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Essays On Non-Denominational Religion

There are many  definitions for this term. Many people regard "Christianity" and their own denomination's name to be synonyms. That is, their faith group is viewed as teaching the only truly legitimate Christian faith. Their group, alone, has the "fullness of truth" while all other groups are in error. In contrast, others view "Christianity" as including the full range of faith groups from the most conservative fundamentalist to the most progressive Christian denomination.

One of the problems with Christianity, and with all other world religions, is that they are fragmented. For example, Christianity includes tens of thousands of individual denominations and faith groups. 2 Estimates range from 20,000 to over 30,000. A main reason for this is that the prime source of Christian beliefs, passages in the Bible, seem to be ambiguous. Sincere, thoughtful, intelligent believers have interpreted its passages very differently. A good example of this ambiguity are the meanings assigned to the six "clobber passages" in the Bible. These are passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) that are often interpreted as discussing same-gender sexual behavior. Some Christians view these passages as condemning all such behavior, while other interpret the same passages as accepting it on a par with opposite-sex sexual behavior.

On this web site, we use the following definition:
"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, sincerely, thoughtfully, and seriously believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ's) teachings as they interpret them to be."
This generates a lot of angry Emails from some visitors to this site who are insistent on excluding the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon church), and/or many other denominations as sub-Christian, quasi-Christian, non-Christian, anti-Christian, or Pagan.

“The book is kind of for the person who in some ways is half in and half out of religion,” Ms. Daniel said in a recent interview. “They know it might be meaningful, but they don’t know how to make a case for it, or tell a story about the religious life that does not sound obnoxious or judgmental.”

Ms. Daniel, by contrast, makes the case forcefully, seemingly unworried about those she might offend.

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

But Linda A. Mercadante, who teaches at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio contests that description of the spiritual but not religious. In “Beliefs Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious” (Oxford), published in March, she makes the case that spiritual people can be quite deep theologically.

An ordained Presbyterian minister whose father was Catholic and whose mother was Jewish, Dr. Mercadante went through a spiritual but not religious period of her own — although she now attends a Mennonite church. For her project, she interviewed 85 S.B.N.R.s, then used computer programs to help analyze transcripts of those interviews. She found that these spiritual people also thought about death, the afterlife and other profound subjects.

For example, “they reject heaven and hell, but they do believe in an afterlife,” Dr. Mercadante said recently. “In some ways, they would fit O.K. in a progressive Christian context.” Because they dislike institutions, the spiritual but not religious also recoil from the deities such institutions are built around. “They may like Jesus, he might be their guru, he might be one of their many bodhisattvas, but Jesus as God is not on their radar screen,” Dr. Mercadante said.

When Courtney Bender, now teaching at Columbia, went looking for spiritual but not religious people in Cambridge, Mass., where she was then living, she found them not on solitary nature walks but in all sorts of groups — which complicates the stereotype of them as anti-institutional loners. She described her findings in “The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination” (Chicago, 2010).

They “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes,” Dr. Bender said in an interview. And her finding that spirituality “is not sui generis,” but rather learned in communities that persist over time, actually runs contrary to spiritual people’s conceptions of themselves, she said. “There is something in the theology of spiritual groups that actually refocuses their practitioners from thinking about how they fit into a long continuous spirituality.”

In other words, their self-image “makes them think, ‘I don’t need history, I don’t need the past,’ ” Dr. Bender said, adding that they think, “I am not religious, which is about the past — I am spiritual, about the present.”

Yet people who call themselves spiritual are actually embedded in communal practices, albeit not churches or religious denominations. Dr. Bender found them in “alternative and complementary medicine,” for example. “So people would encounter this stuff in the shiatsu massage clinic, or going to an acupuncturist,” she said.

“Another one that is very important is the arts,” she added. “People involved in everything from painting and dance” would also end up discussing their conception of the divine.

So is spirituality solitary or communal? Is it theologically engaged or just focused on “nature” and “gratitude,” as Ms. Daniel worries? To judge from “A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World” (Gotham, 2014), by Thomas Moore, whose “Care of the Soul” is one of the best-selling self-help books ever, spirituality can be whatever one makes it. In his guide to developing a custom spirituality, he encourages people to draw on religion, antireligion — whatever works for them.

“Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own,” Dr. Moore writes. “It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study and the practice of therapy — to me a sacred activity.”

At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious” isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

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