Enough about the Nones. What about the Nowheres?

the-path-to-spiritualityThe phone rang this week and it was my former pastor, an old mentor from my days as an evangelical fundamentalist. We hadn’t talked in quite a while– so long, in fact, that I hadn’t told him of the radical ways in which my spiritual perspectives have changed over the years. I explained that I am on track to graduate from seminary in May, but with no clear path to ordination. He asked compassionately and curiously, “So where do you think you fit in?” I laughed heartily. “That seems to be the question of the hour. Maybe Unitarian Universalism… Maybe a Unity church.  If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” And then we hung up.

Since then, I’ve found myself wondering what it means to be spiritual when avenues for expression or community are limited. We live in a culture that has primarily known religion and spirituality to be organized, normalized and centralized. The concept of religious worship is closely attached to some means of creating community, but the notion of “community” is a limited one, even in our era of beer-and-bar-based Bible studies.

However, the nontraditional path I’m on– the one that finds creeds inconvenient, liturgies restrictive, faith formulas boring and church programs far too formulaic– seems to require another consideration. I feel compelled, or dare I say “called,” to wonder what spirituality means when options to “gather” seem nonexistent.

What happens to spiritual or even religious people when the church formula stops working? What happens when the question is, “Where do you fit in?” and the answer is…

“Nowhere.”

Now, for the record, I am not yet convinced that I’m a “Nowhere”. I believe there could be a space for me somewhere, with some group of people, in some location– even on a relatively regular basis. Yes, I can still imagine myself identifying with some gathering of like-minded individuals, and I can conceive of myself committing to meet with that group. Maybe that place is a church or a bar or a living room. Maybe that place is my own tiny apartment, dialing in to a telephone conference call. Maybe not. I don’t know.

But this is not the case for others, and the lack of affirmation for their very real religious experiences– regardless of how “isolated” and “individualistic” those experiences may seem– is also quite real. All throughout seminary, I’ve heard it taught ad nauseam that “true religious experience” occurs in community, as if those who choose to go it alone are somehow illegitimate practitioners. But now, I wonder: What is community? How broad is that definition? Can we offer affirmation for the religious experiences of those who experience God everywhere while intentionally gathering nowhere?

Are we talking about the Nones and forgetting the Nowheres? And if so, how do we change our language about their experiences?

13 responses to “Enough about the Nones. What about the Nowheres?

  1. I am one of those “nowheres”. I’ve been out of organized religion for almost 20 yrs now after being immersed in it for 20. The reality is that my love for God and my love for people has grown exponentially every year that I stay away from religion and the obligation-based organization of it. My “community” is my neighborhood, my grocery stores, my activities places, and my family. Many of the people I am running into are finding that being in a specific group of people is too confining when there is a whole world out there looking for the love of God to fill their lives. I think finding a “place” is very overrated and gatherings are claustrophobic. Just so you know, there are many of us running around….you can see us in every line you wait in. Just say hi and you find life…

  2. I walked away from an Anglican church more than 40 years ago and subsequently spent over 20 years in a Sabbath-keeping ‘cult’ until finding what was then in 2003 often referred to as the ‘out of church Christians’. I have never had any formal theological training.
    I rejected the teaching of the trinity I received 68 years ago when I was 13. It’s been an interesting journey. I have recently finished updating my blog.

  3. Crystal, I do hope you’ll consider the UU church! I’ve been following you for about a year, and everything you say is intelligent, considered, and spiritually generous. Moreover, the UU church is friendly to female ministers. I met three females trained in theology at a conference recently, and the closest they could get to a pulpit was religious education. I directed them to your blog. Hope you don’t become a “nowhere.” You have too much to offer.

    • Hi, Joanne. I have thought quite a bit about becoming an official member of a UU church. My reservations in the past were mostly related to my affinity for Jesus. I wanted to be part of a congregation that was embracing a progressive Christian message. I found one here in DC, but had a bit of trouble feeling totally connected to the community. I really am in a weird in-between space, but as you mentioned… I also know that I am not completely one of the “nowheres”… It’s really hard. I need to do some more discernment. Thanks for this helpful comment and the encouragement.

