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(THE CONVERSATION) For more than a decade, one of the greatest stories in American religion has been the rise of the “nones”, a general term for people who do not identify with a specific faith. People not affiliated with religion now make up just over a quarter of the US population.
While the Nones include agnostics and atheists, most people in this category retain a belief in God or a higher power. Many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “SBNR,” as researchers call them.
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Like a professor of theology at Unitary Universalist and multi-religious seminar, I meet many students who fit into the SBNR mould. They study to become chaplains, interreligious ministers and social activists. But they may be surprised how much they resemble some Protestants who lived five centuries ago – some of the so-called radical reformers who separated from Martin Luther’s Reformation.
Spiritual but not religious
Academics are concerned about the slippery definitions of “spiritual” and “religious”. What the average person tends to mean by “spiritual” is seeking or experiencing a connection to a greater reality, however they understand it. Meanwhile, “religious” often means belonging to a group with specific doctrines and rituals.
The spiritual but not religious are independent researchersmany of whom pray, meditate, practice yoga and other spiritual practices outside the confines of a particular tradition.
the theologian Linda Mercadante spent several years interviewing SBNRs. In his book “Belief without bordersshe identifies some common values. SBNRs tend to be individualistic, relying on their own experience and intuition as their guide. They reject claims that a religion contains ultimate and exclusive truth, but they also believe that religions possess wisdom and offer “many paths at the same peak.
The repudiation of “organized religion” as a bastion of dogmatism and moral hypocrisy is common among SBNRs. Often they explicitly reject what they understand to be central Christian beliefs. They don’t welcome a message that God loves them but will send them to hell for not accepting Jesus. But many continue to experiment with rituals and prayers that draw inspiration from established religions, including Christianity.
In 1528, Lutheran pastor Sebastien Frank decided he had had enough of organized religion. Deeply troubled by the moral failings of professing Christians, he resigned his pulpit.
The Protestant Reformation had recently divided Western European Christians into various factions, pitting Roman Catholics against Lutherans, Zwinglians – whose influence lives on in Reformed churches today – and anabaptists, which practiced adult baptism. They couldn’t all be right, so Franck concluded that they had to everything is wrong.
Frank declared that the true church was the invisible brotherhood of people who were instructed, not by the pope or the Bible, but by divine spark in. He became a leading figure in a form of radical Protestantism that scholars would later call the “Spiritualists” Where “spiritual reformers”. This diverse cast of characters downplayed or dismissed the trappings of religion, such as rituals and sacraments. What really counted was each person’s direct encounter with God.
Hans Deckwhich is sometimes considered the first Spiritualist, described this experience as the “inner word” speaking from within a person’s soul. “The Word of God is already with you before you seek it”, he wrote. Unlike typical Protestants, Denck and other spiritualists viewed the Bible as redundant. Its purpose was to confirm what the believer already knew from the bottom of his heart.
Because the Word within resided in all human beings, some spiritualists held that salvation was not limited to Christians.
“Consider Your Brothers” wrote Frank, “all…who fear God and do righteousness,” even those who have never heard of Christ. There was no need to send missionaries to other nations. They already had the Holy Spirit to teach and “baptize” them spiritually.
Partly because of persecution and partly because of their emphasis on the individual, Spiritualists rarely formed structured communities. Today, they are mostly forgotten outside of Church history lessons. But their influence shaped the foundation of quakerisma branch of Christianity which to this day seeks the direction of the interior light.
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What’s old is new again
The parallels between Protestant spiritualists and many contemporary SBNRs can be striking. Both are repelled by ethical deficiencies and the exclusivism of religious communities. Both emphasize the individual’s responsibility to follow their own spiritual quest. Both believe that authentic experience of God or ultimate reality is available to all, regardless of their specific beliefs. While Franck and Denck used the first printing press to spread their message, today a spiritual teacher can record a podcast or YouTube video.
But it is important to point out that the Spiritualists were still resolutely Christian. Unlike most SBNRs, they viewed Jesus Christ as the authoritative revealer of truth. Some thought he would soon return to Earth to his second coming and awaited with as much expectation as any end-times-focused fundamentalist does today. They may have seen other religions as valid avenues, but they did not turn to them as resources for spiritual practice.
Even so, spiritualists demonstrate that SBNR values and attitudes are far from a new development. They struggled with similar difficulties in religion and found similar answers. As the spiritually independent continue to seek wisdom and meaning, they can find good company in the radical reformers of a bygone era.
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