The One True Religion of Sheilaism
A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
May 25, 2014
On this Memorial Day Sunday we reflect on things. We remember people we’ve known who have died, especially veterans. We reflect on the meaning of our own lives.
Today, I’m going to ask your indulgence in departing from a strict Memorial Day theme to reflect on some aspects of modern religious and spiritual life.
Being President of one of our denomination’s ministerial associations has given me an overview of what is happening in religious life in American that I didn’t have before, and I’m fascinated enough by it that I want to speak about it.
I hope what I have to say may encourage you in your own spiritual journey and may deepen your appreciation for Countryside Church.
Basically, I believe we all need to create our own spirituality. I think we have the means to do that and increasingly doing that is common.
Second, I believe religious denominations are in serious decline and that they will not recover. They may continue to exist but will be increasingly irrelevant.
Finally, while I think the future of most denominations is dark, the future for specific, healthy congregations is bright.
And I blame it all on Sheila.
Sociologist Robert Bellah has famously identified a new religion in America. It is the religion of a person named Shelia. He used her as a foil to describe what he saw as a trend: people choosing their religious and spiritual beliefs from eclectic sources, and creating a personal mix that may not match what their denomination teaches or believes.
In 1985 Bellah and his colleagues published a well-done study on contemporary American values called Habits of the Heart. In it they argued that a profound shift was occurring in the mind of Americans.
Bellah called her “Sheila Larson” although that was not her real name. She was a young nurse and he argued she was typical.
Sheila said she was “spiritual” and that her faith was important to her. But she couldn’t remember the last time she had gone to church. She believed in some sort of God and had named her faith after herself. She called it “Sheilaism.”
“It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”
According the the Gallup Poll, 80% of Americans agree that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.”
Soon scholars were using the name “Sheilaism” to describe this position where religion was seen as a private matter, and there is no particular constraint placed upon a person by tradition, the Bible or church denominations.
This is such a common belief now almost 30 years later that few of us find it remarkable. But it was a tremendous change.
Now, “do it yourself faith” is what every Unitarian Universalist does. For us, Sheilaism isn’t anything new. All all do it. The difference is that we do it in a congregation together. Sheila can’t remember the last time she went to church. Therein lies my point this morning: even in an age of “do it yourself faith” being part of a good congregation is important.
The Separation of Spirituality from Religion
Something has happened in our time that is unprecedented in the Western Religious Tradition. It is possible to be Spiritual, but not Religious.
Spirituality has become separated from religion. That’s what Sheilaism is all about. Shelia really doesn’t have a religion although she calls it that. What she has is a simple, personal spirituality.
Religion is something you do with others. It unites you with other people, a faith communities and historical tradition. Religion is something you do with others.
Spirituality on the other hand is something you do alone. It is something that joins you to a power that is greater than yourself or a power that is deeper and imminent within yourself.
It is possible to be spiritual and have no religion. It is possible to be part of a religious community and have no spirituality. I would argue that its best to have both, but spirituality and religion are not the same.
Sheila has a spirituality, not a religion.
In ages past that would have been unthinkable. You got your spiritual practices from your religion, and you could use only the practices that your religion sanctioned.
You couldn’t combine Buddhist meditation with Christian theology, or Japanese Energy Work with Liberal Judaism. If you had tried, people would have thought you insane. In some places you would have been punished, and in some places in our modern world you still can be.
In our society every person has the opportunity to be a deeply spiritual person in a way that is just right for them. Due to worldwide information exchange, never before have people had as many opportunities to explore different aspects of their spirituality. No one has to be confined to the teaching of any one church.
Do It Yourself Spirituality
Spiritual writer Thomas Moore, a former Roman Catholic monk and now a Jungian Therapist has recently asked the religious community in his book A Religion of One’s Own, to rethink it’s rejection of Sheilaism or other forms of “do it yourself” religion.
Moore thinks that each of us is responsible to develop our own “soul,” and we are better off if we each create a path for ourselves. By “soul” what both he and I mean is that part of you that seeks a deeper experience of everyday life.
If you do things to develop your soul, you have a spiritual practice.
Moore suggests there are ten things we should do in order to create a “do it yourself” faith that has substance. If you are interested in his specific list I recommend his book to you, or just type “modern spiritual practices” into Google or Bing and you will find a lot of good material.
