Post-Theism and Religiosity vs. Spirituality

Our society likes to categorize things. I don’t know if that’s a postmodern trend or if it’s an information age trend or if it’s simply a human trend. From wherever that habit emerges, we feel the need to identify with a category–religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, etc. Or we call ourselves “Atheist Jew-Bus” (the common name for those practicing Judaism culturally and Buddhism spiritually) or “transcendalist non-practicing catholics” or “spiritual non-religious meditater.” I call myself a “post-theistic Episcopalian pluralist.” What the hell does that mean!? Why do I need to identify myself as such? Are most of us that loathe to identify with a single religious structure?

Last question first: Religious structures and insitutions. From casual obsveration, I do think that most people–my peer group in particular, are hesitant to identify with a religion/church/anything resembling religious institution. (I’ll wager a guess, refute if you like, that most of my peers don’t like identifying with anything institutional. For example, they’re less likely to register as an independent voter than one of the big political parties.) Modern media has been giving religion a bad rap for a long time, largely thanks to the rise of conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups and their opposition to science and politics. My peers, mostly liberal twenty-somethings with at least college if not graduate degrees, represent the scientific and political worldviews abhorred by more conservative groups, clearly creating a tension. And it is often these more conservative groups who call themselves religious, and representing all religion (though certainly not always!), making their more liberal counterparts uneasy about religious identification.

Another contributing factor to the liberal fear of identifying with religion/a religion arises from Reformation stigma against Catholic ritual. (Thanks Adam B. Seligman for ruining my life by making me think only in terms of Protestentism and the divide between belief and ritual…) Religion, ritual and socialism are closely related (thus Catholicism, Judaism, and Hinduism are also closely related), while spirituality, belief, and individualism are more closely tied to Protestantism and Buddhism. Max Weber with his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism notes those trends of the work ethic and the belief capital of American Protestants and the drive towards individualism. Translated this means our society values the internal belief process rather than the external ritualistic religious process because it produces more belief and monetary capital for an overall more effective and productive system. This paradigm for belief is so deeply entrenched in our socio-poltical views that we fail to realize their origins in Protestantism and thus anti-Catholicism.

And of course the anti-Catholic sentiment still lives strongly in most of our worldviews. Catholicism, more than Protestantism or any other religion [in America], represents the ultimate institution. They have the Vatican. They have His Holiness the Pope. They have more ritual than almost anyone else in the western hemisphere. And as Americans we’ve still only elected one Catholic president and think “scandal” and “misogynist” when we hear the word. This is the structure Protestantism rebels against, which is in turn the structure liberalism rebels against.

Then why do I need to identify myself as something? Well, one, society seems to ask me to. But for my own sake, I need to know where I fall within the construct of religious systems and beliefs as one who studies religion. I must frame my work within the subjectivity of my own experiences. And about three times out of four when I mention that studied religion, their next question is “do you practice religion?” Having been raised as an Episcopalian I was taught to continuously question my beliefs in an effort to make them stronger. Much of this post is a reflection on those meditations, both academic and personal.

As I said, I identify myself as a post-theistic Episcopalian pluralist. What the hell does that mean? Yes, it’s mostly a postmodern construction of an identity that I’ve wrapped around my discomfort with the category of “spiritual” while still maintaining my respect and love of all things religion. Each portion of that label has some meaning to me, and presumably to others as well.

The easiest of categories is that I’m an Episcopalian. In other settings often called “catholic lite” for our use of ritual and creed while not submitting to the pope or all seven of the sacraments, or “whiskeypalians” for our Southern brothers. In the news recently we’ve been marked as the most schismatic of the Christian denominations because of our turmoil over the ordination of women and open LGTBQs among other things. To be an Episcopalian means so much more than that, though. I’ll save some of the collected Episcopalian jokes for something later, but a few that I’ve found and that I’ve heard are worth sharing. [If you don’t get them, you probably aren’t an Episcopalian, or just don’t know many.]

