Spirituality Starts in the Pews
Noticing God in Everyday Experiences
"Spiritual But Not Religious" is not a promotion of religiosity, legalism, or institutionalism. Nor is Daniel unworried about a meaningless ritualism that contents itself with going through the motions. Her intention, rather, is to present a spirituality thicker than the euphoric sensation brought on by a lovely sunset or by the smile of a giggling infant. Having labored for years amidst the trenches and pews of pastoral ministry, she knows all too well that a spirituality that can accommodate sunset hues but not cancer, grinning babies but not wails in the night, is woefully inadequate for the realities of an ex-Eden world.
The Spiritual/Not Religious category is not only insufficient for our sin-streaked realm; it is also grossly unoriginal. A spirituality divorced from communal life and eviscerated of a deep tradition is a predictable product of secular American consumer culture. It's custom-made, says Daniel, for a "bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating."
But incisiveness notwithstanding, Daniel does not write with a chip on her shoulder. From beginning to end the book is marked by a good-humored delight in the churched and unchurched alike. In fact, most of the 32 short chapters are not specifically devoted not to directly critiquing the Spiritual/Not Religious cliché, but to noticing God in a panoply of everyday experiences (most of them less glamorous than sunsets). Struggling through Yoga class, noticing pets in the airport, and visiting inmates in a high-security prison become occasions of beholding the divine in the midst of the mundane and the unexpected. Her prose devoted to the prosaic daily grind is beautifully crafted, deeply touching, and quite often hilarious.
True, any secularist might also detect some vague higher power at work in such workaday scenes. But the church is never too far removed from Daniel's spiritual encounters and revelations. As the deep mahogany wood stains have seeped into the grains of those pews, her life has been textured and saturated by the life of the local church. Activities like the knitting of prayer shawls and baby booties in a church lobby feature more strongly than any sort of ecstatic, numinous experiences.
But what explains this anecdotal emphasis on pets, airports, baby booties, prisons, and pews, as opposed to a more analytical emphasis on the cultural trends that feed the modern tendency to profess "spirituality" while eschewing "religion"? Given that the book's title invokes this very tendency, I had expected a more sustained treatment of the anti-religious, anti-institutional zeitgeist of secular society. It may be that Daniel, having already covered this ground in her Huffington Post article, needed "filler" material to expand the viral blog post to book-length proportions. My guess, though, is that she is overcoming the shortcomings of a medium—brief online blurts allow little room for nuance and force too-severe dichotomies ("spiritual" versus "religious," in this case). The book actually serves to round off the sharp distinctions her Huffington Post commenters (self-styled spiritualists and hyper-religionists) accused her of making. For Daniel, religion and spirituality bleed into each other. Her objection comes from trying to wash the stains of the former from the latter.