Synopsis of “Spiritual But Not Religious: Seeking Transcendence in a Secular Age” Discussion


Article by SPS Student Megan Wildhood.

On May 5, 2014, Dr. James K.A. Smith, along with three panelists from the Seattle area, hosted a discussion on the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”  Smith began by reframing what “secular” actually means and what it means to live in a secular age.  It does not mean that spirituality and secularity cannot co-exist.  “Many of us have intuitively absorbed a secularist account of the secular,” Smith suggests.  “This secular age of ours is one of increasing rational enlightenment and decreasing religious participation.  This story has not done a good job of anticipating the endurance of the spiritual.  There has probably been more discussion of religion in this decade than in the one prior to 9/11.”  But living in a secular age does not necessarily mean that unbelief is on the rise; it means that belief – all belief – is contestable.  It is no longer axiomatic, as it may have been in the 1500s, that everyone you meet will have the same beliefs as you.

Smith summarizes the thoughts of Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher: “The pushback to over-rationalizing everything is already in modernity; it’s not as unfamiliar as we might think.  There is a general sense in our culture that with the general eclipse of the transcendence, something may have been lost.”  What we feel is a lack or a loss, and this absence exerts pressure on inhabiting our secular age.  Smith says this is exemplified in British novelist Julian Barnes’ memoir, “Nothing To Be Frightened Of,” in which he writes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  Smith says, “[This] is almost everything we need to understand the modern phenomenon of ‘spiritual by not religious.’”

Smith furthers his discussion by using two distinct examples: entrepreneur and co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs; and novelist and professor, David Foster Wallace.  Smith refers to them and speaks of a “middle space,” which encompasses people who can’t be called “unbelievers” but do not identify themselves as “believers.”  Our secular story of the secular age does not make sense of this.  Take Jobs, for instance: He is rumored to have said at the end of his life, “I’d like to think that something survives after you die.  It’s strange you think that you accumulate all this knowledge and experience and maybe a bit of wisdom and then it’s just gone.  But maybe, it’s just like an on-off switch – click and you’re gone.”  He paused.  “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”  Then there’s Wallace, who had no investment in institutional religious identity, but was willing to create worlds where faith in the transcendent plays a role.  Smith asserts that our secular age remains haunted, and then suggests that is because there is actually a ghost.  Singer Kurt Cobain put it this way: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

The discussion panel was facilitated by Fuller Institute for Theology and NW Culture’s Dr. Matthew Koenig, who is also the editor of “Christ and Cascadia.”  The panel consisted of: Dr. Chelle Stearns, professor of theology at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology; Dr. David Leong, professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific Seminary; and Dr. James Wellman, professor of comparative religions at the University of Washington.  Dr. Koenig opened the panelists’ discussion by sharing some spiritual demographics of the Pacific Northwest.  According to Sociologist Patricia Killen, the single largest demographic in Pacific Northwest are those who identify as having deep spiritual experiences, but take no interest in making a commitment to a religious community.  The Northwest has always been this way, according to Killen.  Settlers came here looking for resources but also to escape traditional structures.  Killen describes the spirituality this way:  anti-institutional, egalitarian, emotive, episodic, individualistic, and highly elastic.  Its boundaries/identities are fluid, and spiritual commitments are fluid and open but can become quite self-absorbed.  Religion, if you want it, is up to you and you alone. 

Dr. Stearns looks at the kind of people who choose to study theology in this climate – there’s a hunger, but they don’t want formal education, like reading Augustine. But then, how do you go after Orthodox faith?  How do we look forward and yet look back with this felt experience?  Dr. Leong sees how this narrative of secularity encapsulates much of Seattle spirituality, and yet he wants “to be a bit contrarian and say that institutional and organized religion is alive and well in [his] community” of the Rainier Valley, which is 40 percent foreign-born, with 60 languages in one ZIP code.  Dr. Wellman wishes to commend Seattle and expresses gladness that Christendom (the partnering of church and state) is dead.   

The conversation had a fascinating weave, right through its conclusion, to applications of this persistent “secular by not religious” phenomenon for the church in the long run.  Smith suggests that this is a phenomenon we can build on rather than battle against.  He hypothesizes that the do-it-yourself, individualistic spirituality of an exhausted postmodernist is unsustainable.  When it either collapses or drives one to seek something more, the Church can be there, having created invitational communities that demonstrate incarnationally what it means to be human.  Protestantism had a role in creating this “spiritual but not religious” dynamic, when it unwittingly privatized and spiritualized spirituality.  The Church can be a people – not an atomistic collection of persons – of believers who, among other things, will “sing for you” on the days that faith is implausible for you.

The entire discussion may be viewed online.

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014