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New Voices

 
I’d like to suggest that many of the Nones have “gotten off the bus,” an expression that refers to travelers who want to escape pre-packaged tourism so that they can discover a place as it “really” is. – Anne Benvenuti

We must accept the fact that, for many people, the old categories of Catholic/ Protestant, Episcopal/Methodist, high church/low church, contemporary/traditional, etc. just do not matter. There are new voices contributing to the religious scene, although most of them would not like to be referred to as religious. But these voices deserve to be heard. They may have left or never been part of the church, but that does not mean that they do not have a lot to say about spirituality, the meaning of life and how to make a difference in the world.

Spiritual Independents

People who are spiritually independent share the same existential questions as almost every human being but do not confine their search for answers to any one religion. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro

A piece of accepted wisdom among many involved in interfaith dialogue is that one must first be grounded in one particular tradition. This is reflected in the quote by Mahatma Gandhi that “. . . our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” However, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under thirty – are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in a Pew Research Center polling.

We often refer to these folks as the “spiritual but not religious” or “Nones.” But I agree with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who has declared that these designations are too negative and has coined the more positive “spiritually independent.” He says:
“Most of these so-called Nones are not dismissive of God or spirituality but simply find religious labels and affiliation too narrow and constraining. This is why I choose to call this segment of the population by the far more positive and accurate term spiritually independent.”

In another positive take on it, the Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, a Board Trustee for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, writes in “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”:

“I know a lot of Nones and many of them are Alls. They celebrate the Winter Solstice, and Easter sunrise, they may do yoga or meditate, and they give thoughtfully to charities, all in no particular order, but depending on where they are, how they feel, what seems to be called for. They resist labels produced by media-saturated culture to represent certain predetermined sets of characteristics. They distrust such prepackaged beliefs, and also distrust religious institutions that are so often corrupt and hypocritical. Yet they value human spiritual heritage, often in great variety, and many of these people are more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one.”

In the new emerging community being formed by Mission Developer, Pastor Anders Peterson under the sponsorship of my congregation, First United Lutheran Church, we are finding the truth of these perspectives. Mission, defined as converting people to Christianity, does not work with this group. Openness to other religious traditions is essential. This is not to say that we deny or water down who we are; we do our work in the world as Christians. But we do it as Christians who have worked through the intra“A couple of decades ago this category accounted for no more than a single-digit percentage of the population. Today it accounts for one of every five people in the States, and one in every three amongst those under 30 years of age. The numbers are even higher in Europe and China. This means there is a great deal of fluidity in identity that is socially permissible in ways that simply were not true before.”

We do not know what Mahatma Gandhi would make of our world today. However it is clear that, both within Christianity and on the interfaith scene, the spiritual independents must be part of the interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

Hybrid Spirituality: Multiple Belonging

The phenomenon of “multiple religious belonging” is now deeply engrained in American Culture – Francis X. Clooney

The first time I heard someone referred to as a Jewbu, I thought it was a pejorative term. But it is not. Jewbu (or Jubu or Bu-Jew) is simply is the abbreviation for a Jewish Buddhist. This fairly recent term can refer to either a Buddhist who grew up Jewish but no longer practices Judaism (“This is true of a staggeringly high percentage of American Buddhist leaders; well over half by most counts,” according to Rabbi Julian Sinclair) or a Buddhist who still practices and identifies with Judaism. Sylvia Boorstein, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, is a good example of this category. Her autobiographical memoir, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, places her squarely in the camp of those with multiple belongings. Her story of coming to terms with her identity as both a Jew and a Buddhist – and her deepened love for Judaism – is an engaging, easy read for anyone wanting an introduction to this phenomenon.

Christianity does not have a catchy term to describe its hybrids (Chrisbu or Bu- Chris is just not as mellifluous as Jubu!). But there are those who are multiple belongers. For example, Father Gregory Mayers, coordinator of the East-West Meditation program at Mercy Center retreat center in Burlingame, CA, is both a Redemptorist priest and Associate Roshi of the Sanbô-Kyôdan Religious Foundation in Kamakura, Japan.
Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, considers himself to be an adherent of both Christianity and Buddhism.