Basically Thomas Moore would urge you to learn to meditate, practice some form of contemplation like journal keeping, music or art appreciation, mindful living or some other “deep” experience.
He thinks you should learn to enjoy the grandeur of nature in some way.
He thinks you should discipline yourself to mean what you say, say what you mean, and never say less than you actually believe.
Finally, he thinks you should do enough homework to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation about spiritual matters.
It really isn’t very hard to create a beautiful spiritual life that is just right for you. It actually doesn’t take a lot of work, just a bit.
I think that’s a good thing. But it is bad news for denominations. Because denominations are in the business of telling people what their spiritual practices should look like. “Do It Yourself Spirituality” is a direct threat to that.
Bad News for Denominations
Most mainline religious denominations today are in decline, including ours. Only the most politically conservative denominations are doing well, because they teach that there is no salvation outside of them. Therefore, you are either in and saved, or out and damned. If you buy that, you’re devoted to your denomination.
But most people don’t buy that. They feel that the universe is a friendly place, much like Max Ehrmann expressed in his famous poem Desiderata.
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
That’s great theology, but it doesn’t motivate a lot of people to join a church.
The Unitarian Universalist denomination is in decline. Our Middle Class demographic has been hard hit by economic changes. Our people move around for occupational reasons, and if they move to a place that has no Unitarian Universalist congregation (and there are not a lot of them) we tend to lose those people.
In a former time when everyone belonged to some church, our primary appeal was that we were a place where you didn’t have to say anything you didn’t believe. You could have intellectual integrity here.
A famous ad asked “Are You A Unitarian Universalist Without Knowing It?” The appeal was that we were a place where what you believed, and what you said you believed, matched.
All that is still true, but it doesn’t matter as much as it used to. People feel entitled to arrive at their own spiritual conclusions independent of what their religion teaches. Today people practice what I call “Cafeteria Faith.” That is, they pick and choose what they believe from among the things their denomination teaches, taking up what they like and leaving behind what they do not like.
No where is this as evident as among contemporary Roman Catholics. 82% of American Catholics feel perfectly comfortable ignoring their church's teaching about contraception.
Think about that. The Bishops have instructed the priests to preach regularly on the evil of contraception. The Roman Catholic Church in America did everything they could to oppose Universal Healthcare because it included contraception coverage.
And 82% of their members do not agree. But those members don’t leave either. They don’t come over to a more liberal church like they used to. In fact it used to be that a clear majority of people who joined us did so after leaving the Roman Catholic or Methodist denominations. But today, they simply look past the issue and go to mass on Sunday to enjoy the music.
What churches teach is no longer authoritative. If people like the pope they listen to what he has to say. If they do not like the pope they ignore what he has to say. In centuries past, what the pope said was law. No longer.
That’s the result of Sheilaism.
But if denominations are not that important, there is less need to change denominations if you don’t agree with what is printed in the Order of Worship, because everyone feels you can just ignore that.
Because people feel denominations are not important, people support them less. Simple as that.
Not surprisingly, some denominationally specific parish ministers often don’t like “do it yourself” faith. They want you to listen to them when they tell you what is right. Even our own Unitarian Universalist Association does this from time to time often pushing a specific political message.
A United Church of Christ minister named Lillian Daniel has written a book that is very popular among clergy, but that I personally find kind of snarky. It is titled, When Being Spiritual But Not Religious, is Not Enough.
The book is intended as a critique of the people who practice some form of “do it yourself” faith.
Rev. Daniel’s basic argument is that such people are selfish and the faith they practice shallow. They excuse themselves from the demand of a serious commitment to charity and the welfare of others. The claim is that their spirituality is often unaccompanied by generosity, and they do little or nothing to lift the burden of others.
I think this argument is snarky because I don’t really think it’s true.
You no longer need a religion to be a generous and charitable person and there are many ways to conveniently give.
When you check out at Whole Foods you have a chance to make a donation to a worthy charity that is seamlessly added to your checkout receipt.
When I make my weekly trip to PetSmart to buy kitty litter I am offered the chance to make a donation to an Animal Rescue charity when my credit card is processed.
If you buy a burger or a plate of wings at Hooters during National Breast Cancer Month you are asked to make a significant contribution to that charity. (Seriously, the waitress hits you up for twenty to thirty bucks. My buddy tried to give her a dollar and she threw it back at him and took away his beer.).
