Tom Bandy explains that the rise in the number of people who claim to be spiritual but not religious is a manifestation of a larger societal trend to personalize and control the way individuals experience the world. But Bandy maintains that religion can never be personalized because the search for meaning is a shared desire and because control of the meaning of life lies with a transcendent God.
More and more people are identified or identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. This claim can mean many things. Some are dilettantes who select different beliefs, from diverse sources, that validate their current status and behavior. Others are seriously searching for meaning and purpose in life. And still others are radically committed to personal spiritual disciplines.
Personalized religion in a personalized world
For some time, the personalization of religion (defined in the broadest sense) has been blamed by church leaders as a leading cause for declining participation and attendance. The issues are deeper than this. It’s helpful to step back and see how personal religion is part of a larger trend to personalize the individual’s experience of the world. We observe this trend in all sectors of human experience, for example: technology and the miniaturization of communication devices, the decline of commitment to political parties, criticism of public education and the rise of homeschooling, and the decline of theaters and concert halls and the rise in home theaters and personal playlists.
Religion is not immune to the trend toward personalization in America. Not only are participation and attendance down, but there are fewer and fewer traditional weddings and funerals. Customizable social media has replaced preaching as a primary source of Christian education. Church shopping has been replaced by church stopping.
What’s wrong with personal religion?
Personal religion is prompted by the same desire to regain control of life that is driving the personalization of culture in every sector. So, what is wrong with that? In every other sector, efforts to take back control of one’s life seem both logical and beneficial. There are risks, but they are reasonable, usually manageable, and preferable to the liability of entrusting your life and well-being to someone or some institution who does not really care about you.
Personal religion has many benefits. It reduces stress and encourages holistic health. It restores self-esteem. It motivates personal growth. It helps a person cope with the speed, flux, and blur of change. It encourages social harmony by discouraging religious intolerance. It’s far less expensive than the financial overhead of institutions; and it does not leave behind an environmentally damaging footprint that blights urban neighborhoods and rural crossroads. What’s not to like?
The problem is that personal religion is categorically different than the personalization of all other sectors of society. Personalization is about taking back control of the process of living. Personal religion is an attempt to take back control of the meaning of life. Rejection of religious institutions and religious authorities is often well and good. World history is full of instances when that has happened. But religious institutions and authorities never had that control anyway (even though they may have thought that they did).
Religion is never personal
Control of the meaning of life lies with a transcendent God. This God may well be described in many ways. Yet this God is essentially mysterious and unknowable because this God is beyond human rationalizations and imaginations. As my mentor Paul Tillich would say, this God is a God-above-all-gods.
Religion is, in fact, never personal. The power of the self to control the meaning of life is not religion. It is at best a noble perspective and, at worst, a terrible bias, depending on what another self considers noble or terrible. Religion is the recognition and acceptance that a God-above-all-gods controls the meaning of life and the destiny of creation. The God-above-all-gods simultaneously employs and shatters every personal religion, just as God simultaneously employs and shatters every denomination or religious institution.
What is religion if it is not personal? It is public. This does not mean that it must be institutionalized. It means that it must be shared. The restlessness for religion is stirred not just in an individual’s heart but in every person’s heart whether they know it, intuit it, remember it, or even forget it. The search for God is not an individual quest but a shared desire. And it requires dialogue and cooperation, rather than monologue and personalization to accomplish it.
This article is adapted from Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm Between Churches and Cultures (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Thomas G. Bandy. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
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