© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 13, 2011

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

I remember the first time I ever attempted to talk about the idea of being Spiritual but not Religious. It was the late 1990s and I was a religion major at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. I was sitting in the office of one of my favorite professors. He was a 30-something devout Quaker who specialized in ancient Middle Eastern religion and Islam. He had a long, tangled and unruly-looking Mennonite beard, thick professorial glasses, and he was almost always smiling. He was asking me about my faith background, and I told him that although I was brought up in a Unitarian church and really enjoyed the silence of a Quaker meeting, I myself was spiritual but not religious.

After a short silence that felt suddenly heavier, he replied in a jarringly angry tone, "So I guess you want all of the good stuff and none of the hard stuff."

I sat there, experiencing a rare emotion: speechlessness.

He continued, as if sensing that I was incapable of a response, "At least that is what I normally find when someone makes such a claim. They find the meeting time too difficult to commit to or perhaps inconvenient to their lifestyle. They can't find a church that fits them perfectly, or if they do, the people there annoy them, or perhaps the minister is bad. It's about accountability really, and too many in your generation just aren't willing to commit."

I left his office shortly thereafter, completely disoriented. Why had he been so angry, and why had I been so unable to offer even the simplest response? And most importantly, what did I mean when I said that I was spiritual but not religious?

It was a question that I would not answer for myself until many years later, after much thought and many wrong turns. And although I do agree with most of my professor's critiques of how at least I if not my generation feel about organized religion, in the end, I don't think that has anything to do with what I mean when I say that I am spiritual but not religious. So, what do I mean?

I mean that I have never heard another person, song, poem, book or spiritual system that perfectly encapsulated the full truth I feel internally. I have found many signs posts, conversation partners, glimpses of answers, important wrong turns and moments of clarity from these sources, but none ever perfectly matched up with the full truth that I have known since birth, but that is beyond my ability to communicate, because it is that infinite not-me. So when I say I am spiritual but not religious I mean that I am someone who is deeply interested in all the issues regarding and surrounding the religious theme, but that I do not subscribe to any one particular idea or brand of religion. I cannot say that I am a Catholic or a Buddhist, and it is only in the last few years that I have returned to the label I grew up with: Unitarian Universalist, and only because I understand it to be at its core a term that embraces just the kind of ambiguity and fluidity that I am talking about. I will say more about that later.

I am far from alone in needing to take a personal quest outside of the safe confines of a known religious brand to be able to discover an authentic relationship with my understanding of the mystery of this world. Many of us, of all ages, genders and paths, have heard what these traditional sources have to offer and have found them lacking, incomplete. Instead of giving up on the quest, we decided to look for answers in other spaces; happy to find them wherever and whenever they should appear. For me, this process actually began in earnest when I stopped looking externally and just shut up for a little while.

You see, I had not just been brown nosing when I told my Quaker religion prof that I loved the silence of his traditional meetings. When I was a teenager I had developed a huge crush on a girl who ended up being a Quaker, so I followed her to a Quaker meeting, which are silent unless someone feels moved by the spirit to speak. Wouldn't you know it, in the silence of those meetings I was finally reintroduced to that still silent voice within that I had been looking for since I first got off track by being told to look for God on the outside. Now to be sure, this was far from the old white man with a flowing beard. It was not a burning bush or a multi-armed and blue skinned deity, but a conversation partner living deep within my own inner world that was most definitely not me and, in fact, was much more than limited little me.

As I continued to grow up I realized that if I was ever going to learn anything about this thing I felt in my body and was growing ever more certain was wrongly titled God, then I was going to have to do it myself.

For most of our collected religious heritage we have equated faith directly with the religious institution that we were aligned with. That is, you knew you were a Catholic, or Methodist or Jew or Baha'i because the big letters on the side of the building you met in told you so. But it was the best-kept dirty secret in religion that few adherents' beliefs actually lined up perfectly with that of the tradition they followed. But in a culture that relied on these institutions to be the cornerstone of society, one didn't worry too much about these details.

We now live in a time when the relevancy and societal power of religious institutions has eroded to the point where they no longer have the same, if any, use within the way society organizes itself. This has freed up people to attempt a more authentic process of relating to the issue of higher power. This process that Kathy invited you into earlier today - of cobbling together a spiritual identity through the combination of pieces of truth plucked from the entirety of human thought on the subject - is an exercise that is familiar to millions, literally.

Robert C. Fuller wrote the first book directly on the subject of the Spiritual but not Religious movement, and he claims that currently over 20% of Americans, or almost half of those not currently affiliated with a church, claim the label of spiritual but not religious. This is not a small number. If we are a country of 300 million, this means that there are 60 million spiritual but not religious people walking amongst us. That is a staggering number of people. And since these 60 million or so people are still interested in religion, but never found a home suited to their liking, they have arrived at a startling conclusion:

And that is that one's faith journey is theirs and theirs alone. It is not only not someone else's, but it is not even like anyone else's, which is separate and real and just as important, but most definitely something unique. We may agree on some things, and disagree on others. Heck, we might even agree or disagree on a whole lot of things, but at the end of the day, and even at the beginning of it, no one person's spiritual system is exactly like anyone else's. This simple and obvious fact is something that very few traditional organized religious brands actually recognize or support.

But here is the thing: we Unitarian Universalists are many things, but dogmatic and rigid are not on that list. I think that what we are, and who we are, and especially where we came from could be a clue to the next part of the spiritual but not religious story.

You see, there are many ways to tell the story of our Unitarian and Universalist heritage. The words Unitarian and Universalist both have roots in theological concepts. Thus it is tempting to trace our tradition's roots by tracing the history of those concepts. And there is some truth to that reading. But to tell our story with theology at its core misses the true power of what happened once the first generation of American Unitarian Ministers gave way to the next.

The narrative that I prefer to use to shape the story of our liberal religious heritage is that of exploration, because the first generation of our movement gave way to people interested not in critiquing their theology, but rather in using the same free pulpit to go off in yet another unexplored theological direction. These early Unitarians and Universalists quickly gave way to transcendentalists, who gave way to humanists and atheists and process theologians and so on. We have long been the home for people who have no other home because their ideas are too new and different. That is who we are at our core. Those Ministers were all called heretics, but I would call them theological adventurers, who were brave enough to blaze spiritual trails where there were none already. That is our heritage, to go boldly where none has theologically gone before.

I think this is what we still need to be communicating today. For all of those on a spiritual journey - whatever map they are using, whatever destination is their goal - we are a safe place for the adventure. For all of these 60 million people who have been abandoned by the traditional structures and systems of support, we can be that beacon shining in the night, letting them know that they are not alone, and that they are safe, and that their unique quest is just as real and valuable as any other. It is our job to continue to widen the circle of inclusion and acceptance until all feel welcomed, however they choose to cobble together their spiritual identity. May we find ways to create opportunities for people to live these values!

May it be so. Ashe.

Back to Top