On Sunday, June 2, 2013, Rev. Tony Ponticello addressed the congregation at the Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, California for the Sunday Morning Service. What follows is a lightly edited transcription of that lecture.
Lately, actually for the past couple of years, I've been hearing this phrase, and I always bristle a little bit about it. I actually don't like it very much. I'll get into why. Recently, at the "A Gift of Lilies" conference in Chicago, a couple of times I heard A Course in Miracles students define themselves as "Spiritual But Not Religious." You hear this. It keeps cropping up, "Spiritual But Not Religious," and it's become common enough now that there's actually an acronym for it, "SBNR." It comes up on some forms. When asked to check your religion, you can check "SBNR," "Spiritual But Not Religious," because a lot of people in the country now have adopted this idea and accepted it as their spiritual identity. It's the best way to describe themselves spiritually, or maybe religiously.
It's interesting because it creates this dichotomy between the two words, "spiritual" and "religious" when it wasn't too long ago that those words were used synonymously. We've moved them apart in some way. I decided to do a little investigation into this, and verify my own ideas about it. I went to Wikipedia, which is, as you know, this thing on the internet. It's a huge, open, and free encyclopedia. Of course they had an entry for "Spiritual But Not Religious." Wikipedia says, "Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. The term is used world-wide, but is most prominent in the United States where one study reports that as many as 33% of people identify as spiritual but not religious. Other surveys report lower percentages ranging from 24% to 10%." (Wikipedia)
SBNR is definitely a thing. It's an idea that has cropped up that people feel that they are spiritual, however feel that they are not religious. According to the Wikipedia, saying that you're not religious means you're not affiliated with traditional, organized religion. Some people don't agree with the "tradition, organized" distinction. For those people being not religious means not affiliated with religion at all, any religion, or any church, any time.
It's interesting that "religion," now in the vernacular, has come to mean any sort of church or organized thing, because the word in and of itself, if you look up the definition, doesn't really mean that. I looked up a couple of definitions of "religion." This one from the dictionary says:
"• the belief in and worship
of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods:.
• a particular system of faith and worship
• a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance."
So religion is actually a very broad idea. It can be used to define a number of things. I like the last one, "a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance" as you can be religious about exercise. It's important. I do it every day. I do it religiously. I do my exercises religiously. You can be religious about your diet. A lot of people out there are religious about being vegetarians, or they are low carbohydrate people. Like me, then when we feel like we've slipped by eating bread, we feel we've "sinned!" (laughter) We've gone against our religion. Anything that we ascribe strong importance to, and we want to affiliate with ourselves as a certain thing we always do, is exactly something that we do religiously. There's nothing specifically, in that definition, that implies organized religion. So when people take on this idea that says they are Spiritual But Not Religious, you would really have to define what they mean by the word "religious," because they are actually not using the word in the standard way the word is used, nor the way the word is defined in the dictionary.
I think this is interesting, and being A Course in Miracles students we should ask ourselves, "How do we define religion?" "How does ACIM use the term?" People might think, without really doing any research, that A Course In Miracles is negative on the term "religion," but actually it's not.
Here's a quote: "They come from all over the world. They come from all religions and from no religion. They are the ones who have answered." (OrEd.Mn.1.2) So there it's pretty ambivalent about the word "religion." It's talking about teachers of God. Certainly teachers of God can be religious or they can be not religious. It doesn't matter. So in this sense, religion would actually be a neutral thing, not positive or negative. You can be affiliated with some particular set of spiritual beliefs, or maybe a particular group that adheres to that set of spiritual beliefs, or you might not, and you can still be an A Course In Miracles student, regardless.
Then A Course In Miracles says some other things. Here's one, "All magic is a form of reconciling the irreconcilable. All religion is the recognition that the irreconcilable cannot be reconciled." (OrEd.Tx.9.84) That's actually a very positive spin on the word religion. It's saying that real religion would be understanding that truth is true, and nothing else is true. Real religion is about the absolute ideas of A Course In Miracles, that we can't reconcile the world of the ego with that of the Holy Spirit – those kinds of things. That's what religion should actually be about. So A Course In Miracles is not negative about religion.
