Christian Minister ‘bored’ by the ‘bland majority’

I have just read the following ‘reflection’ from Lillian Daniel, the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Have a read of it yourself and try and guess what might have got my heckles up:

Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

August 31, 2011

Matthew 16:18

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Reflection by Lillian Daniel

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. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

Prayer

Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

As someone who studies religion, this is admittedly a similar conversation that I dread (however, I have yet to have this conversation on a plane – maybe this only happens in the US). My current conversation runs as follows:

– What do you study?

– Religious Studies

– Oh, so you want to be a priest, or a Religious Education teacher?

– <Sigh>. Religious Studies is not the same as Theology. Religious Studies is a social science. It makes no comment on the truth claims of religious individuals or institutions, but considers all people and their ‘beliefs’ worthy of study. For instance, I have written a lot about contemporary atheism, and I currently study the nonreligious from the perspective of Religious Studies and would generally advocate a movement away from labeling individuals as ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’ as in almost every case, both labels can be shown to be inaccurate, and they don’t tell us very much about what being (non)religious might mean to that individual.

– So, you want to be the new Richard Dawkins then?

– <Sigh> Did you listen to anything I just said?

However, this was not the same conversation Lillian Daniels purports to have encountered.  I’m not going to get into whether or not her beliefs are more valid than those of the man on the plane. However, it is interesting to see how Daniels labels this gentleman as part of the ‘bland majority of people’, whilst seeing herself as part of a ‘real human community’. I am curious to know:

  • how she defines real;
  • what gives her a right to make this assertion;
  • and how she feels that making this sarcastic diatribe will encourage individuals like this gentleman to decide that he actually wants to do as she presumably wishes and join her church…

Maybe I am getting the wrong impression here, but it seems that Daniels does not want individuals like this to be part of her ‘brave’ community. If so, why does she bother trying to engage with them online? Perhaps this is because her community would become the ‘bland majority’ if it were, in fact, the majority. Perhaps it is because her worldview is threatened by individualism. I find it personally encouraging, however, to see the leader of a mainline Protestant institution exhibiting the same tendency to sarcasm and ridicule as the rest of the ‘bland majority’.

Most importantly, however, this is a prime example of someone defining their terms to suit their own agenda. As I have just been discussing with my friend Suzanne, this is all about power… Daniels is defining her sort of belief as worthy of attention and engagement, but the beliefs of others as bland, boring and unworthy. This unjustified behaviour is one of the main objections I have to inter-faith dialogue (although I see many positives as well): groups of ‘religious’ individuals get together and talk politely about what they believe, all the time acknowledging that whilst they may have nothing else in common, at least they are ‘brave’ enough to believe in ‘something’ and belong to a ‘tradition’. This is a prime example of the Western Christianised bias to see religion as being a ‘monogamous’ commitment to some established tradition, which does not scan with non-Western traditions, and with the scene portrayed by the 21st century world at large.

We mustn’t commit the faux pas of tarring an institution, movement or group of individuals with the same brush as their leaders. However, blandness is fine by me :)

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

4 responses to “Christian Minister ‘bored’ by the ‘bland majority’”

  1. Michael Hampson says :

    Of course the real problem (judging only from this passage) is that she is embarrassed by her own long-term failure to come up with any coherent response to the entirely reasonable points repeatedly being made to her. “My way is harder work than yours” hardly justifies it! Get a grip! It’s not that there isn’t a possible coherent response, it’s just that she hasn’t found one, and responds by lashing out, which is hardly gracious.

    Your account of your own version of the same problem reminded me of Linda Woodhead here in Lancaster, I think you know her Kendal spirituality research; she transformed herself from theologian (20 years ago when I was her student) to social scientist of religion today.

  2. benjaminjbean says :

    I like your stuff, and I must admit I’m somewhat embarrassed at my use of the term “nonreligious” on Twitter. Both her story and your typical conversation strike several chords with me, but I think my main complaint with the popular refrain, “Spiritual, not religious,” is that there is a common misunderstanding of religion as something legalistic or oppressive.

    By the way first major disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity took place in Wheaton, IL, right next to Glen Ellyn, where Lillian Daniel is pastor. I’m sure your familiar with this center of Evangelical thought, and perhaps with why someone might choose to move away from it.

    I look forward to talking to you soon!

  3. americansecularist says :

    It’s funny that Lillian Daniel finds those that espouse her particular views ‘brave’, when it’s fear that drives this kind of evangelicalism. Oh, and maybe she’s not meeting fellow Bible-thumpers on airplanes because only the priesthood in her kind of religion has enough money to fly anywhere – wealthy ‘ministries’ like her thrive off of the donations of the poor.

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