  • Question: What’s the difference between a Southern Baptist and an Episcopalian?
    Answer: An Episcopalian will speak to you when he runs into you at the liquor store.
  • Jesus asked a group of Episcopalians, “Who do you say that I am?” They replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.”And Jesus said, “What?”
  • Episcopalians feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.
  • And then one of my absolute favorites…..

Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian
(from the comedian Robin Williams, who is an Episcopalian, on an HBO special)

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
There are so many more jokes about us, and that’s because one of the most important aspects of Episcopalianism beyond the dogma is that not only can we make fun of ourselves, we love to, and I often think it’s part of our creed. I highlighted the last one because I’ve found it to be the truest of all. There is a better chance that in a pew on a Sunday morning that not a single Episcopalian believes in the same thing (except that there will be coffee after church).

To be an Episcopalian means to believe in community and the power of communion with one another. We come together to eat, to drink, and to be merry. And we come together to sing, to pray, and to rejoice.

Episcopalian is the modifier on pluralist for me. I’ve identified as a pluralist since college. In my senior project at Bard, I defined pluralism as “the active engagement of religious diversity” (Gatza 2). [I intend to write much more on pluralism in the future, considering the name of this blog is the same as the name of that senior project Engaging Religious Pluralism.] In my definition I’ve taken cues from John B. Cobb, Jr. (a la Alfred North Whitehead) and Charles H. Townes.

David Ray Griffin describes two forms of pluralism: Identist pluralism surmises, “all
religions are oriented toward the same religious object (whether it be called ‘God,’ ‘Brahman,’
‘Nirvana,’ ‘Sunyata,’ ‘Ultimate Reality,’ ‘the Transcendent,’ or ‘the Real’) and promote
essentially the same end (the same type of ‘salvation.’).” The other form is differential pluralism
in which “religions promote different ends—different salvations—perhaps by being oriented
towards different religious objects, perhaps thought of as different ultimates.” Griffin notes that
identist pluralism is pluralist ontologically only, whereas differential pluralism is plural
soteriologically and possibly ontologically (Griffin “Religious Pluralism: Generic, Identist, Deep,” Deep Religious Pluralism 24). I identify with the differential pluralism, the deep pluralism that acknowledges differences rather than similarities. It is the differences in religions that encourage us to practice them (see: Cobb “Responses to Relativism”). I don’t practice a form of Christianity because it is similar to a form of Islam, I practice it for its differences. So it is the differences between religions that we not only celebrate, but engage in dialogue and work with to find new approaches to social justice.

As I said, I hope to continue to explore the category of pluralist more later. For those of you who are impatient, my Bard College senior project “Engaging Religious Pluralism” is available to read online here.

My imaginings of the divine are by far the hardest to describe. I’m not an atheist, nor do I believe in a personal god (usually). I consider myself a Post-Theist. I’m not sure where I got that term, but i think it’s from Paul Tillich. If it isn’t Tillich, it’s certainly someone who has been influenced by him.

I think quoting Neil Gaiman is appropriate here. From American Gods, I used the whole paragraph from which this comes as the preface for my senior project:

“I can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe… I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.” Thus says Sam, the hitchiker that Shadow picks up about midway through the book.

I can’t believe in anything and everything, despite my overactive imagination, but the quote describes the paradox of belief and creates the realm in which belief suspends and exists. In a sense, my explanation of post-theism has to be neti neti, the form of explanation popular in the Vedas and the Upanisads in which you repsond around the answer because you cannot directly talk about the answer.

Post theism isn’t strictly atheism, though in some senses it’s wiser for me to consider myself an atheist. I’m much more closely alligned with atheism than most forms of theism, for to be a post-theist means that one’s theologies have evolved from something that was initially theistic. Atheism is a direct rejection of theism, whereas post-theism is an evolutionary process. On those days for which I consider myself an atheist, it’s primarily because I don’t believe in the popular conceptions of the divine. I don’t imagine an old man with a grizzled beard sitting on a throne in the sky, or an infinite and indefinable divinity, or a crazy ageless woman hanging out with her galpals. Simply put, God cannot be defined, so why bother trying: there are no answers to our questions about who/what is out there, so try as we might, we cannot pinpoint the divine.

