Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nones On The Run

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
Thomas Merton

The 2012 Pew Religious Survey came out on Tuesday to give their annual bad news to Protestant Christians, especially those working at churches. As it turns out, a record 20% of Americans now consider themselves “unaffiliated” ("none of the above") with religion. Although 2/3 of the unaffiliated crowd still believe in God, Pew pollsters report that they overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, politics, power and/or rules.

Many theories abound for the growth of this “spiritual-but-not-religious” group including (1) a backlash against the religious right; (2) delays in marriage (couples tend to find religion as they “settle down and have children”); (3) broad social disengagement (the title of sociologist Robert Putnam’s classic says it all: Bowling Alone); and (4) a economic-driven secularization (the Invisible Hand of the market has defeated the Hand of God in a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors).

The negative aspect of this important story of the “unaffiliated” is that, quite frankly, Americans are becoming more and more distracted and narcissistic by the day. This is the intended consequence of an American society totally saturated in corporate advertising, video gaming, infotainment “news” and a lineup of status updates, shows on DVR and Netflix Queues that entertain us to death. Addiction is the air we breathe.

No doubt, one important reason for the bloating of the “unaffiliated” ranks is that “institutional” churches have struggled to connect with this group of naysayers. In my own experiences, many faith communities do not offer a much needed critique of American society. Instead of saving people from anxiety producing pop culture, churches all-too-often baptize these addictive patterns and Christianize them (ie, hosting Super Bowl & American Idol parties, creating a plethora of apps for the iPhone, etc). There’s very little creativity and strategy going in to equip people to steer themselves out of the American morass.

Some more conservative faith communities have become too “political” in the past 30 years by falling in love with the Republican Party. This collusion has “worked” for both the church and the party, bolstering their social, economic and political power, respectively. As a result, many churches, unfortunately, have equated Christianity with an abhorrence of abortion, gay marriage, the global warming hoax and big government. Many of the leaders at these churches scapegoat, over-generalize, sloganeer and/or name-call to make their case. This kind of pulpit-driven demonizing, over time, confuses younger adherents.

I find that young people have very sensitive bullshit meters. They can smell it miles away. When church leaders adamantly reason that providing food, shelter and health care to the poor is not the job of the government—-it’s the church’s job!—-these young folks quickly experience cognitive dissonance while observing what tithes actually provide: paychecks for church staff, buildings (some of them quite large) and other faith-based amenities. Indeed, many members of the spiritually unaffiliated club can observe quite clearly that the marriage of Evangelicalism to the Republican Party is a major strategy of the church growth agenda (after all, large donors at these churches overwhelmingly vote GOP).

In my own personal interviews with unaffiliated young people (18-29), those who “go away to college” find that “the world out there” is not really anything like what was described to them growing up in the Evangelical bubble. Non-believing friends that they meet on campus turn out to be more compassionate and humble than the Christians they know back home. And behold, they meet gays and lesbians and Muslims and find out that they completely lack the “agendas” that they were warned about! In the classroom, they discover that the Bible isn’t quite the inerrant textbook void of contradictions that they were consistently taught it was growing up. In short, these young folks are learning the truth about life and “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” Once enlightened and arisen, these students are going on a spiritual journey that bypasses “organized religion.”

My own challenge for my unaffiliated brothers and sisters is that they expend precious resources (time, energy, money) on their spiritual journey: that they become more intentional than intuitional, and that they take the bullshit shoveled to them and use it as manure to enrich their growth. To be in pursuit of a spiritual tradition is an exhilarating adventure, as my wife and I got to experience during our time at Fuller Seminary 5 years ago. But to reject or delay the pursuit is to be driven by what Walter Brueggemann calls “a cacophony of rival voices:” family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology. This is a deathly mixture.

To go on a spiritual journey is to humble ourselves with the notion that billions have gone before us on this same quest. We can learn from these pilgrims, accepting some and rejecting some of what they offer as The Truth. I am convinced that both religion and spirituality are needed on this adventure. A religious tradition functions as a receptacle for the rich brew of spirituality. To be truly spiritual is to drink in what is Ultimate, Transcendent and Sacred. Each religious tradition offers a distinctive narrative about What Truly Matters, but often becomes stale and rigid. Spirituality is actually experiencing What Truly Matters.

What both religion and spirituality desperately need, however, is the prophetic: a bold critique of both American culture (entertaining ourselves to death) and the cacophony of voices (family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology) that ultimately lead to addiction, abuse, narcissism, mental illness and/or a complete indifference to the suffering of others. This prophetic strand (as found in many religious traditions) energizes us to live out countercultural virtues like humility, empathy, patience and courage.

My own cherished Anabaptist Christian tradition is part of the 11% of the American population that checks the box “Other/Don’t Know.” As the philosopher and theologian Nancey Murphy wrote more than a decade ago, the Anabaptist Christian Tradition is uniquely positioned (albeit imperfectly) to curb the will-to-power (money/power/politics/rules) that so many religious organizations have been diagnosed with (again, as overwhelmingly expressed by the “unaffiliated” crowd). Murphy humbly proposed that the four-fold “epistemology” of Anabaptism—a ruthless commitment to nonviolence, simple living, the separation of church & state and what Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination” (basically, the kind of engaged, confrontational nonviolent direct action modeled most beautifully by the African-American Civil Right marches and protests of the 50s & 60s)—-gives it an advantage over all other religious/spiritual rivals. These 4 practices are surely needed, and yearned for, in this historical moment.

