One trend I have noticed in spiritual direction over the past ten years is persons describing themselves as non-theists coming for spiritual guidance. There are non-theistic strands in almost all world religions. A non-theist is someone who may or may not believe in God or a higher power. The term non-theist covers a lot of ground—while atheists may be non-theists, not all non-theists are atheists. Some adherents of nature religions may believe in a creative force but not any particular god.
What distinguishes most non-theists from theists is that they do not believe in apersonal God. Their language for the unseen world (if in fact they believe in an unseen world) may be very different than that of a theistic person. They may believe in a cosmic force, spirit or intelligence, but they may not call on this force for specific help in their life. Plenty of Christians, by the way, now describe themselves as non-theists. In my tradition of progressive Christianity (I am from the United Church of Christ, UCC) there are a great many who follow Jesus’ teachings while stressing that while they believe in God, they do not believe in the personhood of God. You also find many Jewish people who understand God more as a life force than as a person.
Spiritual guidance with a non-theist usually centers on deep listening for where, in their life and experience, they feel the strongest sense of meaning or connection with a benevolent life-giving force that is both within them and beyond them.
While there are more and more spiritual directors these days that are non-theists, a non-theist person may choose a spiritual director who is theistic but open to (and certainly not judgmental toward) working with them. The challenge for the spiritual director, especially one who comes from a tradition that focuses on the personal nature of God, is to watch the language we use when responding to the non-theist’s story.
For example, I frequently use short guided meditation practices with directees in which I invite them to bring something that is troubling to them together with their favorite image for God. While for myself and other theists this might be an image of a biblical figure or a personally meaningful image for God, for the non-theist the exercise could very well be difficult or off-putting simply because I use the phrase “image of God.” The exercise might work for some, if they have an image from nature such as light, wind or space. Also, when working with a non-theist person in direction, I have to orient myself to their understanding of communication with the unseen world. Prayer may look very different to them—or prayer may not even be on their radar. Meditation may be the way they connect with the mystery that some of us call God. I always want to know as soon as I meet them what they consider to be their spiritual practice.
Some questions to ponder in spiritual direction with non-theists:
- What does being non-theist mean to you? (Since the term can cover many religions and attitudes.)
- What spiritual practice do you enjoy regularly? What does this practice do for you?
- What do you care most about in life?
- What do you think you need to strengthen your spiritual life?
- What calls you beyond your limits?
- What activities in daily life are most meaningful for you?
- What activities in daily life do you find most dull or lifeless?
- What draws you to spiritual direction? What do you hope spiritual direction will do for you?
- What helps you most when you are afraid or alone?
- What is your source of strength?
- When in life are you most awake and aware?
- Do you belong to a community that feeds your spirit?
- Where do you go to catch your breath in the stress of living?
Working with non-theists in spiritual direction is rewarding. It stretches spiritual directors to be more expansive in our language and understanding of diverse theologies. It forces us to rely on the Spirit that dwells in us all—which, in the end, we need to be doing with all our directees all the time regardless of their theologies!
Are you interested in trying out spiritual direction? I have openings in my schedule for new directees—regardless of where you live. I can work by phone or Skype or if you live in the Phoenix metro area we can meet in person. I also offer 3-session classes on spiritual discernment and spiritual direction supervision. Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.teresablythe.net and Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.