Inter-religious Dialogue with (Non?)Religious Others

A few weeks ago I planned and celebrated a wedding ceremony for a young Gen X couple, Neil and Stephanie. The couple and the other Gen Xers, Millenials and few Boomers who attended would certainly self-identify as ‘un-churched,’ ‘secular,’ ‘de-converted’ or any of the other labels associated with persons not affiliated with a religious tradition or denomination. However, as we prepared for the wedding, Neil and Stephanie were clear about what they wanted in a ceremony: “We definitely don’t want it to be ‘Religious’…but we do want it to be kind of ‘religious.’”[1] They were apologetic for the apparent paradox in their rejection and desire for the meaning associated with this word; but they sincerely asked me, “Do you know what we mean?”

Many of us have heard similar “spiritual but not Religious” distinctions among young adults for years.[2] However, I suggest the slight resistance to that common duality, demonstrated by Neil and Stephanie’s word choice, may represent a meaningful linguistic move that educators, and other religionists, should be attentive to. Some young adults who reject institutional religious membership, practice and belief continue to maintain beliefs and behaviors that could be legitimately described as ‘religious.’[3] Moreover, Linda Mercandante, after a series of interviews across the U.S. with ‘spiritual but not Religious’ persons (SBNRs), reports that younger generations of religious seekers are beginning to be critical of movements associated with the word, ‘spiritual.’[4] However, these SBNRs suspicious of the ‘spiritual’ vis-a-vis ‘religious’ duality continue to de-convert and disaffiliate. These findings prompt me to wonder if, for the sake of dialogue, our current usage of the word ‘religious’ is no longer adequate to incorporate the lived religion of a growing and significant group.

The importance of language in this discussion reminds me of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on how language actually works, not how we think it does. Words do not stand for things. Language is a collective relation in which we live and move. Therefore the meaning of a word comes from its use and lived reality. The boundaries that determine the meanings of words are not as sharp as we may want them to be. Rather than rigid definitions, what exists is a family resemblance between the varied uses and realities of the word.[5] What makes matters more interesting is that the meaning of words often almost completely changes over time due to cultural and historical forces that alter its use. The word ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ has had one such trajectory.

In short, it has evolved from a focus on a way of life to describing an institution, membership within that institution and an interior state associated with belief rather than practices. [6] It appears that while usage can change, the creativity of individuals and groups, often out of exclusion or injustice, renew older and deeper meanings of words.[7] When the truth of a word is no longer found in everyday life there will be natural linguistic and lived resistance to develop a new language game. Kieran Scott argues that calling the religious assumptions (maybe the very definition of the term!) of institutional religious authority into question may be the surest means to a living religious tradition later on.[8] Letting go of the centrality of taken-for-granted assumptions and handing over the power to predicate religious truth is essential for dialogue with religious and non-religious others. My work seeks a foundation for both a Religious and educational justification for real dialogue with disaffiliated yet religious young adults without the underlying assumption that Religious authority possesses the only access to the Divine-human relationship. If ‘revelation’ means a process of personal relations in which the self-communicating mystery reveals him/herself in everyday life, rather than a possession under one group’s control, the meaning of ‘religion’ may be opened to greater inclusiveness than the present category and forms of life allow.[9]

[1]The Capital Letter ‘Religion’ and uncapped ‘religion’ attempts to make their implied distinction visible between institutional forms of (R)eligion and alternative practices and beliefs of young adults that imply a (r)eligious, way of life. This visible distinction will be used throughout the paper.

[2] Many scholars have noted this language in GenX, but the distinction and common usage of the expression goes back to the Baby Boomer generation. See Linda Mercadante’s Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford Press, 2014)

[3] Linda Mercadante’s Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford Press, 2014) 230

[4] Linda Mercadante’s Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford Press, 2014) 87

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Trans by G.E.M Anscombe (Oxford, 1968) Part 1

[6] See Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘Religion, Religions Religious,’ in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[7] Gabriel Moran, Religious Education as a Second Language, (Birmingham, Alabama: Religious Education Press) 14

[8] Kieran Scott, “Youth Education as Problematizing Political Forms,” Religious Education, (2009), 207

[9] For more on the notion of revelation as present relations and self-communicating mystery, see Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World, (Trans) William Dych, (New York, Herder and Herder: 1968) and Hearers of the Word: Laying the Foundation for a Philosophy of Religion, (Trans) Josephn Donceel, (New York , Continuum:1994 ) and Gabriel Moran, ‘Revelation as Teaching-Learning,’ Religious Education, Vol 95 No. 3 (Summer 2000)

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One thought on “Inter-religious Dialogue with (Non?)Religious Others

  1. These were some very interesting thoughts you shared. I definitely agree with you about the power of language in mediating the sharing of human experience. Language is imperfect and the term “religious” as a way of describing a person who has some attachment with the transcendent may need to be further interrogated. The etymology of the word itself is rather complex yet telling. Traditionally understood to mean “to bind,” perhaps between a community of adherents or between a believer and the Divine, the word certainly doesn’t have the same meaning today. In the last 30 years (and perhaps even less), the “religious” person is looked as suspiciously. The term itself has certain connotations. If you are “religious” you are backwards, you can’t believe in science, you are prone to fanaticism, etc. I think two things need to happen. Either the term needs to be reclaimed and demystified or a better term (maybe the reason why “spiritual” has become a place-word for “religious”) needs to be utilized. I’m an advocate for which ever term provides meaning for the person using it.

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