Great people ask great questions. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther’s great question was: How can I find a gracious God? Fifty years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great question was: Who is Christ for us today?
I’m wondering if there is a great question that faces people in our time today. We were discussing this in text study a few weeks ago, and one of my friends said that he thought the great question of today is how to relate to, and what to do with, people who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”
You’ve heard that expression before. You may have used it yourself. These are people who, by and large, want to stay away from religion, but want to hang on to spirituality.
This has become quite a popular position, and it’s not too hard to figure out why. Religion is associated with arguments and contention. Religion is associated with arguing about the meaning of words. Religion is associated with judgment and close-mindedness. Given how people view religion, it’s not surprising that some people would move away from it.
There are quite a few of them. About 30% of people now describe themselves in this way. If “spiritual, but not religious” people were an actual denomination, they would be at least the second largest denomination in the United States, and quite possibly the largest.
Personally speaking, I don’t “spiritual, but not religious” people as the problem. In fact, I see them as potential allies, and for two reasons. First, they’re already telling us that they are open to the spiritual life. There is a spiritual world, and “spiritual, but not religious” people understand this. That’s all to the good.
Secondly, they’re “spiritual, but not religious.” They don’t like the religious part. They don’t like the bloated hierarchy. They don’t like fundamentalism. They don’t like arguing over words which hardly anybody understands anyway. In my view, that’s not a minus. That’s a plus. Lots of people in the church would agree with them on those things.
I don’t think that dealing with “spiritual, but not religious” people is the main question of our time. I think the main question of our time is much more basic. The question that confronts us today is the question of atheism. The question that confronts us today is: “Does God exist, or not?”
It used to be that a fairly small number of people were atheists, maybe about 5%. That number stuck at 5% in survey after survey, over many decades. But then, in the space of about ten years or so, that 5% jumped to 15%--and 25% among young people.
Several recent books have been written about atheism. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote one titled God is not Great. Richard Dawkins wrote one, Sam Harris wrote another.
To be honest, I haven’t read any of these books, but I know the general arguments. One of these arguments is that we no longer need God to explain the world. We can pretty much explain what goes on in the universe without talking about God.
In my humble opinion, we should stop being in denial and freely grant that this is true. In fact, my seminary advisor used to say the same thing when he would ask, “How do we Christians operate in a world that can pretty much be explained without reference to God?”
Physics can explain the motion of planets. Photosynthesis can explain the growth of plants. Biology can explain cell division and how living creatures come into the world.
In the past, if we didn’t know how something worked exactly, we used “God” to explain it. What is thunder? God is angry. What is rain? God is crying. Why does the volcano blow its top? Because the people who lived right below it were sinners. Why don’t the crops grow? Because God is mad at farmers.
We’ve done that over and over. If we didn’t know something, that’s where we’d bring in God. Wherever there was a gap in what we knew, God was used to explain it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the “god of the gaps,” and he thought that speaking of God in that way was going to be a loser in the long run. When you use God to explain what you don’t know, you actually hurt the cause of God.
Here’s why: As we learn more and more, the “gap” that needs to be explained keeps getting smaller and smaller, which means that our concept of God keeps getting smaller and smaller. As the “gap” between what we know and what we don’t know shrinks, God also shrinks.
I can understand the motivation. I can understand that some religious people feel that science is intruding on their territory and they want to keep God in the picture.
One big problem, though, is that if we put traditional religion up against science, we will lose that argument. Put traditional religion against science, and science will win. If you’re wondering about that, ask yourself this question: If you get sick, do you go to a doctor or a priest?
Science versus religion is not, however, the only way to frame the question. Why not ask this question instead: Is this all there is? Is this world that we can see all there is to reality?
Most people would say “no”. Religious people would say “no”, and so would “spiritual, but not religious people.” We share at least that much in common.
We, and they, believe there’s more--more than we know, more than we can see. We believe this because, at some level, in some way, we’ve had some experience of Spirit. We’ve all had some experience of the spiritual world.
This is why some people are “spiritual, but not religious.” They’re not against God. In fact, they’re quite open to God. This is why they should be regarded as allies and not enemies.
What they won’t buy is fundamentalist religion that keeps saying things about God that no longer make sense. They’re open to the spiritual, but that kind of religion leaves them cold, and it should leave them cold.
Those atheist books aren’t very good, incidentally. They stack science up against fundamentalism. Do that, and science will win every time. Fortunately, there are other options--like us, for example.
We believe that God created the entire universe. God is not filling in some “gap” somewhere. God is in, with, through, over, under, beside, before, above, and below everything that is. St. Paul said that, in God, “we live and move and have our being.”
We don’t reject science when we say this. Science was created by God! We simply say that God is, God created the universe, and God sustains the universe every second of every day. Physics and photosynthesis and biology are some of the tools God uses to do it.
Proverbs 8 talks about one who is a “master workman” who works beside God to create the universe. Pastor George Murphy, a scientist and a graduate of Wartburg Seminary, says that this “master workman” is science. Science is the “master workman” that God used to create the world.
Which means that science is the servant of God. God is not the servant of science. That’s the crucial mistake that traditional religion makes. They keep trying to fit God into a scientific framework. They keep trying to fit God into that “gap” between what we know from science and what we don’t know.
They think they’re defending God, but what they’re really doing is accepting a scientific worldview right up to the point where science doesn’t have the answer, then they shift to talking about God. That is making God the servant of science.
We don’t look at it that way. In our view, science is the servant of God. God is not reduced to some “gap.” God creates, rules, reigns over, cares for, and guides and directs everything that happens in the entire universe.
All of that, however, is still not the main reason we trust in God. We’re Christians, and the main reason we trust in God is because Jesus trusted in God. “Trust in God,” he said, and “trust also in me.”
Because we trust in Jesus, we also trust in God. Trusting in God, we do see God’s handiwork in nature. Sure, you can explain it all without God. But trusting in God, as Jesus did, we can learn some things about God and about the spiritual life by looking at how God designed the world.
When we look closely at nature, we can see that everything is woven together, connected in some way. This is how God made the world, with relationships and and connections. We look at the world and see sustenance and nourishment, and learn that God cares about the world and everything in it.
Yes, we see change and decay as well. We see loss and grief, heartache and fear. But we also see hope and resurrection, written right in nature itself. As the Psalmist put it, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.”
The second reading says, “I saw no temple in the city.” In other words, when the holy city Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God, it won’t have a temple, which means it won’t have a religion. Don’t tell anybody, but the “spiritual, but not religious people” have a point!
I’ll tell you what though: The atheists are going to be surprised. “For its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” We won’t have religion, because the Lord God himself will be that temple. So yes, the atheists are going to be surprised. I do think think, however, that they’ll find it a pleasant surprise.