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‘When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough’ by Lillian Daniel: Wendy Dackson reviews


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church


A review of this book is really not a possibility, as it does not lend itself well to the standard of reviewing I have adhered to for the last 15 years.  But it deserves some engagement, as the topic of “Spiritual but Not Religious” (often abbreviated SBNR) is being discussed more frequently as more people either leave the churches, or embark on spiritual paths without ever having participated in institutional religious life.  So, I propose to respond to Lillian Daniel‘s book in stages.  First, I will attempt to review it in a standard way–descriptions of the main thesis, lines of argumentation, sources for claims made, principles of inclusion/exclusion, and a target readership who might find it valuable.  Next, I will try to engage some of the points she makes in the book by way of a quasi-conversation I would have with her if she were across a table from me.  Finally, I will offer some of my own reflection on my spiritual “desert time” of being a Christian who is loath to enter a church, not as SBNR, but as my own designation of “non-parochial laity“.




The category of “spiritual but not religious” has become mainstream in American culture, and possibly throughout the Western world.  In England, for example, although most people still claim the established Church as their religious affiliation on official forms (such as census, hospital admissions, and the like), most people do not attend services with any regularity.  They may consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”.  When I was growing up, it was fairly uncommon even to be the product of a religiously mixed marriage (I had a lapsed Roman Catholic father and a cultural but non-practicing Jewish mother), and SBNR was something almost nobody claimed.   Fifty years ago, it would have been shocking and countercultural.  Now, it is hardly worth mentioning.


It is, however, a rising challenge to the churches, especially to mainstream Christian denominations.  And so, Lillian Daneil’s book should be a welcome volume in dealing with the growing number of people on a spiritual path but outside the churches, with whom the churches should want to engage and forge positive relationships.  The title raises the expectation that there will be some effort to convince people who have taken individual spiritual paths that their aims would be better served by participating in congregational life, or some practical wisdom that clergy and members of churches could use to develop a dialogue with those who are perhaps not of their ranks, but seek harmonious ends with people in traditional communities of faith.  Unfortunately, the book lacks either.


There is no introduction to outline why she has written the book, what gives her the qualifications to make pronouncements on this topic (it appears to be some conversations with people on airplanes, and not much else), or what she intends to accomplish by circulating her words more widely than she can from her pulpit or blog. This is probably good for sales, as I continued reading the book hoping to find out these things, and was disappointed.  I can hardly imagine that I am alone in this (and I am befuddled by the praise that this book has generated).


When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough has no central unifying thesis, except that the author is bored by those who consider themselves to be SBNR.  It also lacks a clear organizing principle, although there are groupings of essays under the headings”Searching and Praying”; “Confessing”, “Communing”, “Wandering”, “Wondering”, and finally “Remembering and Returning”.  Except for The first essay (rant, really) entitled ‘Spiritual but Not Religious?”, and two others (Chapter 11: ‘Things I am Tired Of’, and Chapter 19 ‘Please Stop Boring Me’), the book has nothing to do with the Spiritual but Not Religious people or why the path they have chosen is unsatisfactory, let alone convincing them (or helping other church leaders to do so) that they would be welcome in the church and find a fuller and more complex path to God.


Only three chapters–the first, eleventh, and nineteenth–of this 32-chapter volume actually have any mention of the SBNR issue.  There is one point of clarity–the author has lumped all SBNRs into a composite that bores her.  She admits of no individual nuances, no possibility that for either a season or a lifetime, institutional religious participation may be unhelpful for some people.  She wants the recognition of being a public and ordained Christian minister, but does not want to be the face of the church for those who have a negative view of it (and does nothing to counter that negative view except to whine).  The remaining 29 chapters have the feeling of recycled sermon material, journal entries, and blog posts–none of which has been reworked to fit the topic stated in the title.  Interestingly, although she frequently makes the claim that participation in a religious community takes the focus off the individual, all of these are Rev. Daniel’s personal showcase.  God is there, to be sure—but in a supporting role only.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough would have benefited greatly by a much firmer editorial hand than it got, and by some real theological guidance.  The lack of insight does not go far to correct her lament that she feels like she lives in “a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith”, but rather contributes to the problem.  The claim that “I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes.  I don’t have to be logical, and most of all, I don’t have to prove it.  Not to you, not to anyone”, indicates that the book really is Lillian Daniel’s private hissy-fit, and does not have a lot of use to anyone who might really want to engage those who are not inside their churches.


The book is lacking in any kind of scholarship or research, and does not add to the serious literature in the subject of reaching those who are at the fringe of institutional religion.  Without either introduction or conclusion, it is hard to know what she intended by making these musings public, or what she believes (other than venting) will be accomplished by reaching a wider audience.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, by Lillian Daniel (New York:  Jericho Books, 2013).  Amazon Kindle Edition, $8.99 USD.


