Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious Hardcover – 3 Apr 2014
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Whether or not Mercadante's readers endorse her theological critique, this fascinating book offers an investigation of American SBNR's beliefs that is important and timely, a gift to scholars and practitioners of religion, spirituality and non-religion. (Kristin Aune, Times Higher Education)
This informative, engaging, and important book shatters the myth that those who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious' (SBNR) are self-absorbed theological illiterates self-indulgently 'pic 'n mixing' their way to objectively superficial spiritual self-satisfaction. (Mark Bratton, Journal of Contemporary Religion)
About the Author
Linda A. Mercadante is B. Robert Straker Professor of Theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Her conclusions were fair and well reasoned. This could lay the groundwork for successive works that also consider the legal and moral consequences of these cultural trends. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in, or is trying to make sense of, the increasingly ambiguous religious climate in our culture.
For those already members of traditional denominations, looking perhaps for a way to engage with SBNRs, this is likely to be an unsettling read. Mercadante's in-depth interviews with over 200 self-described SBNRs reveal -- surprisingly, given recent years' headlines -- that most of those who've fallen away from the church did so not because of any personally horrible experience but because of theological differences; a rejection of traditional orthodoxies, if you will.
This is all the more surprising because one tends to think of the "unchurched" as comprised largely of those who reject all theologies. Mercadante shows this isn't so; SBNRs are much more likely to have strong theologies, but they're "hybrid" or "syncretic" in nature. And "syncretism" is a positive term to most SBNRs, setting them apart from the orthodox.
Conservative Roman Catholics make sport of what they term "Cafeteria Catholics". One could similarly mock SBNRs as "Salad Bar (or Side-Order) SBNRs". But that poses the question: If you order only plates of tapas, or choose only from the dim-sum cart, is that any less satisfying a meal? Mercadante's SBNRs argue that what they choose is exactly what's right "for them".
Mercadante does a fine job of parsing her interviewees into logical groups. She begins by noting that the changes in percentage of Americans calling themselves SBNRs track very closely with the four main post-WW2 generational groups. She then redefines the entire group according to five categories based on interviewees' self-described "location" on a continuum. The "dissenters" are near one end of this continuum; they have no interest in organized religion, but nonetheless have an interest in personal spiritual practices. At the other end are the "immigrants", Mercadante's term for those joining or rejoining a religious community.
This allows her to crosstab the interviewees by generation and category, a dual metric which turns out to be a very useful way of characterizing subgroups of SBNRs, somewhere between the extremes of lumping them all together and treating each individual as distinctly unique -- methodologies that obviously don't lend themselves well to a good analysis. After reading this book you'll have a very good feel for what makes SBNRs "tick": what piques their interest and curiosity (and gets them involved) as well as what drives them nuts about organized religion.
The emphasis in this book is a little heavier on the interviewees and their explanations of what led them to their current positions, a little lighter on analysis of the aggregated subgroups and SBNRs as a whole. This apparently bothers some reviewers, but I'm not one. I was happier to have more of the SBNR's own stories in their own words; that gives me -- and, I suggest, other readers -- the opportunity to ponder and analyze for ourselves, in light of our own experiences. I consider myself more of an "SAR" (spiritual and religious), yet I see much of my own journey reflected in those stories, and I suspect this will likely be true of most readers no matter how you categorize yourselves.
One note: these interviewees were self-selected SBNRs, so you shouldn't expect to find professed atheists or rigorous agnostics among them. On the other side of the scale, there are many who incorporate all sorts of spiritual traditions. As you might expect, some of those have integrated those disparate traditions more thoroughly than others. However, few have any reservations about continuing to search, select, and refine their personal spiritual practices and theologies -- what the orthodox would call a path of "intentional spiritual formation" and "discernment". These are folks who would enliven any spiritual community open enough to welcome them.
The sole difficulty I encountered was the book's organization. Mercadante breaks the main section into the interviewees' responses to the four big questions she poses to each and all of them (and, by extension, each of us). The unavoidable result is that we re-encounter many interviewees multiple times as we read through the chapters. And there are so many that Mercadante is almost forced to reintroduce them each time. There's no way I can see that she could've avoided this in the book, and it's a minor quibble considering the wealth of interviewees and quotes in each chapter. It'd be wonderful if somehow, at some future point, we could have access to the re-aggregated main body of each interview. Perhaps this is something that a website could accommodate.
Those who, like me, use this book as a jumping-off place for class or group discussions will unfortunately have a hard time finding neutral study guides. The guides currently out there seem to be based on an assumption that they'll be used by orthodox Christians who mainly want to acquire tools and arguments to proselytize SBNRs more effectively. Study groups for whom a better understanding of SBNRs is its own reward will find these guides more of a hindrance than a help, and will likely have to develop their own curricula and "lesson plans".
To summarize, this is a remarkably successful attempt to come to grips with the noteworthy phenomenon of rapidly increasing numbers of SBNR Americans. It sheds considerable light on the reasons this is happening, giving individual SBNRs who read it considerable insight into others who share this title. It also offers multiple lessons to mainstream denominations, many of whose congregations are dwindling. Openminded American Christians -- as well as American members of other organized religions, of course -- will find this engrossing book has the potential to open new dialogues between existing congregations and individual SBNRs that can lead to worthwhile growth for everyone involved.
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