Bass notes that while increasing numbers of Americans shy away from the word “religion,” many identify themselves as being “spiritual.” “Spirituality,” she argues, has become a code word for experiential religion, based on the direct, practical and transformative experience of God. “Religion,” on the other hand, serves as a label for all of the institutional baggage and heavy-handed dogma that the Christian community has developed over the course of recent centuries.
This was certainly my own experience. When I first committed to nurturing my relationship with God, my top priority was finding a community to belong to. I was beginning to trust in God, but I did not have any specific beliefs about Jesus, and was skeptical of Christianity in general (as many in my generation are). Fortunately, I found a Quaker community that was able to love and accept me as I was. Though I had lots of hang-ups, and my theology was still a jumbled mess, they were patient with me and did not jump in to correct me. Instead, my newfound community encouraged me to study the Quaker tradition, and to dedicate myself to the practices of waiting worship, discernment and personal prayer.
Just as Diana Butler Bass argues, for me the traditional pattern was reversed: Instead of “believing, behaving, belonging,” I first found belonging in a supportive spiritual community. There, I learned practices that taught me how to “behave.” Finally, this supportive community and the spiritual practices they taught me drew me into an authentic set of beliefs, grounded in both my own personal experience and in Scripture.
Ironically, now that I have gone through this process, I often forget how I got here. It is easy for me to get into a mindset that demands belief first, rather than seeing propositional belief as the product of a journey through belonging and practice. This tendency to insist on belief up front is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Christian community, and it will take real effort on our part to learn to reverse the equation.
At the end of the day, I hope that this combination of unconditional acceptance and the teaching of spiritual practices will lead to deeply rooted faith. In the context of loving community and time-tested spiritual practices, we can open up space in our lives to discover the Truth that we find expressed in Scripture and our tradition as Quakers. On this path of “belonging, behaving, believing,” the acceptance of certain theological concepts will represent the culmination of a long process of engagement and growth, rather than the starting point.