Thursday, April 11, 2013

Some Thoughts on SBNR

Monsignor Moroney gave the following address to the Co-Workers in the Vineyard Conference in Newton on April 12th.

They don’t go to Church, do they?  You know who I mean. You know only too well.  They used to sit over there, and back there, and when the rest of the Church was full, they’d squirm uncomfortably into a pew closer to the front.

But now they don’t go to Church anymore.  And you don’t like to think about it too much.  Because it hurts, and, quite frankly (although its hard to admit) you’re afraid they’ll go to hell.

I’m talking about your son or your daughter, your friends, your parents or even your husband.

You love them. You want them to know “the peace that the world cannot give.”  You want them to know again what it feels like after you go to confession.  You want to see them come back from communion and bury their head in their hands.  You want them to come home.

But except for the days of lilies and poinsettias and the occasional wedding or funeral they won’t darken that big door back there.

And it’s easy to get mad and to cast stones. But they are the folks who will meet you at a party and hearing you work for the church proclaim, “Hey, I used to be a Catholic, but I left.  I’m no longer religious, but I’m still spiritual.”

Spiritual, but not religious. They even have acronym for it SBNR: they make buttons and T-shirts. SBNR: Spiritual, but not religious.  What does it mean? Where does it lead? And what do we do about it?

I bet you’ve heard it a lot. One survey reports that as many as 33% of people in the United States identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, and the Southern Baptist Convention's Life Way Christian Resources has reported that 72% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 say that they're "really more spiritual than religious."

As described in books like Robert C. Fuller's Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America and Sven E. Erlandson's Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call To Religious Revolution In America, SBNR’s believe that knowledge of God, who he is and what he wants of us, is really a personal matter to be discerned in the quiet of my room by an act of individual revelation.

Such a personal discernment is preferred by SBNR’s in contrast with a Religious world view, which says that Divine Revelation is mediated through the Church.  The distinction is clear in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council.  Listen to Dei Verbum:

2. In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature. Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself...

God reveals....we receive
So God reveals and we receive.  The only way we know God, the omnipotent and omniscient source of everything, is through the way he reveals himself to us.  As Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God “has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in [Christ].”

God reveals, we receive.  But how does God reveal.  Do I have to hike up to some mountaintop in the Himalayas with and sit at the feet of some mystic to hear the secret gnosis?  Do I need to learn the proper meditation techniques so that I can actualize the secret written in my heart centuries ago?  Do I need to discover some golden plates at the behest of an angel and translate them with the help of a magic stone?

No.  God reveals himself completely, definitively, and forever in the birth, death, and resurrection of his only-begotten Son.  Dei Verbum continues:

7...Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts...But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place."

Christ is the Fullness of Revelation
Christ, then, is the fullness of Revelation.  Surely, Moses and the prophets revealed to us the face of God.  From a burning bush, by a Decalogue inscribed in stone, and from a pillar of fire leading his chosen people from slavery to freedom God revealed himself to us.

But reading the Old Testament alone, is like looking at the face of God through a veil.  “...Whenever Moses is read,” Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” ”For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ.

There are things about God, about life, and about the world he created that are true and things that are false.  For Christ is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.”  For in these last days, God "has spoken to us by a Son," and “in giving us his Son, he spoke everything to us. He has no more to say."

Christ passes on (traditio) the Revelation to the Apostles, who pass it on to the Bishops
Secondly, Christ passes on the revelation to his Apostles, who pass it on to the Bishops....or, as we say in the Roman Canon when we pray at Mass:

Be pleased to grant [your Church] peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Sean our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

From the beginning, God does not reveal himself to a person but to a people.  Sure, he reveals himself to Abraham, but only to that he might seal a covenant with Israel that he might be their God and they might be his people.

Sure, he appears to Moses, but only that he might consecrate a people to himself and lead them from slavery to freedom.

Sure he sends the Lord Jesus to reveal the fullness of truth to his disciples, but only that he might consecrate to himself “a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people washed clean and consecrated in his Blood.”

In other words, revelation does not come through me or you or even Joel comes through the Church.  There’s not my truth and your truth and his truth in the back of the room.  There is one truth, who is Christ Jesus our Lord, professed by the Church in the Nicene Creed, celebrated in the Sacraments and as lived in accordance with the scriptures which have been handed down to us.

8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter,and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all. Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

Contrast such a view with a DVD embraced a few years ago by Orpah Winfrey called The Secret.  The DVD was produced by an Australian by the name of Rhonda Byrne, who, following a divorce, bankruptcy and emotional collapse could not stop crying, until she discovered a hundred year old book called The Science of Getting Rich. "Something inside of me had me turn the pages one by one, and I can still remember my tears hitting the pages as I was reading it," Rhonda says. "It gave me a glimpse of The Secret. It was like a flame inside of my heart. And with every day since, it's just become a raging fire of wanting to share all of this with the world."

The insights of The Secret can be fairly summarized as follows:

1. Everything is energy
2. You are a spiritual being
3. Universe emerges from thought. 
4. We are creators not of our own destiny and of the universe.
5. We are all connected and all one.
6. Your power is in your thoughts.
7. The only thing you need to do is feel good now.

