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À La Carte Spirituality and Embodied Tradition

So many today are totally turned off by institutionalized faith. For many years now, “spiritual but not religious” has been a popular mantra. Many of us are interested in a life of faith, but not one that is connected to a particular community or tradition.

The Emergent Church movement has borne the marks of this shift. Rather than committing themselves to a particular Christian tradition, many post-modern Christians are experimenting with an Friends at the Tableeclectic faith, incorporating elements from various Protestant streams, and even Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
The post-modern penchant for diverse worship styles, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

The new paradigm that has been coming to the fore in recent decades often involves not merely a rejection a single normative Christian tradition, it has in many cases resulted in à la carte spirituality. Tradition (Christian or otherwise) becomes an accessory, decontextualized from the communities in which it developed and imported piece-meal into the devotional lives of seekers looking for guidance in their individual quests for meaning.

Our quest for a personalized spiritual experience does not stop there. We are increasingly shopping for religious community, too. Millions of Americans today are on an extended church-shopping spree, cycling between various religious communities in search of the “right fit.” For so many, this spiritual scavenger hunt never ends. No church, no human community, can ever fully measure up to our highest expectations.

Wherever we go, we will find hypocrisy, moral failure, spiritual blindness and plain stupidity. Yet, we also encounter beauty, sobriety, compassion and faithfulness. In every community, the good is mixed in with the bad. Just like in each human heart. However, so many today are abandoning commitment to religiousLunch at Stillwater Quarterly Meeting community in the face of the Church’s failure to live up to the high calling we have in Jesus.

The Church deserves critique, as we have certainly failed miserably on countless occasions. We continue to fail, to betray our Lord through our lack of faith and compassion. Despite all of our failings as the Body of Christ, we need the community that we find there. It is through particular communities of believers that Jesus Christ is present in the world and blesses it. However, it is difficult to receive the blessing of community when we are unwilling to accept the good with the bad. It is unlikely that we will receive the benefit of Christian community when we come to be served rather than to serve, to be fed rather than to feed others.

I do believe that each of us has a great deal to learn from other Christian communities and traditions, and even from non-Christian communities and traditions. I see value in efforts to reach across historical divides and find how God is present in other historical manifestations of Christ’s Church. However, these explorations are always done from a particular context.

My own context is Orthodox Quakerism. As an Orthodox Friend, I am embedded in a living community of faith that stretches across the United States and the world, and my community is enriched by the tradition we receive from our ancestors through writings and inherited institutions. However, the crux of our tradition is the ways that we embody it in our present-day life together. Gathered together as Friends of Jesus, we live an embodied tradition that cannot be summed up in writing, historical markers or buildings. Tradition is enfleshed in our imperfectConversation community as we strive to be faithful to the ongoing teaching of Jesus Christ in our midst.

This kind of incarnation is a full-body experience, not the adoption of certain quaint customs, procedures or an intellectual lineage. The essence of who we are as God’s people cannot be learned from books, and we cannot pick it up through occasional church-shopping visits. It is a reality that must be habitually lived and absorbed in community.

This is the tragedy of our “spiritual but not religious” generation, our age of tradition-swapping and consumeristic religion: It simply does not work. Tradition and human community cannot be separated from one another, and not even those two things together can substitute for long-suffering submission as individuals to the community, and the community as a whole to Christ’s Holy Spirit. There is no buying that.

  • Allyson

    Thanks for this. It spoke to my condition.

  • Adria

    You may check out a book on just this topic called “Shopping for Faith.” It was published in the nineties, but I think the trend of a buffet-style approach to religion (“a little bit of this, a dab of that, a sprinkling of the third thing”)has only grown more pronounced. An interesting insight of that book, by the way, is that faith communities that are growing are the ones that demand more, not less, of their members.