Courtesy Lillian Daniel’s website


Review and Meditation: ‘Stranger by the River’ by Paul Twitchell: Mary Helen Ferris


“ I wish to declare the riddle of God to thee. It is most important that this be done. Listen closely and understand.
The riddle of God is this.“God is what ye believe IT is. No man is wrong about the existence of God, and yet no man is right about his knowledge of God. There is no mystery in God except that IT is what soul believes that IT is. So the riddle is that: but all men will quarrel and argue about the greatness of God and their own knowledge of Him.
“Yet every man is right in his knowledge of God. But does this mean that the drunkard is as right as the great minister who preaches from the pulpit? Yea, I say that he, the drunkard, is as much upon the path as the preacher is in his pulpit. Ah, but this is justified in thy thinking. Each in his own place according to his understanding, Ah, but there is the answer.” If the drunkard seeks God through his bottle, and it seems irreverent to speak of both in the same breath, then let it be. But I mean to tell ye that the seeking of happiness, be it on a material plane or spiritual plane is the seeking of God. The ideal of the drunkard is to become drunk and unconscious so he can forget all and dwell within himself in a state of happiness. The God-seeker wishes to become unconscious in a state of inner silence to forget all and dwell in a state of happiness within. What is the difference? ” None I tell ye, for the drunkard may be closer to God than the God-seeker who with all his intensity for the SUGMAD ( GOD/ABSOLUTE BEINGNESS/INFINITE BEING) may drive it away. On the other hand, the drunkard will in his drunkenness forget himself, his selfishness, and false self, and it being this way, may have God’s mercy granted him and lo, enlightenment comes. ” Only two things pervade upon the seeker or the drunkard. Both must be interested in what they seek, be it God or selfish interest. Both must have concentrated upon what they are seeking, and in finding it must believe in it. ” The only difference is usually of character and ideals. but who knows what thy fellowmen has in his heart unless his tongue or deeds reveal such? And such is the riddle of God. God will come to anyone who needs Him, regardless of what their state of character or ideals may be. ” This is the riddle of God.” The riddle of God is this.“God is what ye believe IT is.”

I believed many things on my Journey to find this book….Stranger by the River. I believed that the war would never end. I believed the violence and fear of my childhood would never end. I believed that God would never love me because I was a drunk.

My first “god” was my Mother.
I feared her and wanted always and in all ways to please her. I could not. I did not. Not when I attended the faith of my grand parents. Not when I attended the faith of my father. Not even when Mother “got saved” and became a preacher herself. And certainly not when I rebelled and became a catholic so that I could be a nun and finally be a lady….(dress like one, act like one…and no one could ever touch me in “that way” again).

My second “god” was hard apple cider at the age of three.
I was drinking in the pantry with my brothers and their friends on a hot Saturday afternoon in the humid Ontario Canada weather. When I drank that hard cider, I felt that all the yelling and beatings and violence did not exist. I was in my own happy place. I thought about butterflies cause it felt like some of them that lived in my stomach were escaping out my nose. I could feel their joy. The more I drank the happier the butterflies were. They were free. In thinking about them being free….I wanted more. More hard apple cider. More happy place. I never did find it. That first afternoon in the pantry….I tried to re-live it with so many more substances and I never ever did.

My third “god” was power.
If hard apple cider would make me safe in my happy place….what would beer do? What would hard liquor do? What was the power in “more and more”? I had to find out. If I got drunk enough would the pain go away. Did substances have the power to make the pain stop? I could make enough money so that I could buy all the drugs and alcohol in the world and then I would have the power. How I made that kind of money only fed more and more into the addiction of more and more. I never did get to the power. I had the money, the clothes, the attention but nothing could stop the pain. And I became addicted to the pain.

My fourth “god’ was the judge.
He was going to tell me where I was going and for how long.
It was then I could stop running.

I could then get clean from “the life”. I do not think up until that time I had ever come out of the fog. I was always acting. Obeying my Mother. Following the desires of my mistress ~substance abuse. Converting to Catholicism to finally, hopefully, have a Mother who loved me. I acted like the best nun in the world because I so wanted to be loved. The Mother who loved me was not Sister Grace who demanded obedience….nor was there safety in the convent for me to not ever be touched “that” way. I was to take my final vows. The Church was sick at the time. I was putting all my faith in another sick Mother. I told the monsieur no. He told me I would have to get drunk to leave the convent. He would not be disgraced and he would not be disobeyed. No problem I was a drunk and I could be free from the Church…but I never did get free from the substances until the judge.

My fifth god was my desire to stay clean. I got sober in prison. I learned about a different way of being and I could actually think. I remembered and was filled with guilt and shame. In prison I learned about recovery through 12 step programs. I could not believe there were words such as chastity. People actually lived that way without having to (pardon the pun) get into the “habit”. I did not have to act anymore. I could be me. But who was that?
Joseph Campbell said ‘”follow your bliss.” What was bliss other than from the bottle? Now I did not have my bottle….who and what was I.
What would be my god now. What would I be if I were not a drunk?
But I mean to tell ye that the seeking of happiness, be it on a material plane or spiritual plane is the seeking of God. The ideal of the drunkard is to become drunk and unconscious so he can forget all and dwell within himself in a state of happiness. The God-seeker wishes to become unconscious in a state of inner silence to forget all and dwell in a state of happiness within. What is the difference?
The seeking of happiness (through the bottle) had been my life until the age of 33. Thirty years on the bottle and its friends. I had no social skills. I could work. I had incredible jobs as a high-functioning drunk and a former nun. I always got hired. I was always in control and always drunk..
Through the twelve steps of recovery I learned about a happiness without substances. I learned about words like clean, sober, celibate, modest, quiet and a whole new world of things.
There was this Higher Power thing. Not a god who would hate me for being a drunk. Just some loving energy that had replaced the booze and drugs. I liked that.

Through recovery I found a world of discovery. I had always loved books. I would learn. I would read. I would write. I would discover who I am. I did my time. I paid my debt to society and now I could find more books.
One book that changed my way of thinking was Paul Twitchell’s Stranger by the River. My favorite chapter…the Riddle of God.
And now I am living the rest of the story.

Mary Helen Ferris blogs at Great Poetry and is a friend of mine on Facebook, Google +Pinterest, Twitter and Empire Avenue. She describes herself as “I am a hermit who likes people. A world traveler who travels the keyboard. A writer who listens.”

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