The Lindberghs' Question for the Church
Why not just be "spiritual but not religious"?
A year ago yesterday, my spiritual biography of Charles Lindbergh officially hit shelves. Like almost every author in history, I’ve sold fewer copies than I’d hoped, but those who have read it have shared generous words of praise and appreciation. Not just reviewers as distinguished as Grant Wacker, Chuck Shindo, and Jonathan Den Hartog, but family, friends, colleagues, and people I know from church.
That last group is especially meaningful to me, since my original purpose for writing this book was to help Christians like me to better know and love the growing share of their neighbors who identify with no particular religion, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
Neighbors, that is, like Charles and Anne Lindbergh.
To mark the book’s anniversary, tonight I’m joining a small group from one local church to discuss their reactions to the book. I’m happy to get any feedback from readers, but I especially want to hear them answer a question posed by the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh:
Why be religious, not just spiritual?
Or, to put more of a point on it: why do we need the church?
Let’s start with Charles… At least in his own telling, Lindbergh most often chalked up his lack of religiosity to his dismal childhood experiences of (infrequently) attending the Congregational church in Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve no doubt that Christians can find better ways to integrate children into the worship and ministry of our churches, but the fact that a six-year old couldn’t wait to get out of his Sunday outfit and go swimming isn’t that compelling a challenge.
Far more important is the fact that an adult Lindbergh, seemingly out of nowhere, discovered a midlife curiosity about spirituality and metaphysics… and didn’t satisfy it within Christianity or any other organized religion.1 If he could find truth and meaning in travel, nature, science, art, conversation, and his own idiosyncratic readings of Jesus, Lao Tzu, Plato, and Gandhi, why should he have paid more than his occasional visits to churches and temples?
This is a version of today’s question to which my book suggests an answer: “flying solo” spiritually has its own set of dangers, different from but no less serious than those that typically present in organized religion. Here’s how I summed up Lindbergh’s problem in an afterword that linked his white supremacy to the murders of two fellow Minnesotans, Philando Castile and George Floyd:
While his “spiritual but not religious” journey left him free from the hypocrisies of institutional Christianity, it also left him free to ignore whatever teachings of Christ he found inconvenient. Grace, humility, and unqualified love of neighbor simply did not fit within a worldview that took racial difference for granted and turned racial competition into a divine imperative. Having made God in his own image, Charles Lindbergh saw no image of God in people who didn’t resemble him.
If I can invert what I wrote next, I’d warn that while a faith like mine cannot guarantee that its adherents will love their neighbors or seek justice for them, a religionless spirituality provides no inherent defense against bigotry. In fact, seeking the spiritual apart from religion can easily lead mere mortals to double down on their worst instincts and ugliest biases.
I don’t mean to affirm the value of religious authority alone: we Christians know better than Lindbergh how easily such power can be exploited and its abuses covered up. But the solution to that problem isn’t to make any individual’s fallible judgment reign supreme, or to hesitate to proclaim a gospel that challenges as often as it reassures. One strange value of religion is that it sometimes teaches the spiritual that they’re just wrong.
I’d love to see churches do better at inviting the spiritually curious into our ongoing conversation about faith, truth, and justice. Let’s welcome them to the process of communal discernment by which followers of Jesus collectively draw on the wisdom of tradition, the insights of scholarship, and the perspectives of each other’s experiences in order to better understand and live out God’s word.
So much for Charles. To my mind, the harder version of today’s question comes from Anne.
While her husband had virtually no religious background, Anne Morrow Lindbergh grew up in a devoutly Presbyterian home that practiced weekly worship and daily devotions and inculcated liberal Protestant values of lifelong education, public service, and social reform. The influence of that upbringing never went away, and Anne continued to attend church periodically and (more regularly) read Christian literature (C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot) and listen to Christian music (J.S. Bach). But her own spiritual but not religious journey led her to redefine grace — not the work of God, but “inner harmony… which can be translated into outward harmony” — and to nourish it by reading poetry and meditating on the beach. Church attendance, she wrote in her most popular book, remained “a great centering force… more needed than before,” but religious practice alone was insufficient to provide the holistic harmony she sought in the middle of modern distraction.
Most of us spiritual-and-religious types would also regard weekly gatherings for worship as having “centering” benefits.2 But devout Christians have traditionally regarded church as so much more than that. There's far too much to say here, but... almost at random, I pulled Martin Luther’s Small Catechism down from the shelf above the Lindbergh collection in my office, and found his explanation of what it means that Christians believe “in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints…”:
…that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified me and kept me in true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day he will raise me and all the dead and give me and all believers in Christ eternal life.
This is most certainly true. Charles’ life testifies amply to our inability to truly believe in Jesus as Lord “by my own understanding or effort.” And I wish I could convince Anne Morrow Lindbergh to view the Resurrection in terms more definite and more hopeful than believing “in my own vague way, that something ‘goes on’” after death.
But if one purpose of the church is not just to enlighten those called and assure those gathered of eternal life, but to sanctify sinners in this life, then what do we do with the saint-like life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh?
“Faith makes us entirely different in heart,” wrote Luther, “and brings with it the Holy Spirit,” which “makes the heart free and willing” to do the good that God’s law requires of us. But why do we need the church to aid in that process if a self-described “lapsed Presbyterian” could live a life rich with every fruit of the Spirit? This is a woman, after all, who came through the murder of a child, the utter loss of her privacy, and the absences and infidelity of her husband marked by nothing if not love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and self-control.3
Did such a person need the church? Wasn’t it sufficient for her to be spiritual, and only intermittently religious?
I know the answers that Luther and other theologians would give. But I’m not here to probe the hidden crevices of Anne Lindbergh’s soul, to assess the implications of her lapses in right belief, or to claim to know the true state of her relationship with God. As public a life as she led and as generous as she was in sharing her own journals and letters, I doubt I’ll ever have a God’s-eye view of such matters.
I’m asking a more practical version of the question — one that’s being asked every week of every year by a increasingly post-Christian world that doesn’t assume the necessity or propriety of religion or the rightness of its truth-claims, but observes and evaluates the visible fruit of such belief, behavior, and belonging.
And what do they see? A church full of Christians whose lives are marked by works of the flesh like anger, enmity, jealousy, impurity, and idolatry of power and wealth. By contrast, how can the world look at people as admirable as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and not conclude that spirituality is more healthy when disentangled from religion?
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A 2021 psychology study found that spiritual/religious and spiritual/not religious individuals scored similarly to each other: e.g., both were more likely to find meaning and purpose in their lives… but also to suffer from depression.