The 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…
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?