  • I think the crux of the problem is laid bare in your last statement. Spirit led people can not submit to a community that is not being led by the Holy Spirit. Sooner or later the spirit will tell the disciple to kick the dust from your feet, take your blessing back and leave. On the other hand where a community is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, souls will come and grow and bear fruit.

  • Hi Micah,
    I really became aware of this consumeristic tendency in myself when my wife and I moved away from home the first time. We had legitimate reason to find a new community of faith as we were new to an area, but as we “church-shopped”, I realized that my thinking was all wrong. I should not have been looking for what I could “get out of” a local body, but rather I should have been looking at what I could add to the community through a local body.

    The whole consumer/producer thing is so evident to me now in every area of life. We as followers of Christ in America really have a hard time resisting this very un-Christ-like culture of consumerism if we even realize there is such a thing. It kinda reminds me of JFK’s famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Of course Nationalism is just another way of being consumeristic, but if you think of it more broadly in terms Jesus might use, it could be what can I do for my neighbor rather than what can he do for me. In terms of consumer/producer, we ask what can I produce or what service can I provide to my fellow man.

  • I’m a big believer in pendulum swings, and I just think that we’re seeing the extreme here. To me, it’s inevitable. I won’t name the religious tradition I came from, but I can still remember being told not to join the YMCA because they said prayers that were not of our church… and being ordered as a child “Don’t you dare go to that church!” regarding a church that had invited the neighborhood kids to Bible story puppet shows. And I won’t even go into more egregious examples of downright criminal activity, let alone “poor discipleship.” As far as I’m concerned, organized Christianity is getting exactly what it deserves.

    That said, I have recently experienced (or, to put it in more traditional terms, I’ve recently been tempted) to walk away from my commitment to Quakerism because of incidences of what I would consider to be ridiculous pettiness and fractiousness within our meeting. However, I paused and reflected on two things: 1) When I requested to be received as a member, I was indeed making a fully conscious commitment, and unless I’m being asked at my meeting to take part in something immoral or fraudulent, I believe that I should fight the temptation to just walk away; and 2)As you say, any organization, religious or otherwise, is composed of human beings with all their faults and failings. Humility compels me to recognize my own failings, and Christ’s own commands compel me to treat others with patience, love, and understanding.

    In short, I won’t be out on a shopping trip again soon.

  • Anonymous

    I found this post really interesting. It challenged me and presented a new way of looking at a very difficult concept in my life. I remember growing up and hearing the term “Cafeteria Catholics” to describe those who did not believe in every creed and dogma of the Catholic Church. I found this odd considering that even my closest and “most” Catholic friends didn’t believe in absolutely everything the Catholic Church emphasized. This post presented a new way of viewing a la carte spirituality. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    It is true that many people wish to be hyphenated believers, six of one and a half-dozen of the other. I am not adverse to learning from other groups but there is a new modern twist to it that is sickly. Previous generations brought new things they learned to their communities and traditions..and some of them stuck.

    In our generation we suffer from commitmentphobia in religion as much as relationships. People shop back and forth, or we “court” more than one religion, just as we date more than one person, to ensure we get all our “needs” met. This polygamy borders on polytheism. Even when it’s all one God or the traditions are compatible there is an issue. I have no problem with someone who is, say, a Buddhist AND a Christian (or any hyphenated combination) if they actually practice BOTH Buddhism and Christianity. Instead, I find they practise only those parts of each that they like. They leave out huge areas of theory, ethics and practice that both agree upon. They just slip through the cracks and there is no one to call them to account.

    However, there are reasons people leave religions or fail to join. When I arrived in Judaism I was fully committed to it and the community. I didn’t come to religion until I had something to offer and was ready to serve, as you said. However, after a head injury, I was now a person in great need of help and a loving, protective community. I was followed into the community by my former, abusive spouse which made me deeply uncomfortable and subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a much older married man, a former (so he said) sex addict. When I asked for help from the community they were clearly uncomfortable with rebuking one of their own. I was put off with assertions that he is always that way and I should just ignore him. That he was continuing a lifetime of publically humiliating his wife and making countless young women uncomfortable so that they might not attend services was less important than not rocking the social boat. Most institutions, and most social groups, find it easier to degenerate into a dysfunctional family dynamic in which people who talk about the elephant in the room are shunned.

