Spirituality, churched and unchurched

by Tom Tredway

Are the ancient Nordic pagans returning? American Christians with a Scandinavian heritage are sometimes troubled by reports about the growing secularization of the northern lands themselves. Whether these Yankees are consoled or upset by the fact that their own society is trending in the same direction isn’t clear. But that this secularization is happening is undeniable. So American heirs of Swedish Pietism must think about the situation in two lands they care about, Sweden and America.

The Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of Americans who indicate they are “Christian” has gone from 77 percent to 65 percent in the last decade, and those who have no religious affiliation has risen from 17 to 26 percent. A full 40 percent of Millennials describe themselves as “Nones,” persons belonging to no church. Catholics have declined in the second decade of the century from 23 to 20 percent of the population, and Protestants have declined from 51 to 43 percent.

In the years I taught and worked at Augustana College we discovered the same steady decline in religious affiliation in our student body. Each year a slightly lower number of students checked one of the boxes indicating membership in a specific denomination (e.g. Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic) and a few more marked the “None” box. I am told that this trend continues. Currently nearly 16 percent of the Augustana freshman class indicate they have no religious affiliation, and another 23 percent do not answer the question about religious preference on the admissions form at all.

What my experience in the college world in particular and in American society in general says to me is that the matter is more complicated than might first appear. What is taking place is not simply a growing irreligiosity or secularization of the culture and of the individuals within it. The decline in church membership is not necessarily the same thing as a decline in religious or spiritual concern.

At the college, the chaplains and the faculty spoke often of the growth of a group of students who, while they did not identify with a specific denomination or church, were interested in religious or theological questions. They would often deny being religious in a conventional or churchly sense but maintained that they were “spiritual.” Wherever it appears, of course, such spirituality is the quality of finding a meaning in life and nature that is beyond the material or physical. It may exist within or beyond the Church.

In a New Yorker article on G.K. Chesterton, the essayist Adam Gopnick remarks that his subject, the British intellectual who in 1922 converted to Roman Catholicism, believed that behind the world of events and appearances there existed a Master. He, like the puppeteers who produced the shows Chesterton had so enjoyed as a boy, controlled and animated all things. For Chesterton the Church was the agency in human life which put one in touch with the One producing and controlling the world of events and appearances.

Gopnick remarks that on the other hand there are many who think that the world they see and know is the only one there is. He speaks of this view of things as “rationalism” and at another time as “fatuous materialist progressivism.” It’s the worldview that was dominant at the time of Chesterton’s early manhood and is still the intellectual position of many in our society.

But between this materialist rationalism and the religious position of Chesterton, Gopnick finds a third alternative, one that sees life, is amazed at its wonder, and feels that a power or spirit lies behind what we see with our senses. People who hold this third view of things are not so certain that any human agency or institution speaks exclusively and with certainty for that power. That alternative, I think, includes the folk who live within the spirituality I am writing about here. Like some philosophers, ancient and modern, they find at the core of every human being a soul that responds to this spirit or power; we are more than biological machines.

It is the distinction between being spiritual in a manner rooted in the Church and being spiritual apart from any church that I am calling “unchurched spirituality.” I recognize the presence of spirituality in the churches; it’s where you’d expect to find it. But there is spirituality outside them as well, and it is found in souls who may or may not ever attend worship services. By this I mean people who do not belong to a congregation or denomination, but who nevertheless seek a meaning in life beyond its material or biological reality. Usually they do not associate with any traditional religious organizations and feel free of the need to conform to their teachings.

Of course, at our Lutheran-related college (and maybe in the wider society) the claim to be spiritual though not religiously affiliated is sometimes greeted with polite interest accompanied by considerable doubt as to its validity. For many folk, perhaps Lutherans in particular, spirituality is by definition a church-related phenomena. In this view when it is not anchored in a creed-defined community, spirituality turns into a balloon floating off into uncharted vaporous realms. For this traditional Lutheranism (as for Roman Catholicism) spirituality should be tied to a faith community that has come down the ages from its origins in the lives of Christ and his disciples.

But for the college chaplains and many others, myself included, the inclination to see oneself as spiritual though perhaps not traditionally religious was to be taken seriously. Over the years, both at the college and in the wider society, I have spoken often with people who see themselves as spiritual in this way, and a sort of general profile of their sense of themselves and of their inner lives has emerged for me.

These folk do not resent or dislike the organized Church. Many, as a close friend says of her own Catholic upbringing, are “grateful for the Church I’m unchurched from.” But now such persons do not feel obliged to that Church, whichever one it may be. Nor do they see themselves as much strengthened spiritually by it. They are apt to value some of the Church’s ministries, especially its social outreach programs, but not to find much of personal inner importance to them in its meetings and other activities. Thus the noted British church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch calls himself “a friend of Christianity” rather than a member of one of its churches.