I continue to root, year after year, for the ranks of the American religious “unaffiliated” to swell in numbers. As this population grows in size, it stands as a gigantic question mark for Christian communities: do we have the resources to both confront our own will-to-power and offer young people an alternative that actually leads to abundant Life?

3 comments:

  1. Tommy,
    This is one of my favorites that you have posted to date. The following paragraph is wonderful;
    "In my own personal interviews with unaffiliated young people (18-29), those who “go away to college” find that “the world out there” is not really anything like what was described to them growing up in the Evangelical bubble. Non-believing friends that they meet on campus turn out to be more compassionate and humble than the Christians they know back home. And behold, they meet gays and lesbians and Muslims and find out that they completely lack the “agendas” that they were warned about! In the classroom, they discover that the Bible isn’t quite the inerrant textbook void of contradictions that they were consistently taught it was growing up. In short, these young folks are learning the truth about life and “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” Once enlightened and arisen, these students are going on a spiritual journey that bypasses “organized religion.”"

    Excellent.

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  2. Just some random thoughts on this post.
    I like the opening quote, I started to find out how exactly this worked just after high school. I started to think more about the other person as an individual, and I really thought about this and that helped me start to respect people more. The respect was starting to become real as I put myself in their shoes, and as I became more aware of people’s motivations and egos, situations and that what they may be suffering.

    ...a record 20% of Americans now consider themselves “unaffiliated”
    While that is quite exciting, I do not think it is enough, I personally will not be happy till we rid the world of organized religions. I do not sit and bemoan the probable fact that it will not happen in my life-time, but I am happy to see that the percentage is going up. I am, more or less, fine with the world being religious, as long as said religious person does not force their religion or themselves (their beliefs) upon others, myself included. I see that so many religions as traps, people like to be right/correct, and once a religion has you in their grips, then it can be very hard for an individual to break the bondage of religion.

    I do not like traditions for the most part, I certainly do not like religious traditions, but I do like and look forward to my family (to be) creating our own traditions that are kept within our family. I do not like being told what to do. I do like being creative, as I do like borrowing from others as well, and if my family and I want to donate or be charitable it is not because some religion tells me that I need to.

    Here comes the oxymoronic part, I do love reading and learning about religions. So, yes I know that I said that I do not like most religions, and I do not like their inherent nature to take over the world, but I certainly can learn from them, and for that... I am actually quite grateful for them. I wish that we could all be a nicer, the world over, more compassionate and able to get along. But I fear that religions will not let that come to fruition, so my vision of a better world will take a long time to achieve, it must take a long time, it seems so easy for people to make something rotten and negative.

    ...narcissistic by the day
    I like this, I believe this is on par, and it is sad. I am sad that there is a real lack of community where I live now. I know that there must be many places in this world that still have (probably, rural) cities’ that have a great sense of community and actually do something (as they care for) about their community, in a good way. And as the world and the internet grow and the ability to communicate and be closer with one another, it feels like that, as I mentioned, it feels like there is a real lack of community. People are, as you said becoming more narcissistic and ego-centric by the day, I wished more people spent more time thinking about others so that this world would be a better place. I am kind of sick of it, I am ready to pick everything up and move back to Alaska, and if my wife were to offer or ask me/us to do that, I would do it that same day. Unlike you though, I do not feel as though it is just the unaffiliated that are making this negative. As you do mention later, that there are churches that are or use schemes/tactics of pop-culture and the allures of the “empty” and hollow world of non-morals. I was born/raised Catholic and I would certainly not want to ever say that I was like-minded as Paris Hilton, who apparently still attends Sunday mass, but her actions and words are far from moral, as far as I am concerned. I may be showing that I am judgmental, but that does not really bother me, I am fine with that. So, Paris Hilton the Roman Catholic does not really bother me, Paris Hilton the “person” bothers me, she pretty much sucks as a person (the pun of “sucks” was on purpose).

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  3. ,,,There’s very little creativity and strategy going in to equip people to steer themselves out of the American morass.
    I am very happy that there is little creativity and strategy by the established churches/religions. I believe that would make the world a much worse place. I have found it to be that when religious put their collective heads together, they, of course push their agenda on others and they work very hard to get what the heads of said churches/religions want. And they do WANT. I do not understand your ways, I do not understand the Anabaptist Christian way(s), but I will try to learn more. Their way(s) do not make sense to me, they seem counter to many of the established religious milieu. It seems as though we have much in common when it comes to the end result of (whatever) thought of goodness or good deeds, but you believe in God and have your train of thought and I have mine, so we take a different route, but like I said, I like a lot of what you say, I just do not like or believe in God.

    I find that many religious are disingenuous, so if they ever did really let their creativity flow and pull together, that they would make this world an even worse place and at a much faster rate.

    ...do we have the resources to both confront our own will-to-power and offer young people an alternative that actually leads to abundant Life?
    I believe I have made it abundantly clear that I hope the Christian (whomever) have the resources to exist. I do hope that all have the will-to-power positively produce a compassionate community.

    Thank you so much for sharing Tommy.

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