You don’t need a religion to be charitable today. There are lots of ways to be generous, and they obviously work or the participating stores and institutions wouldn’t do them.
So I don’t think that argument is valid.
Congregations Can Be Important
All that said, while mainline denominations may be in for a rough time, I think some local congregations have the potential to be seriously needed. My conviction is that as denominations become less important, good local congregations become more important, they just will be increasingly non-denominational.
But all congregations are not created equal. I said good congregations. Not all congregations are good.
Rev. Daniel’s book is fun to read. But at the end of the day the good reverend ignores the core issue. The people who reject churches are often doing it out of an intuition that something has gone wrong with the institutional church. They are not finding what they need there, or they have actually been damaged.
Some churches really mess people up, and the smaller they are the more effectively they do this.
This next bit may seem counter-intuitive, but I assure you it is true. Most congregations, the vast majority of free-standing church congregations, are small congregations.
However, most people who attend church, do so at large congregations.
The Duke University National Congregations Study found that 90% of the people who attend church do so in congregations of more than 400 people.
Only 10% of the people who attend church attend in churches that are smaller than 400 members. So while most churches are small, most of the people attend church attend the few that are very large. It’s the small churches that disproportionately cause pain.
Consultants have shown that the level of interpersonal conflict in congregations is much higher the smaller the congregation is. In a small church it only takes a few determined people to create a stink.
In a small congregation I served at the very beginning of my career (average Sunday attendance was 35), fist fights would occasionally break out during the Annual Meeting. Seriously. I remarked to my mentor that it appeared that churches don’t split because of the Great Issues in Theology. They split over fights about what color we’re going to paint the nursery.
It is the little congregations with their politics and factions, their matriarchs and patriarchs and dominance battles that really do a job at hurting the feelings of good people.
We clergy know that churches can mess people up, because we hear it all the time when we meet someone and they learn what we do for a living.
We routinely hear from people about how hurt they were by something painful that happened in some church long ago. It almost always has nothing to do with any church we represent, but that doesn’t stop them.
Think about it. If someone tells you they are a chef, you don’t immediately pour out your frustrations or horror stories about bad meals you have had.
If the person sitting next to you on an airplane tells you he or she is a plumber, you don’t immediate launch into a harangue about that plumber years ago who couldn’t fix the leak under your sink.
But if you tell people you are a member of the clergy, a lot of people will not shut up. They are in so much pain.
In fact, (and maybe it is a stain on my soul) when I travel and someone asks me what I do for a living, in simple self-defense I usually reply that I am the Assistant Sales Manager for a company that makes rawhide dog chews. Because, no one wants to hear any more about that, and I can spend the time in peace.
Something has gone wrong with a lot of congregations. No wonder a lot of people want nothing to do with them and find a way to explore the spiritual depths they can sense on their own.
Not Created Equal
Our Unitarian Universalist path is not an easy path. Or rather, it is an easy religion to do badly and a hard one to do well. That’s because we have always required you come up with your own set of beliefs. We’ve always been kind of on Sheila’s side. But, we also covenant to work together, and that requires that our different spiritual positions get a workout in a way they do not get in setting where everyone agrees to say the words even if they don’t believe them.
Right now you could be sitting next to someone whose spirituality is baffling to you or whose theology is the polar opposite of yours. But most Sundays you listen to someone prattle on from the pulpit and that person may challenge what you believe or do. Then, you go to coffee hour and you may talk to others about it. Your “do-it-yourself” faith gets a workout. It gets examined by the indirect friction of talking to others about spiritual or religious things.
Sheila doesn’t do that. That’s the major problem with Sheilaism. If Sheila makes some huge blunder no one is likely to call it to her attention. No one is around to say, “Hey, that’s a contradiction.” Sheila lives an unexamined life, practicing an unexamined faith. If she makes a mistake she’ll never know until it causes her some sort of pain or lets her down.
A good religious community can help you develop your personal spirituality if you can find a good congregation. Some are better than others, some are awful.
My advice is that if you find a good one stick with it, because it can help you do important work. But take if from me, the good ones can be hard to find.
Oh. I’ve been part of this one for 23 years now. I think it’s pretty good.
And that’s my sermon.