I suppose in our now secular age, we could add a fourth category, namely, those who were never in. But they really don’t count, since they are not wrestling with the issues of faith, belief, membership, etc. Or if they are wrestling with it, it is not in the context of the church or synagogue. So I will set this fourth group aside. I am interested in the other three.
Personally, I can only identify with two of the three groups. Growing up within the Quaker tradition, I sensed fairly early on that I was part of this group. I did not think much about membership---certainly not formal membership. In fact, I am confident membership in the Quaker tradition may be looser than in other groups. There was a sense that if you participated, you belonged. And this sense of belonging was more important than any kind of formal membership. Indeed, Quakers have been critical of the perspective that says you can have formal membership, but in actuality not really participate. (But honestly, we have some of the same problems---of course!)
When I think about the group of devout believers, I do not think first of all people who are into theology. For me, being devout is more a way of life than necessarily a way of believing. To be devoted to someone or something means giving your heart and soul to it. If I am spiritually devout, that means I am totally committed to the Holy One. I have given my heart to God. I am all in. And I will be all in, come “hell or high water,” as my grandpa used to say.
In my perspective people are not born devoted. To be devout is different from being dependent. My little grandkids are dependent. Every little child is helpless for quite a long period of time. They need to be fed, held, changed, etc. They are not devout. They are dependent. Of course, they will grow up to become independent (thankfully). And then they can choose whether to be devoted. For me that means the devout have chosen to be in relationship. And of course, they can choose not to be in relationship.
That brings us to the second category, namely, doubt. Personally, I have spent a fair amount of time in this place. Even those of us who grow up in a religious tradition need to go through a phase of “owning” the faith we inherit. I do not think there is any way a child can own his or her own faith. Rather they have the faith of their parents, their church, etc. Predictably, at some point something happens that provokes them to wonder whether they will become people of faith on their own terms.
It is not unusual to become aware of the fact that we are not even sure what “our own terms” are. Often we know what we are supposed to say, supposed to believe, and supposed to do. But we are not sure; we have doubts. Doubts are not necessarily negative. Doubts are more like saying, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” Personally, doubt is like the desert. In doubt there is not the lushness of belief. Instead of the living waters, in doubt there are hot winds and sand.
Doubt can be a healthy place. It is a time of testing and, sometimes, temptation. For me, doubt is an in-between time and place. That does not mean it is quick. One can be in this stage a long time. But finally, I think we either become believers (again) or we join the third group.
The last group---the folks who have already gone out---are not necessarily wrong, nor are they bad. They simply are folks who don’t belong to a spiritual tradition. I respect their place and support them in their non-spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in life. After all, they face the same human questions and predicaments that believers do, i.e. imperfection, mistakes, death, etc. I treasure them because they have so much to teach me.
I realize there may be some fluidity between these categories. I am confident God honors each phase or stage. I am confident that the Spirit continues to work in people and in the world regardless of where I or you are. And in faith I can ultimately say perhaps the categories are irrelevant. We are all on a pilgrimage through life. In faith and in the end, I think it is all spiritual---for the devout, the doubters and even those on the way out.