For this post, I am speaking from a Christian perspective, but this is certainly not limited to Christians.
The phrase “spiritual but not religious” has been a popular movement most of my life. I never really took to heart what it meant exactly prior to 2015, but I did understand religion could be oppressive. It seemed to me that people were claiming Jesus but not the institution of the Church. While that can be true, I am learning it is far deeper than that simple explanation. Interpreting what people believe without talking to them diminishes the truth of their story and what is actually happening. It also left me without some needed truth that could have helped me be more informed as a Christian who still believed in the institution of the Church. I still do, but we have a long way to go in growing our spiritual maturity. This statement is not just aimed at complementarian churches either.
Churches in the West have done a great job of spiritually forming people through their minds, but it has fallen way short on spiritually forming people through their bodies where feelings reside. Without spiritually forming by learning to quiet the mind and to be present in the moment as it is, we have in effect taught people that the here and now does not matter and bodies do not matter. We can think whatever we want, but we cannot feel whatever we want. How one feels about what is being taught does not matter, feelings cannot be trusted after all, what matters is that the teaching is accepted and obeyed. This also plays out in public life. Take a courtroom for example. You will hear lawyers say to not use your emotions when deciding a case, but they can manipulate the story through the intellect creating reasonable doubt. There is such thing as intellectual manipulation, not just emotional manipulation. The disconnect from our emotions hurts us everywhere, not just in our faith communities. Emotions are sources of information too.
In our church culture, the experience of an individual is not valued because that is too emotional and makes the story less certain if one’s experience changes how we can interpret scripture. We are more scared of scripture being called into question than a person. This is one major crisis of the church right now, and the church is slow to respond because the church at large does not know how to feel. It is easier to say a few bad apples than question the whole tree that keeps producing bad apples. See also Mark 11 and Matthew 21. For women, this has caused so much unnecessary harm to our bodies and minds. We do not matter in scripture, and we do not matter in public or church life today. This is everyone. We are all responsible.
This became apparent to me when Donald Trump was elected. A church that once acted like it cared about all people, at least in word, now revealed to me that was not true. To listen to a man brag about sexually abusing women and unapologetically talking over a woman in their Presidential debates with no consequence and few in my own Christian world even noticing it as a problem, is a moment in my life I will never forget. It is when my world as I once knew it was over. This is when “spiritual but not religious” became more relevant to me. I was not sure I could attend church again after witnessing this. At this moment, I would have rathered my kids not believe in God than believe in the god I was seeing in our public life. Had it not been for spiritual practices: yoga, meditation, and a whole lot of listening, I might not have made it to the other side and gotten back into religion.
I am back but not in the same way; there is no going back to the way it was. I had to be spiritually nourished back to life to do this. Church did not offer these spiritual resources because it was still holding onto a story I no longer held anymore. I am not sure if I was saying yes to God in my anger or if it was just me saying “I WANT TO LIVE, PLEASE HELP ME” and the universe heard me and responded. I believe it is God, personally. This is when the resources and teachers came to me so I could heal and get back up. And when I got back up, I was not afraid to face all of the sins, including my own complicity, that led us to this moment. When your whole world has shaken and you choose life, very few things are as scary as they once were. The only thing I fear is not being able to speak the truth.
In the beginning, it was weird to me that people were worried about what their kids learn in school that could help heal wounds–racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-LGBTQIA+–but were at the same time unconcerned about their children watching Donald Trump treat a woman so crudely (this word is not strong enough because there is not a word strong enough for this) on national television during their debates. I was/am so pissed. I realize now that when anyone is excluded from the table where decisions are made, their life simply does not matter in the way it should. Apathy towards that person happens because their experience is different from the ones who are making all the decisions and are unaffected by the repercussions of exclusion. But I know now how spiritually malnourished the decision-makers are. So much has been placed on them to be the savior and they are not. And to lose that status feels like canceling them instead of decentering them. It actually is good news for them too, but they have to feel the pain to get to the other side. Right now not feeling and confessing what hurts is spiritually destroying them.
I say all of this because I realize now how badly we need more spiritual formation in our faith communities–and public life too. In public life, this would look like more social uplift and less criminalization and militarization. One vital way we can help ourselves is in our faith communities is to improve our theology on how good creation is. We need to change our language about God too. Our language about God is so patriarchal that when we keep focusing on God instead of women in the stories who are experiencing God, we are in actuality focusing on the man’s experience still. Like always! Also, I do not think God needs to be centered over the humans who are having a complicated human experience. “God with us” means with us, not over us. Sally McFague, an American feminist theologian, says it is within the scope of scripture to use lots of other metaphors for God, for instance, Mother, Lover, Friend. She also applied this approach when talking about ecological issues. She talked about the earth as if it were God’s body. Everything on earth with equal importance.
Because of spiritual abuse, lots of people are leaving the Christian faith. I believe spiritual abuse is prevalent for lots of reasons, but one is the church is lacking spiritual formation that encompasses the whole body. The church’s lack of care for the human experience even though we believe in the incarnation of God and women’s testimony is the reason we believe this, reveals this is not how our faith is designed to function. This is why I am staying. I have also been formed by these stories too, so the ones interpreting it at the expense of women and all of creation do not get to own the narrative. I know that my changing the approach to how scripture is presented is going to be a challenge. Changing the way the story that has been told for way too long is disorienting. I know this from my own experience. I can relate and have empathy. But this is a challenge I believe in and want to take on–if the space is made for me to be able to do it. I am following the Spirit and believing this can be turned around. I am believing because Mary believed too (Luke 1:45). Mary is the yes all of creation has been groaning for. (John 1:11; Romans 8:22)