It may be that the popularity of Buddhism has not caused a lot of consternation in our churches because Buddhism is not a theistic religion (not all Buddhists would even call it a religion at all). But now we wade into deeper waters to examine more controversial examples of multiple belonging.

Many years ago a member of my congregation told me that she had become a Muslim. When I asked her how she reconciled that with being a Christian, she said that she saw no problems with it. At the time, I could not understand that. Now I see that she was merely ahead of her time. In 2007, an Episcopal priest named Ann Redding Holmes declared herself to be a Muslim after a profound experience of Muslim prayer. However, she did not abandon her Christian identity, saying that her acceptance of Islam was “not an automatic abandonment of Christianity. For many, it is. But it doesn’t have to be.” In response to those who said that the two traditions are mutually exclusive, she said, “I just don’t agree.” The Episcopal Church did not agree with her and she was defrocked in 2009. In interviews, Redding has argued that her views about Jesus “fit well in the range of Christianity.”

As strange as this story may seem, there are more and more examples of multiple belonging on the religious scene, as S. Wesley Ariarajah puts it, “throwing spanners into the smoothly oiled works of religious particularities.” But, reminding us that we are looking through Western lenses, he reports that multiple belonging is not a new phenomenon in North Asia:

“It has been a common feature among the peoples especially in North Asia. Many of them have found ways of holding together two or more of religious traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Shamanism, Christianity etc. as tributaries that feed their overall religious consciousness and practice.” Catherine Cornille, editor of Many Mansions: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity agrees:

“It may be argued that . . . religion in Europe, America and Australia is just coming to terms with a practice or a form of religiosity that has been prevalent for ages in most of the rest of the world, and especially in the East.”

For many clergy and church members, learning how to relate to those who claim multiple belonging may seem to be a very steep learning curve. And to be honest, it is. It involves looking carefully at our assumptions about what it means to be a Christian, to listen to the stories of those who have different assumptions, and to participate in a religious quest that is ongoing and evolving.

For example, a member of my congregation admitted that she considered herself to be a Christian-Pagan. When I shared her story with a friend who is a Wiccan elder, he laughed and told me that Wicca is actually losing some of its appeal among disenfranchised Christians. Once, he said, Wicca was attractive to those looking for an earth-based, environment-friendly belief system and practice. But as Christianity has been slowly leaving behind its earth/spirit dualism and rediscovering its “roots” in theologians such as St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, it is retaining some of those who in the past would have become Pagan. It is clearly a new day for Christianity!

Atheists and Humanists

When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?” – Quentin Crisp, The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp

It is all too common for those of us in the church to disregard people in these categories. We might dismiss them with “There are no atheists in foxholes” and similar sayings. And while I struggle to find ways of communicating my understandings of the Divine to those whose unbelief is more of a reaction to the abuses of church and religion, I also recognize that there are many good, thoughtful, moral people who do not feel the need for a Higher Power. Yet more and more of them are joining the interfaith conversation (you see why interfaith and interreligious are problematic terms!)

During the summer months, we welcome guests from different religious and non- religious traditions to speak at our church on a specific topic. Two years ago the subject was caring for creation. Most of our guests were easy to describe, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim. But one speaker, Chris Highland, was not so easy to categorize. He did not like using any labels at all, but finally settled on “free-thinking naturalist.” Beginning his talk, he jokingly said that he had deliberately avoided the “A” word when referring to himself.

Atheism is a tricky subject. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg (1942-2015) describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts,

“Every term, one or more of them says to me after class, ‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’- here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath- ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”

As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God perhaps learned in Sunday school, from parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.

As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Also, we are becoming more familiar with religions that are non-theistic (hence a-theistic), such as Buddhism, which has no concept of a creator God or divine intercessor. It is not so much that Buddhists do not believe in God (as if a conscious negative choice) as the fact that those are simply not aspects of their tradition.

Karen Armstrong has this to say:

“Atheism is often a transitional state: Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. But is the God who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated, but they are very different from one another. Perhaps modern atheism is a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate to the problems of our time.”

