the need to apply too much definitions and rules to the experience. You can sift through various faith traditions, and take for your own walk the things that work for you while disregarding the rest. Maybe for some it is a way of hanging on to God without having to be subjected to trauma they experienced in religious settings. For others, it might be a way to keep their souls alive after their faith communities have gone places politically and theologically they cannot follow. While I understand why one would opt in for the path of spiritual-but-not-religious, there are a few concerns I have with it.
The church world really was a pioneer for the “spiritual but not religious” movement when we started slinging the axiom, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” If you were involved in evangelical culture between the 1970’s and the 2000’s, you definitely heard some version of this. There is a good instinct here. I used to be one who offered such a platitude. The folks who seemed more legalistic than me were ones I called “religious,” and it was always used as a slur. The instinct here is to emphasize the living connection we have with God as the central piece of our faith journey, not dogmas and rules that have been the crux of so many peoples hurt. The problem is I was not less of a religious person than the ones I criticized, I was just religious in different ways, and not even always in less destructive ways. It is possible to lean into the healthy impulses of religion without feeling the need to disregard it altogether.
The truth is you are going to be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t religious about something. If you are a person who holds a set of beliefs concerning a cause and purpose, who holds some sort of ritualistic devotions with a moral code that governs your affairs, guess what? You’re religious. You don’t have to attend a church or subscribe to a faith system for that to be true of you. We should not strive to be spiritual without also being religious because that has proven to be a fool’s errand. Rather, we should choose our religion cautiously. Religion tethers us to a set of practices which can be tremendously beneficial to ourselves and the world around us, or it can tether us to something traumatizing and harmful.
If we chose to abandon religion altogether we lose wisdom from the past and a vision for the future. This is one of the great benefits of the Christian religion. Our sacred text and church practices are full of wisdom and vision. Partaking in the Eucharist causes us to remember the ways in which Christ was broken and given for the betterment of the world, and it also offers a vision for how the church is invited to go and do likewise. Human beings are storied creatures. All any of us are trying to do is find the narrative that best makes sense of the world around us. Religion gives us a story, a context to live in. If you are a part of the Christian religion you have a rich past full of wisdom, and you inherit a vision for a beautiful future full of hope. Religion-less Christianity has resulted in the troubling entanglement of the church with American idealism. Rather than making service to Christ our religion, we make it service to country. The two are not the same and are often mutually exclusive. Many evangelical churches today use the language of Christianity to camouflage the worship of empire, power, wealth, and protection. While I think most do this unintentionally, it is nonetheless a result of the insidious and subtle deception of the enemy of our faith. Christianity is a received faith with a King and a Kingdom all its own, we don’t get to make it up as we go.
This does not mean we shut down or suppress spiritual curiosity. Recently I had the privilege of speaking to a group of men from a variety of Alcoholics Anonymous groups who had asked various faith leaders to come and share who their higher power is and why. I gave my lecture right after a Buddhist Zen Master shared his beautiful story and offered rich practices. As I have mentioned, I am not into salad bar spirituality. I am a Christian. But Zen Master Hugh’s words pierced my heart. I needed to implement his wisdom on meditation and love. His remarks have enriched my spiritual life. There is nothing wrong with spiritual curiosity. But if you are a follower of Jesus, that truth ought to anchor you and everything you do.
This is why some comprehensive knowledge of church history and its adherence to the Creed’s is important. You can shout Sola Sciptura until you’re blue in the face, but the truth is any person worth their salt can take the Bible and run with it in a million different directions. The early church did not subscribe to sola scriptura because they knew that axiom was no way to anchor a movement. This is not to say that the Bible is not authoritative in matters of faith and practice, of course it is! However, the early church gathered and formed the system of faith in three concentric circles. The inner circle contained the essential things you must believe in order to be considered a believer. The second circle was for matters of dogma in which believers were strongly encouraged to adhere to, but weren’t necessarily considered heretics if they did not. And the third circle was for matters of opinion. The Creeds offer a unifying thread for all Christians of various traditions, denominations, and practices to consult for clarity on essentials and dogma. May we bind ourselves to them more than ever in this present moment.
THE NICENE CREED We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.