The closest thing I can imagine as the divine comes from theological and ontological developments of Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology. (see bibiliography below for selected resources and explanations) Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, used early quantum theory to describe the philosophical mechanisms of “events” or an occasion of experience and processes. In basic terms, the world is made up of distinct or quantized events (events loosely describes everything in the world that happens, each action or thought) which are all connected. Prehension, then, is the way in which one entity incorporates another, or some aspect of the other, into itself. Looking at the grand scheme, each occasion of experience “begins as an open window to the totality of the past” (Cobb) (and according to quantum theories, the future is potentially included in the totality, making each occasion of experience an open window on the totality of the temporal plane). Somewhere in that mix is where I can relate to divinity–I still cannot see it, cannot define it, cannot know it, but i can realize its effects and reprecussions. Out of the process it emerges.

On the other hand, I believe in incarnation, and the “body of god.” Perhaps that has to do with being an Episcopalian, in our incarnation-heavy theology. Perhaps it’s because for the whole of my adult life in the church I’ve attended the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore. But I think primarily it has to do with my feminist leanings. In order for women (most frequently identified in philosophy and theology as the body or matter as opposed to the male spirit) to hold importance in the theological spectrum, we must talk about bodies, matter, and essentially everything else Plato and St. Augustine ignored or refuted. We can only know parts of the divine, and only through these incarnations–people, places, other beings.

All of this is a rough sketch of how I define myself. Because I believe in the process of things above all else, all of my thoughts continue to evolve and change their shape as I grow. Of course I believe in other things as well–physics and mathematics, love, friendship to name a few, and in my personal religious landscape these are included. Perhaps because I have lived all of my life within religion, despite beliefs and disbeliefs I see everything in my life as culminating in a religious setting. It’s not that I’m not a “spiritual” person, but I see religiosity as the foundation of community and therefore of belief. Spirituality has its place, but one cannot be spiritual outside of some form of religion (even if it is atheism or secularism). According to renowned Sufism scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “…One cannot claim to stand above the exoteric teachings of a religion and to practice an esotericism without them and in the void, any more than one can plant a tree in the middle of the air” (Nasr Sufi Essays 17). In this case: one cannot be spiritual without the religion to support it. Stuck up academic, yeah, I admit that I am with regards to spirituality and religiosity. But religion is community, so how can we live without it?

selected bibliographical materials:
Cobb, John B., Jr. Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and
Relativism. Edited and Introduced by Paul Knitter, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999.
Cobb, John B., Jr. and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster
University Press, 1976.
Griffin, David Ray, ed. Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Sufi Essays. Albany: SUNY Press, 1972.
Smith, Jonathon Z. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2004.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
First edition copyrighted 1962.
Townes, Charles H. “The Convergence of Science and Religion.” Think, April 1966. 3 April
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Talcott Parsons, trns. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

[originally posted 10/29/09


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6 Responses to “Post-Theism and Religiosity vs. Spirituality”

  1. Chris Wiles Says:


    Thank you for this excellent post. Your writing is clear, candid and humorous. While my theological leanings differ greatly from your own, I appreciate your ability to articulate the concept of being “post-theist” (though I think you may be thinking of “transtheism” from Tillich, though in the present context the distinction between the two seems to be negligible). Since I rarely hear the term, I was wondering how prevalent “post-theism” is? Granted, not all may use the term, but is this a concept embraced by many others?

    • Meg Gatza Says:

      thank you for reading. I’ve always heard of it as post-theism, but if it sounds the same in terms of my description, it probably is. I prefer calling it post-theism primarily because it involves the concept of theism first and then an evolution or a progression past theism. I’ve never really run into it in much theology, though i don’t study theology specifically–i’m more of a sociological/anthropological/history of religions scholar. (And when i do study theology, it isn’t in the Christian context, generally, since i’m a scholar of Hinduism.)

      Hope you keep reading the blog!


  2. ali Says:

    nice post! and interesting concept: post-atheist!
    I call myself atheist Sufi:)
    my parents are Muslims!

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