Often such folk come away from worship services reflective but not drawn in by the liturgies and traditional formulae of devotion and piety. “It doesn’t match my own ideas and experience of God,” a student once told me. These people are sometimes dismayed at one or another denomination’s position on gay marriage or some other social issue. One friend reminded me that individuals who are fighting certain of life’s tougher battles do find deep spiritual resources in non-church organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous. But even then, the spiritual quest is often seen as a very personal and to some degree a solitary one. “Nobody else can walk it for you,” another student said of that quest, quoting the Black American spiritual.

These spiritual but unchurched people may be fellow travelers as regards orthodoxy. But often they do not feel that the doctrines of historic Christianity express their own sense of the divine. They are not likely to hold a “high” Christology or view of the divinity of Jesus. More likely they regard him as one of the important historical figures whose relationship to God belongs with those of other great religious figures who have influenced mankind. “He was a great prophet,” an unchurched but spiritual neighbor told me, “and so was Mohammed.”

Sometimes they find the heart of the inner life to lie in one or another aspect of human thought, feeling, or experience. Quite often that is human love, which for many spiritual but not religious people lies at the center of their own lives. Ties to family members and to friends are commonly one of the qualities of their spirituality. Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish poet and 2011 Nobel laureate, is often regarded as one of the important contemporary exemplars of Swedish spirituality. In his poem “Madrigal” he says, “finns någonstans i våra liv en stor ouppklarad kärlek” (“There lies somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love”).

And, speaking of Sweden, I’ll adduce the work of another Swede, this one the academic David Thurfjell, whose 2015 book, Det gudlösa folket (The Godless People), explores the rise of so many spiritual but not churchly people in Sweden. In spite of a strident sound in English translation of the word “godless” in its title, the book does not simply regard Sweden as a nation of secularists.

For Thurfjell it would be a mistake to ignore the reality of many Swedes who, while their national Church seldom draws them into its programs and services, have a deep sense that a divine nature lies in all life. In a land that since the Second World War has reached such a high level of material well-being, Thurfjell finds a search for the spiritual that is not always met by the churches and that is generally carried on privately.

He notes the same qualities in their unchurched spirituality among his countrymen that I have been discussing here, including a disinclination to identify with the Church, its doctrines and services. Often this Swedish unchurched spirituality is marked by a love of nature: wind and sun, tall pines, and squawking geese. There is a sense of how deeply humanity is tied to, indeed, is truly a part of, the natural world.

In the same vein, many Americans’ unchurched spirituality connects with some of the religious ideas and practices of Native Americans. The academic biologist Robin Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes about helping her university students find their creaturely kinship with the plants they study, leading these students to understand that these plants are not simply objects to be taken apart, analyzed, and used for human benefit.

Often such spirituality sees the Judeo-Christian sense that humanity is above and superior to the natural world to be a cause of the exploitation of nature that is in part responsible for the environmental and climate crisis humanity now faces. To treat animals and plants as fellow creatures rather than objects to be used would be to adjust that Judeo-Christian sense of nature in a way that might mitigate some of our environmental difficulties.

In any case, the unchurched spirituality I am writing about often includes a deep sense of oneness with the natural world that it finds wanting in most of traditional Christianity. St. Francis is understood as one of the happy exceptions to the mainstream. Whether it is he or Native Americans who help us to see it, understanding ourselves as brothers and sisters of our fellow creatures rather than their masters leads to a deeper and more joyful life for many people, inside or outside of the Church.

Many of my spiritually inclined friends are also interested in some of the great ideas that have arisen in the past century from the work of physicist-cosmologists who posit a universe that began with a Big Bang (when, as one of my Augustana friends in physics said wryly, “Nothing exploded into Something”). Other questions such as the nature and origin of consciousness or the influence of an observer on the thing being observed also animate some of this spiritually.

Scientific questions do have religious implications; cosmological ideas are inevitably theological as well. By this I mean that just as in the time of St. Augustine or that of Sir Isaac Newton, what we think about the physical universe will influence our ideas of God and of creation. In this sort of spirituality the supposed antinomy between science and religion, which

troubled the conservative Christianity in which I grew up, does not exist.

Finally, I know that the relationship between spirituality and church membership is a tricky, maybe even touchy, subject. One of my friends, a Pietist become Lutheran, says that each Sunday when the congregation together stand to profess their faith by reciting in unison the Nicene Creed, he feels the power of collective spirituality. I have another friend who tells me he can’t imagine giving up his personal religious quest in the interests of professing collective creedal Christianity. I’m glad I know both of these guys.

St. Cyprian of Carthage insisted in the third Christian century: extra ecclesiam salus non est (outside the Church there is no salvation). He meant the Catholic Church, of course, and the Church of Rome has maintained this for two millennia. But one might expand the phrase to mean that it is the Gospel that is proclaimed by the Church (whether Roman or Evangelical) that is the only way to salvation.

That’s how the Church I was confirmed in understood matters. But in working and living I have met people who do not share that view, souls who seek in their own lives to find for themselves the meaning of the great love that lies behind all creation and deep within human existence. Their quest is also worth listening to and valuing, whether they speak of it in Swedish or in English.