    I never came to religion until I was strong enough to survive it. And that is a sad fact, the people who are weakest, most vulnerable and in need of people who show them Gods love are the least able to survive religion. They are the first to attract the predators and exploiters, the first to be sacrificed to convenience, the last to be included in successful cliques and the most devastated when the body of Christ rejects or abuses them.

    Overall, I have found religion and religious people to be a stumbling block and tempters rather than a support. There are a few exceptions I have met for whom I am deeply grateful but they are scattered in different groups. I yield to no one in my appreciation of the relgious institution as a social centre but it is no place to get any spiritual work done. Those who have found otherwise, be very grateful.

  • C.S. Lewis warned of this very thing back in the 1950s, in an English context, where the choices of faith-shopping were very limited! (Anglican – high or low; Baptist or Congregationalist; Roman; and maybe Quaker in some areas. The weakness of th eErmgent Church movement is that is culturally-responsive; it does not stand outside culture as a critic but lives in as a participant. Yet we are told to be not of this world, even though we must live in it. Discipline is lacking infaith communities, which means humility is lacking. As for the communities which seem to lack the Holy Spirit – then be the prophet through which the Spirit moves in that community!

  • And yet, my Friends, remember George Fox, who walked among the elders, the priests the churches, arguing, cajoling, berating, browbeating… and eventually he stood up and said he didn’t need ANY community but the unmitigated experience of Christ!
    Wow… what do I do with that? I do not think I would have liked George, had he come to our Meeting for Worship, but From 350 years away, he is a significant force in my life. Judging is for God. As Eliot says, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
    Much gratitude for the opportunity to ponder among thoughtful Friends.

  • Christine Greenland

    The question for me was laid out at various points of my life. Most recently, I went to a lecture sponsored by a college that was in my mother’s (and her mother’s) tradition. Over dinner, I accidentally discovered why she had become so disillusioned that she left, never to recover a sense of Divine presence with her — at a time when she most needed that sort of comfort. We did a lot of church-shopping when I was a child. Perhaps some of that rubbed off unconsiously. But the banquet was set before me… for the rest, I stand in need of Divine Assistance in discernment.

    I also discovered from that Seed that only God can sow in the heart, that I retain the capacity for asking the questions that open conversations. As I turned to ask a question of another person, the conversation shifted into what God required from each one of us sitting at that table. We were of three different religious traditions — each of us striving to be faithful to our own. I suspect that each of us realized in our own way that if we get stuck in the past events or future hopes that “are not yet” we miss the blessings of the present — and being present — for each other.

    I’m currently working on what the concept of Gelassenheit (yieldedness, submission to Divine Authority) would look like for me, as a Quaker within my community. If our communities take as “Spirit-led” any spirit that blows about the room, or get too stuck in history, does constancy to Divine Will mean I should submit to the dysfunction that ensues? Or take back the blessing and move on?

    Thankfully, the past few years have given me the blessing of solid guidance from a variety of people who take the spiritual life — and the works that arise from it — seriously. Yes, we are flawed, cracked, wounded. How long this blessing will remain, I do not know. All I know is that it is “full of grace” for now. I am profoundly grateful.

    One person commented that I could not be doing the deeper openings into my soul that are possible this year had I stayed in the confining rigidities of a dysfunctional — and polarized — Quaker community.

    I need a community in which I can share the deeper wonderings of faith. I can understand the need for safety — but admonishment of those within the community who are doing harm is also necessary to protect those of us who are vulnerable. Friends have properly admonished me in instances when I lapsed into self-will. But there has also been the encouragement and direction to become more faithful, more compassionate — and more focused.