      • I recently heard a talk by Michael Dowd, a Christian evolution enthusiast. He talked about liberals of all faiths having essentially the same reaction to the fundamentalists/fanatics of their “home” faith. His most recent book is “Thank God for Evolution. He calls this open receptivity to the evidence of science in the context of religious practice, “Religion 2.0.” A former fundamentalist, married to an atheistic scientist, he has the fervor of a Baptist preacher, asking his audience to believe that caring for the environment of the world is the most important theological dictate of our time. You’d probably find him a sympathetic resource.
        I gave them (him and his wife) a copy of my book. If you ever have a chance to look at it, I would be very grateful for an Amazon review. Thanks!

  4. Good post Crystal. There are many of us out here who defy ‘taxonomy’ of any stripe and quite frankly don’t have any sort of ‘classification’. For example, I am skating on thin ice at one blog comprised of Christians who believe in TE (theistic evolution) for making the snarky quip: …does this mean I can’t be a progressive Christian without accepting TE into my heart?…
    Ironically, and at the same blog, there are those TEs who bristle when I lay out my views on why I reject the Doctrine of Original Sin and its corollary of Penal Substitution. As they say in present day parlance, go figure.

  5. Hi Crystal… Good to get an update again. I “relate to” the being “nowhere”, tho in my circumstances at the time, it didn’t bother me much. After leaving Evangelical faith, I was there for a few years, then plugged in lightly with Religious Science (now “Centers for Spiritual Living”, close to Unity). Finally, a few years ago I began re-looking at the most progressive of Protestant churches and a year ago landed in perhaps the most progressive of United Church of Christ churches (overall pretty progressive). But I’m in a populous area and still, it is almost 20 miles away. If you haven’t, you might want to look a bit more into the UCC, though it differs a fair amount regionally and the most progressive are probably in parts of Calif. or maybe the Northeast. (Maybe some of the Northwest also — Ptld. or Seattle.)

  6. To add to my own comment of 4:03 PM, I agree that “Thank God for Evolution” is a great approach and an excellent book. I don’t know if Dowd embraces Process theology by that name (he may… can’t recall), but only the Process system (or panentheism) of any major theological paradigm allows for a realistic kind of “theistic evolution”. However, “TE” is a misnomer for Process, technically, as it is a panENtheist system as opposed to either a pantheist or theist one… kind of tricky linguistically, but makes great sense in the “real world” when one explores it (as I think you have, but other readers may not have).

    Also, Integral Theory is a similar Process-oriented model which has spawned “Integral Christianity”. I highly recommend that book by 45+ year pastor (of ONE church), Paul Smith, and have reviewed it on my blog a few months ago. Maybe you can help plant an Integral church… If it’s anywhere near me, I’ll come, for sure!

  7. I am currently reading “Making Haste from Babylon” about the Pilgrims and the religious environment in England and Europe at the time of their migration. So your mentioning that “I’ve heard it taught ad nauseam that “true religious experience” occurs in community,…” reminded me of the strict dogmas and policies of the Separatists of that time. I distrust any group which wants to dictate how, when, and how often I must worship, on penalty of judicial judgment. I am a Buddhist, and there are those Buddhists who claim that unless you are part of a Sangra, you are not a true Buddhist. So to both groups I say, on what authority do you make these claims? Who died and left you God-in-Charge?

    You have your own path, Crystal. Walk it with confidence. I know you will either eventually find your true community, or you will create your own.

    Love your blog.

    • Thank you for this! Someone else on Facebook left the same comment when I published this blog post. I had never heard anything like prior to two weeks ago, but I couldn’t agree more. Awesome!

  8. Thank you so much for your honesty. I thought I was one of the few Christians who didn’t believe in the evil teaching of hell.

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