There and Back Again: An Observation on the Rise of the Nones

If you’re a practicing Christian, regardless of your particular affiliation or denomination, chances are you’ve probably heard about the latest Pew Forum Data on America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is the subject of sermons, lectures, and countless articles. It also has the blogosphere and discussion forums all over the internet abuzz with activity. Indeed, everyone seems to have an opinion on the steep decline of Christianity and the rise of the Nones in the United States. Since the study was released earlier last month, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, as this subject is of great personal interest to me because I too am a ‘spiritual journeyman’ who spent decades wandering the entire religious roadmap without ever staying in one place for too long.

Of all the valid arguments for the decline of Christianity in America that I’ve seen, there is one particular narrative that has drawn the attention of this there-and-back-again spiritual vagabond; the idea that the ‘radical individualism’ of western culture is perhaps the chief culprit for the decline. People aren’t just becoming wholly secular atheists and agnostics; rather, there are increasing amounts of people who draw a sharp distinction between spirituality and religion, and who, consequently, desire an intensely personal spiritual experience apart from the confines of religion. They have been called the ‘spiritual but not religious.’ A prominent expert on the Nones and SBNR’s, theologian Dr. Linda Mercadante asserts that the goal of most SBNR’s is in fact internal, tending towards personal transformation rather than outward social action.[1] Of the many SBNR’s she interviewed for her book, she wrote that very few “had a larger ideal of changing the world, reforming society or improving people’s material situation.”[2]

Such a view towards spirituality is rejected by a great deal of pastors and theologians, especially those within Protestant traditions, who generally assert that faith must be lived in community. Indeed, the great John Wesley once said, “Directly opposite to this [the approach of the desert mystics] is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there.  “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.”[3] But is this view of Jesus entirely correct? All four Gospels include multiple accounts of Jesus practicing silence and solitude, so much so that one could argue that it was His time spent in communion with God and contemplation that was the driving force behind His ministry. And yet, we don’t talk about this on Sundays. We focus on His works, His action.

Thus, while many in the church would argue that our culture is “too individualistic,” I would argue that we as a church are not individualistic enough; we simply don’t help people to discover who they are or who they can be in Christ. This was one of the major reasons why I too walked away from Christianity. Speaking bluntly, I found my early experiences of religion and Christianity to be quite shallow. Week after week, I heard sermons about the need for evangelism and to be on the front lines of social justice, and while those things are critically important, there was next to nothing on how to pray or how to deepen my walk with God. Cultivation of the inner spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines was overshadowed and completely trumped by an outward focus and a constant call to action. In short, I see the church as lacking in balance.

We live in a fast-paced and materialistic world of constant activity, such that most of us identify ourselves by what we do and by what we possess. We have no sense of self because we never stop running, and the mission statements of most churches today would merely have us run yet another marathon in spite of our unspoken, yet inherent, exhaustion. Is it any wonder, then, that people desire a kind of spirituality that would help them to slow down, if just for a moment? Is it any wonder that people want to turn inward and embark on a journey of self-discovery because they are disillusioned by the materialistic and superficial nature of our culture?

Sadly, our churches have little to offer these types of seekers. We don’t “provide adequate answers to their pressing theological and existential questions,”[4] and we don’t provide adequate spiritual direction either. If it is to be relevant, religion must advocate for more than mere belief in a perceived transcendent reality; it must offer a means to personally connect with and to experience that transcendent reality. In the words of Jesus Christ, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). This is what the people in our culture are hungering for today; an awakening within; and who are we not to help them along that path and to realize that goal?

In Russian Christianity, there has always been the tradition of the Staretz; holy men and women, who through their practice of “Hesychasm” (stillness, rest, quiet, silence) became great elders and spiritual guides. The Startsy are seen as very saintly figures, and yet they were and are very connected to the people of this world. Pilgrims have been known to travel great distances and wait days, sometimes even weeks to receive their spiritual guidance and direction. One such Staretz, Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) provided his counsel during a time not altogether unlike our own, when religious skepticism was on the rise and the Russian people were gradually drifting away from the church. He argued that this was happening because the church had lost its equilibrium. He said, “In our days…we are completely estranged from life in Christ. We have lost the simplicity of the early Christians and with our so-called enlightenment we plunge ourselves into dark ignorance.”[5]

His revolutionary teachings singlehandedly sparked a revival in the Russian Orthodox Church. He argued that the true aim of the Christian life was the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and that the outward works and observances of the church were but a means of achieving that grace.[6] Thus, he urged people from all walks of life to seek the Kingdom of God within through continual prayer and contemplation, and that such a way of life was not reserved for the ascetics or hermits.

The greatest monasteries are the ones that exist inside the human heart. We must provide insights and encouragement for those who are spiritually seeking when they come to us for guidance, rather than being dismissive or judgmental of their unique and individual paths. We must be more like spiritual directors who are willing to lead these seekers into the desert of self-discovery, where God can be experienced and known through prayer, contemplation, meditation, and through the indwelling, transformative presence of the Holy Spirit.

In the words of the great Thomas Merton, “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”[7]

  1. Linda A. Mercadante, “Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 166.
  2. Mercadante, Belief Without Borders, 166.
  3. Kevin M. Watson, Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 44.
  4. Mercadante, Belief Without Borders, 169.
  5. Valentine Zander, St Seraphim of Sarov, (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), xiv.
  6. Zander, St Seraphim, 85
  7. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1961), 36.

Image Source: Jim Forest

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