Some people have a lot of spin and buzz about being Christian, and what the Course says about being a Christian. Most people would consider being Christian as being religious. A lot of A Course In Miracles students, do not like to identify themselves as Christian, because it means something negative in their minds. However, if you go to the Course itself, how does the Course use the word "Christian?" The Course tells us, "The crucifixion did not establish the Atonement. The resurrection did. This is a point which many very sincere Christians have misunderstood." (OrEd.Tx.3.11) So obviously the Course doesn't have a negative spin on the word "Christian." It's actually identifying something positive that it calls a "sincere Christian." The Course is telling us that even sincere Christians sometimes get misguided. So, if the Course is guiding us to do anything religious, it might be guiding us to be "sincere Christians," who are not misguided – sincere Christians who have the teaching correct. It's certainly not saying don't consider yourself a Christian, if indeed you are a Christian, or if that title sits well with you.
Then there's another quotation which has a little different spin on the word, it says: "If the crucifixion is seen from an upside-down point of view, it does appear as if God permitted and even encouraged one of his Sons to suffer because he was good. Many ministers preach this every day." (OrEd.Tx.3.11) And then it says, "This particularly unfortunate interpretation .... has led many people to be bitterly afraid of God. This particularly anti-religious concept enters into many religions .... Yet the real Christian would have to pause and ask, ‘How could this be?'" (OrEd.Tx.3.12) So A Course In Miracles wants us, in this sense, to be "real Christians" and ask ourselves, "How could these anti-religious ... (a positive spin on the word religion again) ... How could these anti-religious ideas enter into our study, our thought, our religion?" We should be vigilant for these anti-religious ideas. We should be vigilant about our study.
We should be real Christians and not accept these anti-religious ideas, which would be that God would call on any of us to suffer, or to sacrifice, or something like those. That's what causes people to be bitterly afraid of God. These are anti-religious ideas. Religion is positive. We should be real Christians and guard against those ideas. Christian is a positive distinction that A Course In Miracles students could consider themselves as being. I'm glad I'm giving this sermon here, because to preach this to the larger ACIM community would be a problem. They would hate it. Most A Course In Miracles students don't want to be thought of as Christians. And they don't want to be thought of, actually, as religious.
Yet the teaching itself doesn't have this energy about the words. I guess that's all I am really trying to point out. When we hear this anti-religion rhetoric, know that it is coming from something else. It's coming from society, or our culture. It's not coming from A Course In Miracles. So I have an issue with Spiritual But Not Religious because of that.
I also have an issue with SBNR for other reasons. Another is I think it's insidious, in that it is actually an attack on religion and other religious people. Religions are one of those things that we love to attack. You know, A Course In Miracles students are just like anybody else, they like to see the problem out there. They don't want to accept personal responsibility, really, even though we study this discipline that talks all about accepting personal responsibility. We don't really want to see it. We want to think the reason why the world is so messed up is because organized religion, for many centuries, has done this, this, and this, and really messed up the world. "So God, we don't really want to be religious because organized religions are the problem."
Are organized religions truly the problem? Is that what A Course In Miracles is teaching us to think? Can't be. Organized religions are not the problem. The problem is always the thinking in the mind. It's always the thinking in my mind. It's not the thinking in somebody else's mind. That just reflects the thinking that's in my mind. The problem is always my own thinking, my own mind. It's certainly not organized religion, but we're very addicted to that kind of guilt projection, seeing the problem outside of us. I fall into this thinking too, all the time, and I have to be vigilant about it too, all the time.
We want to think that there are these victimizers out there, and we hold these up. These are very "sacred" things for us. These are real sacred cows that we do not want to let go of. The government is another one. There's big government, or big business is another one. Monsanto, right? They're a terrible company. Oh my God, killing us all with their chemicals and their genetically engineered crops. Well, you know, that is how it appears, but that's not really the problem. The problem is our own thinking. If religions or governments reflect the problem, they got that image from us, from our thinking. If big corporations reflect the problem, they got that from us or our thinking.
I looked up another definition of religion. It says, "Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values." That's the Wikipedia definition of religion. So there's nothing about that that seems particularly negative. There's nothing about that I have any trouble identifying with. I can certainly say I am religious, according to Wikipedia's definition. I have an organized collection of beliefs, cultural ideas, and world views about the supernatural, about my spirituality, and they do dictate certain moral values that I have. Values like: to be loving, to be open, to be forgiving. Those are moral values, and A Course In Miracles certainly teaches that. So I can say unabashedly, and I have many times, that ACIM is my religion. Even though people bristle at the idea of calling ACIM a religion, it does fit the definitions of religion when you look up the word.
The origin of the word "religion" is interesting too. The origin of the word religion is "religio" or "relgare" which actually means to bind, to hold together. Religion is what brings people together. We're held together. We're brought together by an agreed upon group of beliefs, or ideas, or values. We all believe A Course In Miracles. We believe in the discipline that it has. We believe in the practice of it, the reading of the Text, the studying of the ideas presented there, the 365 Workbook lessons. We believe that it is beneficial to do those things. We join together because of that.