Of course there are those who do not believe in any kind of Divine being, no matter how we might reimagine what that means. Many of these folks are also interested in being part of interreligious conversations. Henry Baer, a long-time board member at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a co-founder of an organization in Berkeley called Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning ‘nonviolence’). One of the goals of the organization is “to encourage dialogues and public forums on issues which bridge spirituality and science and society.” Henry is an avowed atheist, yet appreciates deeply the opportunity to work on projects together with others who want to be peacemakers in the world.

I contrast Chris and Henry with militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, who denounce the God they don’t believe in, but are never willing to listen to or discuss any other possibilities. I consider them to be as intractable as any fundamentalist of any religion.

I will admit that I never got the consternation that many Christians had about humanists (or as one elderly church member called them hoomanists). I thought humanists were pretty good people. I do now understand why they are considered by some to be fair game for Christian conversion: they value human agency and critical thinking over faith and doctrine. It could be said that humanism is a kinder, gentler atheism. As Nathan Phelps said, “What I am is a proud humanist. Atheism says what I don’t accept, humanism says what I do.”

But these terms are very fluid. Another guest in our speaker series was Vanessa
Gomez Brake, who is very involved in the interfaith scene and describes herself (at least for today, she said) as a Secular Humanist. However, she said that others have called her a “faitheist.” This was the first I had heard of the term, which comes from the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. Stedman’s point is that atheists should be involved in respectful dialogue with those of religious persuasion. Vanessa said, however, that being called a “faitheist” was not a compliment. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “an atheist who is ‘soft’ on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion; an atheist accommodationist.” For some reason, it gives me satisfaction to know that there are factions even among the non-believers.

What I have learned from listening to those on the interfaith scene who describe themselves with the “A” word or with other isms is that these are people of good will and great love for humanity and the world. I welcome the opportunity to be in dialogue. Right now I have members in my congregation with family members who are declared atheists. I would love to have the “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” conversation with them – not in order to convince them that they are wrong, but to see where they really fit in the wide range of what atheism means today. And what “God” means today.

From The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters by Susan M. Strouse, Wilgefortis Press, San Francisco (April 13, 2016)

Footnotes
(1) Benvenuti, Anne. “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls.
theinterfaithobserver. (accessed February 26, 2016).

(2) Shapiro, Rami. Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2013), Kindle edition, location 82.

(3) Gandhi, Mahatma, “Young India,” January 19, 1928.

(4) “Nones” on the Rise.” pewforum.org. (Accessed February 28, 2016).

(5) Shapiro, Rami. Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2013), Kindle edition, location 82.

(6) Benvenuti, Anne, “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls.” theinterfaithobserver.

(7) Heckman, Bud, “Five Things Changing the Way Religions Interact.” theinterfaithobserver. (accessed February 26, 2016).

(8) Clooney, Francis X., “New Wave Interreligious Thinking,” americamagazine.org. (accessed March 3 , 2016 ) .

(9) Sinclair, Rabbi Julian. “Jubu.” thejc.com. (accessed February 26, 2016)

(10) Boorstein, Sylvia. That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

(11) Knitter, Paul, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

(12) Tu, Janet I. “Episcopal Priest Ann Holmes Redding has been defrocked.” seattletimes.com. (accessed February 24, 2016).

(13) Ibid.

(14) Zimmerman, Cathy. “Ann Holmes, A Christian and a Muslim, to Share Message at St. Stephens.” tdn.com (accessed February 24, 2016).

(15) Ariarajah, S. Wesley. “Religious Diversity and Interfaith Relations in a Global Age.” Flinders.edu.au.(accessed February 24, 2016).

(16) Ibid.

(17) Cornille, Catherine, ed. Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity. New York: Orbis Books, 2002.

(18) Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity: Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.

(19) Ibid

(20) Roemischer, Jessica, A New Axial Age: Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God.” (accessed February 26, 2016).

(21) AHIMSA Berkeley (accessed February 26, 2016).

(22) Nathan Phelps is the son of Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps. He responded to my inquiry that this quote was something he had posted on Facebook and now has become a meme.

(23) Stedman, Chris, How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012.

(24) Urban Dictionary, s.v. “faitheist,” (accessed February 26, 2016).

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