By Jonathan Vogel-Borne
How many times have we heard someone say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? I have often wondered what that means? Is it just more evidence of American society’s drift towards secularism? Or, is it an indicator of a common spiritual condition? Is there a ministry opportunity here?
This past November I attended the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) International Gathering in Kathmandu, Nepal. AVP was founded in 1975 by Quakers and inmates in Greenhaven prison, New York. The Quakers were attenders at Greenhaven’s prison-based Quaker meeting for worship. Looking for ways to mitigate the daily violence among the prison population, the inmates asked the Quakers to help them develop a training program to address conflict situations without resort to violence.
Today, AVP operates in over 45 countries, conducting workshops not only in prisons but also with community groups, schools, refugee populations, social service agencies, and other non-governmental organizations. A major area of AVP’s focus in the last 30 years has been healing from trauma. An offshoot of AVP, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) was developed by the Evangelical Friends (Quakers) in Rwanda and Burundi following the genocides in the 1990s. In this program perpetrators and victims of the genocide take part in an initial three-day workshop and then continue in the healing process through follow-up activities.
Over the years, as part of my ministry, I have attended many religious gatherings, from regional conferences and annual meetings to world conferences. For me, the AVP International Gathering was just like attending one of these “religious” gathering, even though it was explicitly devoid of any outward traditional religious forms.
At the heart of the AVP program is a concept called “transforming power.” In the introduction to the basic-level AVP workshop, we tell participants that AVP is not a religion and it is not therapy. But we spend a large part of the workshop exploring the concept of transforming power, AVP’s spiritual core. It is the power that opens us to deep inward change. And that change is to bring more healing and more loving into the world.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), with its twelve-step recovery program, uses both a reliance on a “higher power” and community accountability to help people overcome addictions. Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal, uses the Quaker practice of clearness committees, in what they call “circles of trust.” These are small groups that help people find their true vocation, matching their “role to their sole,” in order to “discover [their] inner capacity to lead a more authentic, meaningful and resilient life.” And there are any number of other similar, non-church, Spirit-based programs that are bringing more love and healing into our world.
I hear the “I’m spiritual” subtext being, “I sense a power within me, outside of me, and greater than me. It is a power that I experience but cannot completely define. Synonyms for this power might be Love, God, Spirit, Grace, Purpose, Meaning…”
Let’s talk definitions. When I meet people who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” I often hear the subtext, “I am not part of, and do not want to be a part of, any formal religious organization.” But I also hear the “I’m spiritual” subtext being, “I sense a power within me, outside of me, and greater than me. It is a power that I experience but cannot completely define. Synonyms for this power might be Love, God, Spirit, Grace, Purpose, Meaning…” The obvious downside of this position is that, as a “spiritual” person, you don’t need to commit to a prescribed spiritual discipline, nor is your life accountable to a community. Herein lies the challenge and the opportunity for those of us settled in traditional religious organizations.
Last spring, I participated in a march to the Boston Common to object to a “free speech” event sponsored by a purportedly White supremacist organization. As I looked around the crowd of over 30,000 people walking with me, I saw that most of the people were in their 20s and 30s and appeared to be acting from a place of moral conscience — wanting to see a world transformed by love. Where do these people come from? Why don’t I see this age demographic in my Friends Meeting? Where are they in other mainstream religious groups? A large segment of American culture has become post-religious. Many of these people are under 40.
Throughout history, organized religion has perhaps done as much harm as it has done good. No wonder much of western culture has turned away from these traditional forms. The Quaker movement was founded on the premise that we were taking people away from forms without power — we were taking them away from the spiritually empty outward forms of religion as practiced by the Church of England. Then, in biblical imagery, we were to come up through the fiery sword, crucified with Christ, into that place that Eve and Adam were in before the fall — we were to come to that place from which all forms are created, to the heart of God. Has the present-day church fallen once again into the apostasy of being just another form without power?
What, then, are the forms with power in our modern day? Perhaps I’ve named a few already — AVP, AA, Courage and Renewal. Some mainstream religious traditions are finally getting the word that “the church has left the building.” The relevance of the church is measured by how much love and healing we can bring into the world.
So, let’s share the Good News — “higher power,” “transforming power,” “Jesus Christ is present now to teach the people” — from the highest mountains to the city streets. We can’t expect people to experience the transforming power of God’s love only on our own grounds, only in our church buildings, where they often encounter religious forms that fail to connect. Let’s continue to bring the church away from forms without power, finding ways to meet people where they are, in their own lives, and in terms that they can understand, and that relate directly to their condition.
—Jonathan Vogel-Borne lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a life-long Quaker, and is a member of the Good News Associates Board.