Book Review: Spiritual but not Religious (Robert C. Fuller)

ISBN 9780195146806
Available from Amazon

By The Rev. David Robson, M.Ed., D.Min., rector, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, York

In the last few decades, we saw many new books written that explored Christianity in America. Some looked at Christianity as the country was founded. Others looked at the place of Christianity in current society. Yet others described the history or theological changes taking place in Christianity.

In the same period, many new books, though not as much, explored various aspects of spirituality in America. Many of these books address the current state of spirituality. Of these, only a few explore the historical origin, role and ongoing place of spirituality in America in much depth. This is a review of one of those select books.

In 2001, Robert C. Fuller published Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. In only 178 pages, this book manages to provide a complete, comprehensive, well articulated research. Moving sequentially through history, Fuller notes how people sought and used spirituality. He showed that from the earliest days of European settlement to today that people were always more spiritual than religious! In my researched opinion, this effort clearly and accurately shows that we are not a “Christian Nation,” as some would like us to be. Today, as with much of American history people used various other sources of spirituality to address their needs.

Early in the volume Fuller notes, that in the late 1600’s that less than 1/3 of the population belonged to a church. At the time of the Revolutionary War he states that only about 15% belonged to any church. While not saying so, Fuller demythologizes many images we have created about Christianity being an overarching presence in America. In part, I suspect that we want the past to be religiously Christian, so we believed and believe it was! For example, Fuller described how colonial America, beyond organized religion, “engaged in a wide array of magical and occult practices. Astrology, divination, and witchcraft permeated everyday life . . . ”(p. 13)

For me, one of the pivotal images of this well crafted work is how Fuller quietly makes references to how throughout the various ages in America that how organized religion failed to fully meet the spiritual needs of people. Consequently, people looked elsewhere to have this needs fulfilled. He noted that colonial clergy:

failed to see was that their insistence on the remoteness of God rendered Christianity largely irrelevant to everyday spiritual concerns. An aloof, judgmental God failed to mesh with colonist’s desire to fashion vital spirituality. Christian theology thus inadvertently helped create a consumer market for unchurched religious practices. (p. 17)

In others words, in their misplaced certainty of being in control of people, colonial clergy set the stage for people to search for spiritual answers beyond the church door. Today, I wonder how much post-modern clergy realize that they too are setting the stage for people to search for spiritual answers beyond the church door. After all we live in a society where we are truly spiritual but not religious.

Throughout the volume Fuller provides a detailed historical examination of the ebb and flow of spiritual practices. He showed how, at various times, how people supplemented Christianity spirituality with witchcraft, magic, divination, fortune-telling, astrology, folk medicine, Freemasonry, Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, new-ageism Transcendentalism, etc. Fuller clearly notes, that in most cases, that the situation is not Christian spirituality versus other spirituality but a blending of many parts. For example, throughout American history many faithful Christians have placed some value on astrology!

In another example of where people were seeking spiritual support, but felt thwarted by organized religion can be found in the story of Bill W. Now Bill W. was suspicious of the moralism associated with biblical religion . . . and pious admonitions to cease sinning. . . (and) rejected traditional religious dogma and confessed that “in all probability the churches will not supply the answers for a good many of us.” (p. 113)

Therefore, he created a spiritual organization to address his deep need and those of millions like him. Some reading may immediately recognize the name “Bill W.,” for others, he was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In conclusion I think people would like to hear Fuller’s closing thoughts of our current reality. He wrote:

What will America’s religious landscape look like in the future if the churches lose some of their current market share? First, there is no evidence that our current structure is going to change any time soon. Our churches will continue to inform the religious thinking of strong and loyal constituencies. What is being suggested here is that churches will have less influence over casual attenders, and that many who would formally have sustained these weak ties to churches will instead drift completely away. . . . (p. 172)

Given that Americans are highly spiritual, and that organized Christianity, by evidence of declining attendance, income etc. clearly shows that it is failing to fully meet people’s needs, speaks to the need to reform. Did you know that the third largest religious group in America is “unaffiliated?” Likewise, we have millions who have little or no church history or experience.

Yet, we also have countless people are actively seeking for spirituality. We have many, who are seeking for spiritual answers but are unaware of their quest. It seems to me that as Episcopalians - people who prefer exploring questions rather than giving answers - we have a wonderful opportunity to assess how we can create avenues, and places, and reach out beyond denominationalism and religious tenets and strive meet people more fully in their spiritual space.