And so religion just means that we've joined together because of those ideas. There's nothing wrong with that. That joined together idea, or bound together, is what "religion" originally meant. When I read that it brought to mind another quotation from A Course In Miracles, "As we share this goal we increase its power to attract the whole Sonship and to bring it back into the Oneness in which it was created." (OrEd.Tx.5.29) Then the Course says something interesting that almost seems unrelated to the previous statement. It says, "Remember that ‘yoke' means ‘join together' and ‘burden' means ‘message.' Let us reconsider the Biblical statement, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light in this way: ‘Let us join together, for my message is light.'" (OrEd.Tx.5.29)
Religion really just means to join together. It's our yoke. It's the thing that keeps the oxen team together. The oxen team, when it is yoked together, can accomplish much more than the oxen can when not joined together. That's why you join them together. That's why people get together to study their spiritual disciplines together, because it can strengthen that study of the spiritual discipline. Then they can go further with it, and they can also accomplish more in the world if they join together around their spiritual principles. I think that's the good purpose that religion has served over the centuries and over all recorded history. Religions have done many, many good works. Yes, of course, there have been some abuses, and they're big abuses too. But, I wouldn't throw out the whole thing, because there's a negative side to it. You have to understand the positive side of it as well. And, obviously, A Course In Miracles is saying here that joining together, being a team, being yoked to somebody, or to a group, is actually a good thing if your message is healing, if your message is Light.
Technically, governmentally, people define themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious when they believe they are spiritual, but not associated with any church of any kind. They're individually spiritual, and not connected to a church. I look out this morning, and I see you all. You're a small group, but all of you are regulars here. You are all connected to a church. You are all connected to this church, the Community Miracles Center. You wouldn't fit the government's definition of Spiritual But Not Religious because you're all affiliated with a church. Many of you are members of this church, so you're "churched," as the government would label you, definitely not SBNR. You're here on Sunday. That's what church people do. They go to church on Sunday. Here you are. So before you take on this mantle of Spiritual But Not Religious, think about it. I understand many people have a lot of trouble with that idea.
Sure, people bristle about it, and that's why I chose the reading from A Course In Miracles where it talks positively about church, in the few places that it does. ACIM is universally positive about the church idea. It's not negative about the idea of church at all. It says, "I am sorry when my brothers do not share my decision to hear only one voice because it weakens them as teachers and as learners. Yet ... it is still on them that I must build my church." (OrEd.Tx.6.11) So Jesus wants to build his church on us regardless of our limitations, regardless of our inability to hear the one message and all the foibles that we have. Jesus knows he needs to build his church on us. We are the foundation for God's church. Then the quotation goes on. "There is no choice in this because only you can be the foundation of God's church. A church is where an altar is, and the presence of the altar is what makes it a church. Any church which does not inspire love has a hidden altar which is not serving the purpose for which God intended it." (OrEd.Tx.6.12) So again, he is asking us to be a church that inspires love. This passage concludes by saying, "I must found this church on you." (OrEd.Tx.6.12) ACIM is very positive about this idea of church. Why are ACIM students so negative?
A Course In Miracles is pretty clear that it is about founding a church, therefore it is about founding a religion. Religion is a positive thing in ACIM. The Course is even about embracing the definition of being "Christian." These are real challenging ideas for most ACIM students. They're challenging ideas for me. I've been challenging myself with these ideas for a long time, so I'm a little more used to it, and I've changed and shifted. I don't have any trouble, of course, in calling this a church, and I don't have any trouble calling A Course In Miracles my religion. I'm even moving into the idea of not really having trouble about calling myself a Christian. As long as I can make the distinction of being a "real Christian," or a "sincere Christian" who is vigilant against the anti-religious concepts that have crept into many of the other organized Christian religions.
That's what I got when I did my first little foray into this designation Spiritual But Not Religious. I ask all of you to just think about what I've said, when you hear SBNR. I understand that people want to distance themselves from traditional, organized religion. Actually, that's a good thing, but we don't have to throw out the whole baby with the bath water. The idea of joining together so that we can do more, and joining together so that we can embrace and practice our spiritual discipline at a higher level, is a really good idea. In that sense, I am very happy to be spiritual and religious.
Thank you. (applause) ♥
c/o Community Miracles Center
2269 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
This article appeared in the May 2013 (Vol. 27 No. 3) issue of Miracles Monthly. Miracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.