The Common Good

'SBNR,' Monasticism, and Falling Short

So, I'm wrangling with Lillian Daniels. Smart. Savvy. Informed. Yep. I respect her a great deal. And I disagree with her assessment of the "Spiritual But Not Religious" Thang almost completely. In a recent email exchange (where I got rather worked up, I admit), I offered a response to a comparison a friend made between Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove and Lillian Daniels, their visions, and their understanding of Christian community (Johnathan, for those who don't know, is a Baptist minister and new monastic serving at Rutba House).

Candlelight and solitude. Photo courtesy nikkytok/shutterstock.com
Candlelight and solitude. Photo courtesy nikkytok/shutterstock.com

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Jonathan is a monastic. He has a very rigorous sense of a call to Christian community, of how one follows the way of Jesus the Christ. Read the twelve marks of a new monasticism and get a sense of his understanding of Christian "intentional" community. My understanding from Daniels' work is that it is far more rigorous than her congregationalism (even though the UCC has roots in a congregationalism that might today be called monastic if they were to live into the fullness of it.) 

Daniels' book is a fun read. I liked it. But it is in essence a collection of short stories about how people wrestle with their faith in a progressive-leaning Protestant context. It's not an argument for church, per se. It's not an argument against spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) either, though there is the one famous chapter in the middle of the book about being bored by it. It's a fine book. Read it. 

What the book also isn't is a call to rigorous Christian community. It is, instead, an apologetic, an attempt to say "We Christian congregations have something of value to offer." Or, as my boss at First Baptist in Palo Alto likes to say, "congregations have meaning and worth."

Of course congregations have meaning and worth, but the issue at hand is stated and lived intention. Monastery, congregation, seminary, food pantry, homeless shelter, bar, coffee shop...book group, coffee shop clutch, rock band or theater troupe, does it matter what form the community takes as long as it embodies the stated intention?

Everyone is in community. In spite of the constant critique, the SBNR* are not typically lone rangers in their spiritual quest. They practice yoga, see life coaches, read Ghandi or Merton, speak with their friends and loved ones. Also, many have community. A ton of it.

The community may be haphazardly instituted, momentary, monthly, annual. Who knows? Does it matter?

Really? 

Here's what I think: We congregationalists lost the monastic zeal that Jonathan describes, the intentional gathering of the Body convicted of their faith, and replaced it with civic obligation and middle-class moralism (liberal and conservative)...and seeker sensitivity. We replaced the monastary or the sectarian village with suburbia. Our congregations are constantly in beginner mode. They are institutions that introduce people to Christ. They invite people into a life with Christ. But are we capable of being more rigorous collectively? Or is that even their function? We pour money into Sunday Schools, but where is the Advanced Study and Action? Where is the room for Bonhoeffer, Catherine of Sienna, Pachomious, Mary of Egypt, Hildegard von Bingen, Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is there a reasons why people like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have had to go outside the congregation to embody what they believe is the full call of the Gospel of Christ?

I want to say to Daniels, "What you propose is not enough." 

Daniels' congregation is most certainly a place of kind people. Generous people. Liberal people. I dig it! But I don't know if it is rigorously Christian community or not in the way Jonathan defines the way of Jesus. She wants us to believe it is. I get that. She simply has not convinced me and I have read her book. 

She doesn't go far enough. That's my problem. 

So, her cries of shallowness fall flat for me. She sits in the heart of Jonathan's "empire" (the first mark of a new monasticism is "Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire") and cries SBNR-wolf. As a friend recently reminded me, one cannot sit in the heart of the establishment and rail against it at the same time. She has not convinced me that what she extols is actually anything more an organized SBNR community. And I think there are a bunch of us pastoring such communities. Many of us progressives (please, note the "us" there) struggle with this bifurcation. I certainly do.

I'm being hyperbolic. I apologize, but it irks me. She asks too little and then holds it up as an ideal all the while calling the guy on the plane boring and shallow.

I just don't get it. 

So, my questions: What happened to the novitiate or the catechuminate? The existance of these modes of Christian life assumed a graduation of sorts out of the novitiate or catechuminate into a practitioner mode of some kind. Are our congregations comprised of perpetual beginners, skeptics, and disenfranchised, or do we have an understanding of what "advanced" discipleship looks like? How do good people (for we are created Good) whittle away at their foibles in some way that they grow in Spirit and Truth to become Little Christs?  

The terrifying question for me is this: Do we even want to?

*Yes, it is impossible to paint the spiritual-but-not-religious with a broad brush. Daniels' says as much, too. It's a complicated sociological diagnostic and not a group with affiliate members. Disenfranchised Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc., atheists, the un-affiliated, agnostic, all make up this sociological category. And there are as many reasons for being SBNR as there are individuals within the category.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

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