The Tom Stella Interview: ‘Finding God Beyond Religion’

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

So begins the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg’s Foreword to Tom Stella’s book: Finding God Beyond Religion. Drawing on this poem by Amichai, Borg explains, “Tom Stella has been moved, shaped, liberated by ‘doubts and loves’.”

A Christian author who champions doubt? Here’s why Borg’s insight is so important: Millions of men and women are coming to appreciate the value of doubt in their spiritual lives. Of course, some religious traditions value doubt more than others. The full spectrum of Judaism, for example, runs from ultra-orthodox through secular humanist congregations—Jews who believe that the entity we have traditionally called “God” is really the enlightened spirit of humanity. In Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama regularly explains, the traditional Western concept of God is irrelevant to the Buddhist search for compassion and enlightenment. Sufis and other mystics value doubt.

To clarify his message, Tom Stella is not an atheist. In fact, you’ll find in today’s interview with Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm that Tom considers himself a Christian. But, he also describes his concept of God, now, as a powerful sense of a Spirit within the world and within all of us. He says his theology is much like that of retired Bishop John Spong, who we also interviewed recently. Stella’s opening lines in this book quote the Muslim-Sufi mystic Rumi inviting “us to leave behind the narrow notion of religion understood as moral teachings and to enter the field where spiritual seekers gather.” That “field” does not try to impose traditional doctrines, Stella explains.

Many religious writers scoff at people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But, Tom Stella is a stalwart friend of such seekers. He has become a spiritual counselor to the Nones—the growing minority of Americans who decline to give pollsters a religious affiliation and, instead, respond: “None.” Read The Spirit earlier took a close look at the Rise of the Nones. Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, creator of the Our Values project, also has reported on the Nones.

For much of his adult life, Tom Stella served as a Catholic priest. Now, he has left his religious order. As you can learn from Tom’s homepage, he is a spiritual director, counselor, hospice chaplain and author. He has become a sage of the Rockies—a wise teacher drawing from West and East to help men and women from his home base in Colorado Springs.

Highlights of Our Interview with
Tom Stella on ‘Finding God Beyond Religion’

DAVID CRUMM: You don’t like that label—”Nones.” Instead, you use a phrase that I like, too: “unorthodox believers.” Explain what you mean by that.

TOM STELLA: These are people who are not being fed by the traditional church. Yet, some of the healthiest religious people I know are unorthodox believers. They wouldn’t call themselves “religious” necessarily. Many of the unorthodox believers I have encountered do believe that there is a communion with the divinity, although they are likely to see this divinity as a communion with the spirit of humanity. The term “unorthodox believer” covers a lot of ground—it’s a big umbrella. I’m saying in this book that it’s important for traditional religious groups not to just write off these folks as heretics or atheists. These folks are spiritually hungry. They’re grappling with—and many of them longing for—ways to relate to the larger community.

DAVID: There’s an unfortunate stereotype floating around that “spiritual seekers” are somehow self-centered dilettantes. They’re too soft for real religion and prefer selfish feel-good experiences. That’s essentially what Rabbi David Wolpe said in TIME magazine this spring. We just discussed the Wolpe commentary in a recent interview with Ram Dass. In sharp contrast, you say that the spiritual-but-not-religious path takes a great deal of courage. Some folks may, indeed, be using that line to avoid the whole subject. But for many people, you’re saying, this phrase describes taking a courageous dive into the deep end of the religious pool, right?

TOM: Our culture has developed a very cynical take on these folks. People discount them by describing them as just wanting fuzzy, self-centered stuff. That’s an unfair stereotype. In my experience, folks who’ve chosen to walk this path want a faith that has integrity. Now, we don’t want to stereotype traditionally religious people, either. But I can say this: It’s easier in our culture to go the traditional route of membership and practice than it is to walk the spiritual pathway.

Jack Spong says that people go to religion for safety, not for truth. I think it’s very courageous for people to walk outside of the traditional, institutional paths. People who choose this path can find themselves separated from members of their own family, as relatives learn what traditional beliefs they may have left behind. In the last chapter of my book, I write about so-called “Cafeteria Catholics,” a stereotype of Catholics who like to choose which beliefs they will follow. The institutional Catholic Church wants to write them off. I say: No, these people are trying to work out what they can claim with integrity. I think Jesus was probably regarded as a Cafeteria Jew in his day, which is why he encountered so much friction from the religious officials of his day.

TOM STELLA: ‘This can blow up old assumptions’

DAVID: At Read The Spirit, we have published a number of interviews with Bible scholar Marcus Borg—the husband of Marianne Borg, who wrote your Foreword—and Marcus often talks about this problem of conflict within organized religion over what people truly believe, and things the denominations tell them to believe. You’re a fan of Spong’s writing, too, and Spong frequently talks about this problem: Many organized religious groups insist on doctrines that millions have a hard time believing. In your research for this book, what would you say are some of the toughest barriers to belief today?

TOM: Doctrines about Jesus are a barrier, which Marcus also addresses in his books. I’m talking about what we could call High Christology—Jesus descended from above, born of a virgin, died for our sins, and so on. Today, a lot of people who want to have a life of faith say, “I can’t go there anymore.” They may say, “I once reveled in those traditional beliefs, but I just can’t believe that way anymore.” I’m talking about those teachings that give us a dualistic sense of life—that there is this world and then God is somewhere else. God is this anthropomorphic Father, a Guy in the Sky who sometimes decides to intervene. For a lot of people, that notion just doesn’t make sense anymore. When people describe this problem to me, they’ll say: “My life experience tells me this isn’t so.” A lot of people have prayed for someone to recover from a life-threatening illness—for the Guy in the Sky to step in and change the world with a miracle. When that doesn’t happen, this can blow up old assumptions about faith.