Mary Poplin is a professor of education at a University in Texas, who in 1996 published a book called Finding Calcutta.  It’s a great read.  In it she describes the two months she spent with Mother Theresa’s sisters in Calcutta, and the deep conviction she has drawn that the work of the Missionaries of Charity is “religious work and not social work.” 

In her book she describes a struggle to understand what is going on in Calcutta, characterized by a dissonance between the “leftist intellectual” who has “dabbled in feminist theology…forms of meditation, drugs, and the New Age movement” and a “small, curious-looking nun” who says things like “fall more in love with Jesus every day” and “our work is not social work; it is religious work.”

In a lecture for the Veritas Forum some years later, Poplin describes the Creed of the SBNR community, which rejects the essentially religious dimension of Mother Theresa and of all who believe the Church is the arbiter of all truth.

She articulates the SBNR creed as follows:

1. I’m better than you, because I don’t need any silly religion to be good.
2. You can be good without religion.
3. All religions ultimately lead to the same place.
4. There is one substance called spirit, which underlies all natural phenomenon.
5. We are all spiritual sentient beings.  No species is above the other.
6. All the universe is spiritual first,  The spiritual is power.
7. Humans can control the world of spirits.

While I lack the time this morning to contrast each of these credal statements to Catholic doctrine, it is obvious that each of them are wrong.  Dead wrong.  They contradict what God has revealed in Christ and which has been passed on to us by the Church through the Tradition.

But in addition to being wrong they are dangerous and can lead people, at times, to collaboration with powers of evil.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.... We still have one more question to answer....


What happens when we create our own religions, based not on Divine Revelation but the idiosyncrasies of our own hearts?  What happens when we create our own self-actualized Churches founded on the dogmas of our inner emotional needs and desires?

What happens is something like this:

Mike Stygal, is a secondary school teacher who practices paganism in his private life. He believes in a divine force in nature. “I believe everything is connected, I feel very in touch with nature and the changing seasons. Awe is a very good word for how I feel. It’s a sense of deep respect for nature. I can communicate with the deity.  I love Native American spirituality and paganism, and I’ve studied Buddhism. I think organized religion is one of the top problems of the world actually, so no, I’d say I steer clear of religion and go straight towards spirituality.”

Or even like this:

"My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter...Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

You guessed it...

When Adolf Hitler the arbiter of all truth, his emotional needs become the definer of his morality.  When his voice is identified with the voice of God, his prejudices and presuppositions describe what is true and what is not.  When his intuitions are the signposts of my life, his prayer becomes “my will be done, both here and in heaven.”

And it’s the same for me.

I need God. I need perfect love.  I need perfect truth, lest I live a life caught up in selfish preoccupations and a spiraling narcissism of self-indulgence.  God is love, and love means dying to myself in the model of him who shed every drop of blood in a kenotic exemplification of what it means to live.


So what we do about all it?  We tell the truth.  And the truth is Jesus Christ and what he came to teach us by his birth and paschal death and rising and by what he told us.

We speak the truth always in love precisely because he taught us to “judge not lest we be judged’ and to ‘love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.’  Opening his arms on the cross they would nail him to, surrounded by a pack of howling persecutors, he told us to love others as he had loved us.

And that includes those who no longer sit in that pew, those who post blasphemy, who talk behind our backs and work for the destruction of Christ’s Church and his people.  Love and the truth.  It’s the only thing we got.  It’s the only thing we need.

1. When at work or at a party or in the aisle of Stop and Shop and they say to us: “The whole meaning of life is to hear the voice inside, to determine what’s true for me.”  Perhaps we can tell them Saint Benedict’s description of the three stages of truth, the three stages of loving God:

At first, Saint Benedict tells us, we love God because we love ourselves. I don't want to go to hell, so I do what he wants.

At the second stage, I love God because he is lovable. I have no choice. I have so deeply fallen in love within him that I want only to do his will.

And then there's the third stage of loving God, the one which few reach but the only state in which true holiness and purity reside, wherein I love me only because God loves me. Only then does my every waking moment seek the will of God. My next breath has value only if it is part of God's plan. My fondest hopes and my deepest desires are but cinder and ash unless they are a part of his plan. In other words, it is not my will but his, not me, but Christ Jesus in me, it is I, like the John the Baptist, who must decrease and he who must increase.

2. When at work or at a party or in the aisle of Stop and Shop and they say to us: “I am my own moral compass...I just listen to my heart and know the right thing to do.”  Perhaps we could recall when he said to us:

Love your neighbor as yourself
Forgive seventy times seven
Judge not least you be judged
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

3. When at work or at a party or in the aisle of Stop and Shop and they say to us: “The whole reason we’re here is commune with the spirits of the created world and create healing and peace through the projection of our thoughts.” Perhaps we could invite them to come with us to confession, where the Prodigal Son is welcomed home, where sinners are raised up from their foolishness, and where we find pardon and peace.

And then we could invite them to come back to Communion, where he who gives the peace the world cannot give gives us his Body to eat and his Blood to drink that he might live in us and we might live in him.

And then they will find the whole reason we’re here....indeed, to find unity and peace, in the Lord, in whom we live and move and find our being.

Priest: Do you renounce Satan?    

Priest: And all his works?
Priest: And all his empty show?

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth? 

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father?

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Well that, is what it’s all about.

Thank you.