Nearly twenty five years ago before I packed up family and home to move from Oklahoma back to Georgia to enter seminary. I received many words of encouragement, advice, and warning. The only ones I really remember came from an elderly lady in our congregation. “Now don’t your go off to seminary and lose your religion,” she said. Little did I know that is exactly what would happen, and that I would be the better for it.
Sometimes the best way to tell a story is from the middle. More often than not this is the place where the beginning starts to make sense and the ending comes into focus. This place for me was a time when the faith I had known most of my life no longer spoke to my soul. Old ways and beliefs no longer held true as the ground shifted and what was once rock solid became sand. Although I had not yet encountered the following words from Thomas Merton, they described my state of mind at the time. “All theology is a kind of birthday. / Each one who is born / Comes into the world as a question / For which old answers /Are not sufficient.”(1)
Right our of seminary and for the next eleven years I was pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation in a small southern town. During those days I had weekly conversation and coffee with several fellow pastors from different Protestant denominations in our community. At the same time I began a yearly sabbatical retreat with several seminary classmates that has continued for over fifteen years. In both of these circles of support we felt safe in sharing not only our joys and successes of ministry but also our fears, frustrations, and failures as well. We were colleagues in ministry. More importantly, we were good friends.
All of us were more “liberal” than our congregations and wider community when it came to politics, world-views, and particularly religion. While we were not homogenous in our views, beliefs, and practices, we held a common bond of dissatisfaction with more conservative, fundamentalist elements within our respective denominations and the congregations we served. Like a lot of religious people in our country the dominant conservative religious culture left us feeling empty. For the most part we knew what we didn’t like, didn’t believe, and what didn’t work for us. However, we were on shakier ground when it came to saying what we did like, believe, and found spiritually satisfying. In practical terms the majority of our joys and successes were found in personal pastoral relationships with individuals and families and not in the confines of “the church.”
With graduate degrees from our respective mainline Protestant seminaries most of us had undergone the deconstruction and reconstruction of faith according to post-enlightenment/postmodern thinking concerning biblical criticism and interpretation of church history that commonly takes place in these schools. What we all seemed to be experiencing at the time was more of an ongoing in-the-trenches-of-ministry deconstruction of institutional religion with only rare glimpses of any kind of reconstruction. Our perspectives ranged from slightly suspicious to highly cynical of “organized” religion.
Needless to say, all of this describes a precarious place for pastors to be. In many ways and to different degrees we were each dissatisfied with the very institutions that provided our livelihood as well as the place for us to fulfill our calling as ministers.
In my own case, I had come into ministry later in life giving up a successful previous career to enter seminary, only to become dissatisfied with the orthodoxy of the church. My dilemma became one of living faithfully to my call with intellectual, theological, and emotional integrity.
In another sense these two groups of which I was a part supported one another in our recovery from wounds that our religious systems had inflicted on us—wounds of the spirit, some as old as childhood religious experiences, others as new as contemporary news headlines filled with violence and death, or denominational positions on war, sexuality, and human rights. Religious faith that had been bedrock was shifting and we needed one another to find our way to stable, but different, ground.
One day while sharing such thoughts and feelings over a cup of coffee with these colleagues it occurred to me that we were very similar to any number of the twelve-step groups that meet in church buildings around the country. We had come together to confess our dependence on something that held an unhealthy grip on our lives—religion—and to comfort and encourage one another in our struggle to find healthier ways of living spiritually with integrity. I began referring to this process as “Religion Anonymous.”
Religion Without A Name
Borrowing the language of people who struggle with addiction was not done blithely, or without the utmost respect for the millions who battle substance and behavior addictions. Quite the contrary, because I believed the unhealthy and sometimes destructive dependency on religion with which my friends and I struggled permeates human culture and actually lies at the core of many personal and global conflicts in the world today. As humans we have, in a real sense of the word, an addiction to religion. We seem to not be able to live without it. Even the steps of recovery for most addiction treatment programs are grounded in acknowledgment of this spiritual need.
And yet, what I have subsequently experienced is not a twelve-step program of recovery from bad religion, but rather a pilgrimage into new understanding and experience of a basic human relationship with the Divine that encounters the Divine in ways that defied naming. What began as Religion Anonymous evolved into Anonymous Religion.
Anonymous Religion is asking the question: What does your spirituality (and/or faith) feel like, sound like, and look like outside the confines of your respective religion?
Anonymous Religion is an experiential journey, a pilgrimage of process and perspective grounded in life experiences that releases the certitude of named religion in order to discover and explore the possibility and potential of un-named religious spirituality.
Anonymous Religion is claiming independence from “religion as usual”, and instead proclaiming interdependence with a presence that is ultimately un-nameable; a primal religious and spiritual presence that because it resists being named, is therefore anonymous.
St. Augustine’s prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Philosophers and theologians imagine a “God-sized hole” in each life yearning to be filled? Some, modern neuroscientists theorize that humans have a “God” gene? Even atheists are on a quest of reason and empiricism. There is a yearning within humanity for meaning and purpose, a craving for something intimate yet unknown.
Our response to this yearning comes from our own life experiences as we stand within ourselves or before others, and say, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” We need to believe in something religious, something spiritual, and something indescribable despite whatever name we may call “it.”
What follows comes from my own stories and observations. Yet when I have shared my experiences with others, they have elicited many similar stories. I share my journey in hopes of inspiring yours—not because I think you care about me personally but because your experiences and education, and your flashes of truth tell you that somewhere behind religious institutions and practices and deep within yourself is a presence for which you yearn. You care because perhaps you are one of the countless people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” but aren’t quite sure what this means. You care because you may have been wounded by religion that condemns and rejects who you really are. You care because, just as with my colleagues and me, the orthodoxies of named religion no longer ring true, or as true as they used to.
If any of this is true for you, I invite you on this pilgrimage where, along with me, you can also proclaim independence from named religion as usual and claim your interdependence with a presence within and throughout creation that is, in the end, un-nameable.
Since you’re still reading, we may as well travel together for a while. So shed your coats of certitude and scarves of security and put on the potential and possibility of the One Eternal Presence. The road ahead invites us – shall we? But you better be careful because you may lose your religion.
Thomas Merton, Eighteen Poems
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