Part 1: Here Come the Nones – There Go the Nuns?

Students of American religious life have observed for decades that recent generations have been abandoning active Church participation in huge numbers. And those who are leaving are not joining other religious groups. They’re just leaving. Hence scholars call them “the Nones.” But many, if not all, of these Nones still are seeking to be “spiritual, not religious.” More about that anon.

First, a recap of the story of Church decline.  Ask most parish pastors how they’re doing and they will in all likelihood observe that things are tough. Many congregations are shrinking. Sunday attendance is down, almost everywhere. Financial support, typically, is also a problem for many congregations today. Some churches fear that they might have to close. Some are closing.

More generally, in this our very busy secular age, few seem to have time for regular Sunday worship, not to speak of engaging in loving interaction with other believers. Never mind the potluck suppers or the Bible study groups of yore. They’re mostly gone. And few believers appear to have time to help with what we used to call “service projects.” There are some remarkable exceptions to this rule of decline, to be sure. But institutional Church news these days, overall, is not very good.

Meanwhile more than a few clergy appear to be in some disquiet. I recently filled out a fifteen minute survey for rostered ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the between-the-lines meaning everywhere in those questions seemed to be this: that pastors are increasingly under stress, financial, professional, personal, even spiritual.

And theological seminaries – those that haven’t shut down or merged with others – are increasingly under stress, from declining enrollments to over-the-top financial problems.

On the other hand, society-wide interest in spirituality seems to be flourishing, especially in the ranks of those who have abandoned what they’ve thought of as organized religion. Hence my theme: Here Come the Nones – There Go the Nuns? I wish I had dreamed up that bon mot, but I owe it to the contemporary American philosopher of religion, John Caputo. Turns out that Caputo is a champion of the Nones, or at least of what they represent: a popular rebirth of spirituality, over against what Caputo judges to be the superficiality of the religion currently practiced in much of institutional Christianity.*

Consider this utterance by Caputo, in a recent interview in the National Catholic Reporter:

What we are witnessing today in that which calls itself religion is shaming God right out of existence and that the sense of what is of unconditional worth is more and more found without religion. It can be found in the arts, or the mysteries of the universe that science is uncovering, or working in an Ebola clinic in West Africa, or in everyday life. But it must be found. Without it, the result will be people with no wider vision of their lives than bigger and better shopping malls, in search of nothing grander than self-aggrandizement, people for whom nothing is sacred. 

Radical theology is about what is genuinely sacred, with or without “religion,” and it calls for a new species of theologians and philosophers, who are willing to repeat or reinvent the event that is going on in the name of God for a world that has been profoundly transformed and no longer believes in [what is conventionally called] “God…”

     Which is to say that, for Caputo and for analysts like him – and there are many – the religious future in the U.S. is surely with the Nones, rather than the Nuns. True? Stay tuned. I’m now working on a follow-up essay, tentatively entitled: Let’s hear it for the Nuns.


*For a longer discussion of the spirituality of the Nones and the promise of revitalized Christian liturgical practices in this context, see my book Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), “Part One: Nature, Liturgy, and Theology,” pp. 3-78.