Book Write-Up: When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough

Lillian Daniel.  When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church.  New York: Jericho Books, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Lillian Daniel is a United Church of Christ minister in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  In 2011, a Huffington Post article that she wrote, “Spiritual But Not Religious: Please Stop Boring Me,” went viral.  I did not care for the article for a variety of reasons: its snarky tone, its judgmental attitude towards people who identify as spiritual but not religious, its implication that people have to be interesting to Lillian Daniel for her to listen to what they have to say, and its insistence that people be a part of a Christian community, where they will find others who disagree with them.  “Heck, I have enough assholes who put me down, especially on the Internet,” I thought.  “I don’t need to go to a place where people nitpick me for falling short of perfection, as if they are so perfect.”   (Note: Just to be clear, that does not describe the church that I was attending at the time, but I have encountered Christian communities like that.)

But I still shared the post because there was something about it that I liked.  Maybe, like Lillian Daniel, I was turned off by the SBNR people who talk as if they are being earthshakingly original, edgy, and profound, when actually they are sharing platitudes that I have heard before.  Perhaps what Lillian Daniel said about being part of a larger, historical tradition spoke to me.

In any case, I saw her book at the library, glanced at a page, and concluded that I might enjoy the book, while bracing myself for the possibility that I will not like parts of it.  The page that I looked at was the one in which Daniel said that she cannot prove that Jesus lived, died, and rose again, and I was curious as to the reasons that she, as a mainline Protestant pastor, believed in the Christian faith.  She does not seem to believe in it because of any proof that exists, but rather because she finds its values of grace, love, and service to be compelling.  I can identify with that.  Of course, atheists can come back with their snarky comments about the ill effects of religion past and present, but I think any belief system can be taken in negative directions, even atheism.

Essentially, as more than one Amazon reviewer has snarkily noted, the book is not an expanded version of her Huffington Post article.  You will find some version of her Huffington Post article in it, and an early chapter that is critical of a SBNR person she met on a plane.  But there are a lot of other essays in the book, about a variety of subjects: exclusion and inclusion; God’s grace; how we wrongfully assume that people in prison are among the dead rather than the living (metaphorically-speaking), as if their opportunity to live and contribute to life has passed; Daniel’s arguments with televangelists who emphasize prosperity, when Jesus talked about other values; and the plight of illegal immigrants.  Daniel also tells endearing personal stories: about her reluctant attempts to learn about her roots (i.e., she is descended from the Southern pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun); the time when she got to be the church to a man on his deathbead, an eccentric man who helped her church out a lot but never attended a service; the time when her class raised money for an operation for her blind cat; how her parents’ separation brought them closer together; and her parents’ religious journeys.  The chapter about that last two topics was my favorite.

Regarding the early chapter about the SBNR man on the plane, I did not care for how Daniel trivialized that man’s story, and yet I agreed with some of her critiques of what he said.  The man was raised a Catholic, but he did not feel that his questions were welcomed or that its rituals were relevant to him.  Later, after college, he attended a conservative Baptist church, but he was put off by its rules against dancing and sex before marriage.  He later would attend a mainline Protestant church with his wife, and he found it to be a “big warm hug.”  That church had an intellectual approach to the Bible and was not shocked by his questions or doubts.  When he and his wife divorced, he left that church because it felt more like his wife’s church than his.  Now, he finds God in nature, and he was impressed by something that his teenage son told him: that they are lucky that they live in the United States and not the Third World, where there is starvation and war.  The man thought that his son’s insight showed profound gratitude.

Obviously, I agreed with Lillian Daniel’s critique of the man’s pride in his son’s comment.  We should be angered and want to do something about the problems and injustice in the world, not simply be happy that we are insulated from them.  Of course, I would not be surprised if there are SBNR people who would agree with Daniel on that, and I would also say that, even in churches, there are people who are grateful that they are away from the problems of the world, or who seem to be blissfully unaware of those problems when they glibly talk about God’s activity in their lives (though I will also say that, for myself personally, my faith is challenged in church when I hear prayer requests about people’s problems, more so than it would be were I to stay home).  I do agree with Daniel, though, that church can be a place where people are challenged by the fact that there is suffering in the world, where they are confronted by a sense that they have some moral or spiritual obligation to care and to try to do something about it, and where they can organize and muster resources to address the problems.

I could identify with the man’s story, especially the part about him wanting a religious environment that was intellectual and that welcomed his doubts and questions.  Was his story earth-shakingly original?  No.  Others have that story, too.  But it was his story.  He was sharing his experiences and how he came to believe what he believes now.  That was meaningful to him.  It should be respected, not casually dismissed.  Daniel is not the only person in the world whose parents separated, but that experience still shaped her life and her perspective, and that should be honored and respected, not dismissed because others have that story, too.  I wish that Daniel had expressed more respect for that man’s story.

I hesitantly add another critique, and I say “hesitantly” because this is not a critique that I want to make.  Daniel talks about the importance of being part of a tradition that we did not invent.  That being the case, there were times when I was hoping that she would wrestle with Bible passages that, at least apparently, seem to contradict her religious views.  She talks about the divisions that we have among one another, and she does so compassionately and with understanding, which I applaud.  I think of her story about the man who refused to forgive his brother even when on his deathbed.  Daniel seems to believe that there will eventually be reconciliation, in an afterlife.  I wonder how she would address Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15).  Maybe that can be harmonized with Daniel’s open view.  In any case, there is just a lingering sense within me that maybe the hard-core, strict, fundamentalist picture of God is the accurate picture, whereas more open, tolerant, understanding, compassionate, liberal versions are not, as attractive (and psychologically healthier) as they may be.  Daniel may still find edification in the so-called “clobber passages” of Scripture, but a discussion as to how she does so would have been helpful to me, and probably other readers as well.

I was also a bit surprised by at least one statement about the Bible that she made.  She says on page 70 that Saul of Tarsus (who became Paul) “collected taxes for the empire, which meant that he brutalized poor people and skimmed off a profit for himself.”  I have never heard or read that about Paul.  He was a Pharisee, not a tax-collector, as far as I know.

My post is getting pretty long!  I did enjoy this book.  I was also challenged by Daniel’s statement that worship is not directed towards us, but towards God.  Sometimes, people throw out that sort of statement to put down people who feel alienated from organized religion, without listening to what they have to say, and considering that organized religion may be part of the problem, in areas.  Still, self-centered consumerism is out there, and inside of me, so I do need to be challenged by that sort of statement, every now and then.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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