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On Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR): Take 1

Note: this is the first of three explorations into the gifts and challenges of being SBNR.  Wait for the others in the next few weeks.

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of US adults claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” a jump of 8% in just five years. The term is now so popular that it claims its own abbreviation—SBNR. Compared to the murder and mayhem caused by extremists of many religious, SBNR has to be a positive development in human culture. Yet, some who identify as SBNR may occasionally long for the certitude of more traditional faiths, especially at this time of year. Additionally, some SBTR folks exhibit a self-righteous certitude that can be as dismissive as fundamentalist believers.

To which I say that theological tenets are like building codes, those local regulations that control the design, methods, and materials used in construction. Most local jurisdictions have such laws that are established to protect the health and safety of residents. Anyone building or retrofitting a house (and the contractor or architect) must comply with standards governing the frame, plumbing, electrical, and other features of the structure.

But there are building codes and then there are building codes – specifically prescriptive and performance codes. Prescriptive codes specify what is required – how many inches of what kind of insulation in the ceiling, how many in the walls, etc. They do the same for windows, walls, wiring, and wastewater systems.

Performance codes don’t prescribe requirements; rather, they give minimum benchmarks. They don’t care whether the builder uses fiberglass insulation, plastic bags, old socks, or solar energy – provided that the building meets acceptable standards of safety and efficiency.
So far so good. Unfortunately, some local governments formulate standards the same way many people formulate explanations for God. Builders and smaller jurisdictions usually favor prescriptive standards with detailed checklists. You don’t need a cadre of professional engineers to decide if something will work or not, you just check off each item to ensure compliance.

But architects and innovators typically prefer performance standards that allow greater creativity and flexibility. They can think “outside the box” and devise new solutions to old problems. To require a new state-of-the-art building to conform to prescriptive criteria equivalent to a traditional building could be wasteful, prohibitively expensive, and even impossible.

Isn’t this akin to our understanding of God’s ways? – Some people want the details spelled out and a checklist provided, while others want individual flexibility within a broad framework.

Prescriptive standards – whether they relate to places of the hearth or of the heart – are valued by those who want straightforward, right-and-wrong guidelines. There are times in our lives when we all want straight answers, especially during childhood and trauma. However, as we grow in faith and discernment, many of us find we have outgrown simplistic criteria for faithful living; we want to focus on the big picture of God’s love without falling into the quicksand of other people’s sense of right and wrong. It’s time to move from prescriptive to performance criteria.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. Local governments must develop and enforce building codes or houses fall down, neighbors get into shouting matches (or worse) over unsightly monstrosities two feet from their dream house, and the building profession is plagued with corruption and deceit. Doing nothing – living without a code of some kind – is not an acceptable response.

Another way of looking at is to think of prescriptive codes as religion and performance criteria as spirituality. There are times when we need strict prescriptions, but mostly we prefer the flexibility and growing edges of performance benchmarks.

And those of us who use performance standards to explain God must work harder than those who are satisfied with black-and-white criteria. Each of us is required to come up with a statement of faith that, while not being prescriptive, is nonetheless a clear and cogent explanation for how God works in our lives and how we translate that into daily action. Otherwise, SBNR is just a cute way of saying you believe in everything or nothing.


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