Who Are You Calling a “None”? – The Rectification of Names

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In the Confucian tradition, there is an important procedure of clarifying roles and duties, and how they are named.

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success… Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

It still applies often to modern Chinese politics – in terms of the names in history books for Taiwan, and continued evolution of societal roles (and therefore how they are named in political circles and decisions).

What’s in a Name?

How might this concept and movement to changing names be relevant to the trends we see in “churched” people of today? The Pew Research Center reports of the past few years have introduced a new term into our conversations about religious culture.  Suddenly churches are faced with considering the “nones” – the number of Americans that do not currently identify with any religious practice.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. – Pew Research Center, 2012

In recent conversations the “nones” seems to have often become an abbreviation for “having no (none) belief in God or religion”.  They are uniformly dissatisfied and adverse to the church as it stands today.  In some cases this is certainly true, but delving deeper into the statistics about the religiously unaffiliated perhaps gives us another view.

  • one third of the religiously unaffiliated say religion is still important in their lives
  • two thirds believe in God (although less than half are certain of God’s existence)
  • 18% describe themselves as a religious person
  • 37% describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”
  • 78% say religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds
  • 77% say that religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (Pew Research Center Survey, June 28 – July 9, 2012)

What does this actually mean for the church of today?  It may simply mean that many of these religiously unaffiliated are leaving the institution of the church, while still holding a personal spiritual practice, or faith in something beyond themselves, or a longing for an effective spiritual group and practice that brings good to society and the world.  .  What if we applied the “rectification of names” to this evolving process?  What if we focused on the new definition of “spiritual” rather than the leaving of “religion”?

What Cans’t Thou Say?

In reading all of these reports, I have a strong sense of the need for individuals naming a need for a spiritual practice and/or belief system that speaks to them personally.  Increases in practices such as yoga, community involvement in social issues and care for the disadvantaged, a true sense of “the church” not formally named, but as a coming together of a people for strength and encouragement.  In some cases, faithful living without the rules of the past.  This is not some mere anarchy and free-for-all – there are deep and heartfelt “rules” of peace, of loving one’s neighbor, of considering a deep listening and valuing family groups and constructs.

Does the church of today speak to this deep need?  Is it called to?  Or is this just a structure that must fall away so the real and necessary “church” of today might emerge as useful in this time?  We on the planet are now facing dramatic climate change, systemic and institutional racism and oppression, and other huge concerns. They have always been with us as humans on this planet in some form – but now they emerge at crisis level, and require our engagement for our very survival.  Not survival of any particular “church” – but survival of the human species.

Margaret Fell, early Friend of the Quaker movement, described this need for personal engagement in words that have now become famous.  When she listened to a message from her husband George Fox (founder of the Quaker movement) she said the following:

And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,”. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” . This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

Margaret Fell cried bitterly when she realized that those in the church did not know of the Spirit of God themselves.  Perhaps we’d call this her “none” moment today – her leaving of the formal church.  But she was given much more than “none” in terms of personal, vibrant, lived experience of being the emerging new “church”.

What canst though say?  If we ask these “nones” of today – we may not find a specific call to a church as institution – but we may indeed find much to answer in terms of faithfulness in our world.  Maybe it is time to rectify the name of “none” and wonder if these people are indeed those to be called “The Church” in the new ways of wholeness and faithful community that our struggling world so desperately needs.

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