Tim Miner: Spirituality without Religion

Tim Miner: Spirituality without Religion

Illustration: Brett Affrunti

A founder of the Order of Universal Interfaith and the executive director of the Council of Interfaith Communities of the United States, the Rev. Tim Miner also is a leader in the “Spiritual But Not Religious” movement. Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke with him about the rise of the “Nones.”

As someone who is called to serve the “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or SBNR, community, what can you tell us about that group?

The emergence of the SBNR community, and the rise of the “Nones,” the spiritually unaffiliated, are among the top ten forces impacting contemporary society. The latest Pew [Forum on Religion & Public Life] research shows that Nones comprise 20 percent of the United States population, and the SBNR community is the fastest growing spiritual community in the country.

Why do you think this is happening?

Diana Butler Bass [author of Christianity After Religion] in a recent PBS interview focused on people’s frustration with the perceived hypocrisy in organized religion as a root cause of the SBNR phenomenon. In Tom Thresher’s book, Reverent Irreverence, he called Jesus an “SBNR Jew” because of his passion for pointing out the hypocrisy of his own religious leaders.

I doubt that Nones are hypocrisy free or that all of them look at clergy with a jaundiced eye. Religious hierarchies breed all kinds of problems. Is the SBNR movement creating its own institutions and clergy?

Seminaries training interfaith clergy have been around for three decades, and graduates are creating networks of spiritual seekers without asking them to identify with any specific religion.

Is “interfaith” the same as SBNR or Nones? What is the language emerging in this community?

The language expands as fast as the movement itself, and there is no authorized label. I like the term “inclusive theology” and seek to empower people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth. Other terms include “interfaith as a spiritual expression,” “multifaith,” “interspirituality,” and “integral spirituality.”

With people taking responsibility for their own spiritual growth, there is always the possibility, or maybe even inevitability, of charlatans taking advantage of seekers. What do you do about . . . well, let’s call it quality control?

For the last four years there has grown a sense that individual “ecclesiastic” bodies can now represent the entire spectrum of human spirituality, and not be confined to a single worldview or philosophy. The Order of Universal Interfaith, for example, welcomes all people of all faiths and with no faith at all to spiritual service according to their own calling. Coupled with other interfaith communities around the world in a Council of Interfaith Communities, there is a growing support network for all SBNR with opportunities to do spiritual service and community building.

Is this on the periphery of society or is it making inroads in the mainstream?

It is mainstream. SBNR is mainstream. Rutgers University, for example, is setting up an Integral Spirituality Nexus community as part of its campus ministries. Over sixty students have already signed up. And a few older traditions like Unitarian Universalism and Unity are evolving toward that sense of inclusiveness.

What does “Integral Spirituality Nexus” mean?

The term “integral” refers to the work of Ken Wilbur and is meant to invite students to draw from the wisdom of a variety of philosophies and religions and to establish their own way to an awake, aware, and alive existence.

In the interest of full disclosure, you and I have been involved in this inclusive approach for a long time. Last year we hosted the first “Big I Conference on Inclusive Theology, Spirituality, and Consciousness” in Nashville, Tennessee, and in 2013 we hosted the second. What do you hope comes from all of this?

Three things. First, our networks provide SBNRs with a sense of community without the added demand for conformity. Second, our organizations provide the SBNR movement with legitimacy by giving it a voice on college campuses and in society in general. And third, our conferences, both the national Big I and our online gatherings, help us to deepen our understanding of just what it can mean to be spiritual but not religious, and inclusive when it comes to theology and religion. While we don’t know what the future will bring, the present is promising great things.

Do you see the rise of the Nones as the fall of the Somethings?

Not at all. Traditional religions aren’t going away anytime soon. But they are failing to reach a growing segment of the population—people who cannot restrict themselves to one faith alone or any faith in particular. These people see value in aspects of different religions but find no place where these aspects are allowed to flourish and cross-pollinate in a single community. The work of groups like Order of Universal Interfaith, conferences like the Big I, and campus groups like Integral Spirituality Nexus are providing opportunities for growing just such communities.

My fear is that in seeking to meet the needs of this diverse population, we will create a horde of competing ideologies that will fall into the same trap of branding and in-fighting that created the SBNR phenomenon in the first place. Are you concerned with this?

Sure, and that’s why we created the Big I Conference—to create an umbrella for spiritual seekers of all faiths and none who aren’t afraid to learn from people different from themselves. What binds is our shared search, and not a shared map or even destination. We value difference rather than conformity, and creativity over continuity. We don’t know where this will go, but we trust the process just the same.

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