DAVID: So, are you an atheist? Turning to Wikipedia, the term “atheist” means “the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.” Is that you?

TOM: You might say that I am non-theistic. I believe in “God,” but my definition of “God” is different than what you’ll find in most churches. I go into this more in my earlier book, A Faith Worth Believing: Finding New Life Beyond the Rules of ReligionI don’t believe that there is a God who is a separate entity out there somewhere—a Guy in the Sky. I don’t believe the word “God” refers to someone. It refers, I would say, to the spiritual essence of reality and creation. What I am describing, I think, is very similar to what Jack Spong writes and teaches, except that he often comes across as somewhat strident. My work is softer.

DAVID: Yes, I’ve read most of Spong’s books and have known him for nearly 30 years and, you’re right: He deliberately remained within the Christian church, as a bishop, and so came across as very controversial and often as strident—an outspoken prophetic voice within the church. You’ve chosen a different path. You left your religious order and you’re working with folks who also are outside of organized religion. I agree: Your book is pastoral, both for people inside and outside of churches, now.

TOM: I wouldn’t choose to call myself more pastoral than Jack Spong. I would say that my perspective is more contemplative. Thomas Merton has been a big influence on me.

DAVID: Let me push you further. Jack argues strongly that he remains a Christian. How about you? Do you use that term to describe yourself?

TOM: Yes, I would say that I am Christian, because I see the person of Jesus as someone who is a revelation of the truth of this non-theistic God immanence, this God closeness, this Oneness. Jesus is someone who woke up to the truth of his own divinity and surrendered to that to a degree that most people don’t ever achieve. Now, at the same time, I would not say that Jesus is the one and only incarnation of God. I do think that—while Christians have taken the idea of incarnation seriously for 2,000 years—we’ve forgotten to take it personally. The term incarnation applies to Jesus, but it also applies to all of us. We are the enfleshment of the divine.

TOM STELLA: Prayer, T.S. Eliot and Waking Up

DAVID: So, a lot of readers will ask: Where does that leave prayer? You just referred to Thomas Merton as a major influence in your life. Throughout your book, readers will encounter a number of famous Christian mystics, including the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We just talked about the revival of Hopkins’s poetry in an interview with Richard Rohr. You’re a spiritual director—an advocate of prayer. Yet, in your book, you point out the obvious question: “If we’re not sure there’s a God out there, then what’s the point?” That’s a question a woman asks you in the book. So, what do you say?

TOM: I’m trying to say that prayer is a lot bigger than we have been taught. I was taught that I was praying when I intended to pray and thought I was praying—and I was engaged either in a communal setting or some other formal setting of prayer. Prayer was confined to those settings and formats. But, in the New Testament, Paul teaches us to pray without ceasing. What does that mean? He’s inviting us to see that prayer is a lot bigger than we can imagine.

And, I am trying to say that life can be so much richer when we recognize that the living of it can be considered a prayer. Life is an encounter with the divine, embodied in everyday ordinary creation, if we are fully present and aware of this. Prayer can become something much more pervasive in our lives, almost indecipherable from the way we move through life itself. You may have seen this in the lives of people who have truly given over their lives to these truths. Think of the way St. Francis walked through life. People can come to a realization that every piece of the earth is holy ground. That’s where we get into contemplative sensitivity. It’s not just another way of defining and teaching prayer—this is about realizing that prayer is an entirely different sensitivity to life.

DAVID: I have to ask you, in this regard, about your choice of T.S. Eliot and a quote from his Four Quartets. Personally, I’m struck by how often Eliot is turning up in contemporary Catholic writing, these days. We published a review of a remarkable book, collecting contemporary Catholic writers under a title that also is taken from Eliot’s Four Quartets, the phrase “Not Less Than Everything.” Eliot kept asking: How can anyone who cares about humanity keep going in such tragic times? His answer was as long and complex as the 50 pages of the Four Quartets. But it involves making a total personal commitment to life. Or, as Eliot puts it—a commitment “costing not less than everything.”

In your book, you quote four lines that come just before that famous phrase about the cost. You quote this:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Tell us why you chose those lines.

TOM: Ultimately, this is all about waking up. That’s what the spiritual life is all about—recognizing the fullness of where we are and where we’ve been. It’s enlightenment. William Wordsworth put it this way in his Ode, Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

In a sense, Wordsworth is saying something very much like Eliot was saying in those lines you just quoted. We wander through life. We forget. We are lost. In a sense, we have to wander to find that we are home, again. Ram Dass says it this way: “We’re all just walking each other home.” Ultimately, we recognize that we’ve been on sacred ground the whole time.

DAVID: What do you hope readers will find when they’ve read your book?

TOM: I hope they will come away from this book with a spiritual understanding of religious truth that is a deeper understanding than the conventional interpretations that are all around us. I want them to realize there is a real baby in this bathwater of spirituality and it shouldn’t all be tossed out the window. I want them to be able to name and claim something new as the foundation for a more life-giving faith.

Care to read more on similar themes?

Learn more about Tom Stella: He is the co-founder and director of the non-profit Soul Link, Inc., whose mission is to create opportunities for spiritual seekers to meet and facilitate spiritual growth. Tom is a visiting associate professor of religion at Colorado College, a hospice chaplain, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and the author of three books, including: The God Instinct and A Faith Worth Believing, Finding New Life Beyond the Rules of Religion.

Read The Spirit encourages compassionate, cross-cultural relationships. We publish a series of books on caregiving. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit. We publish books by Daniel Buttry about interfaith peacemaking. And we publish a Michigan State University series of cross-cultural guidebooks.

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)