In their 1985 book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen referenced a nurse they code-named Sheila Larson who adhered to a faith she herself dubbed “Sheilaism.” The authors were chronicling the gradual shift of American religion from being corporate and public to privatized and inwardly-focused. To illustrate this change, they quoted Sheila:
“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”
I bet that many people resonate with Sheila’s religion; it’s very popular nowadays. They think that God is out there somewhere and that this vague entity doesn’t care if you’re involved in a religious community as long as you are nice. Columnist Don Kahle deduced that Sheila “has a code of ethics, but it’s no longer connected to a sacred text or an observing deity. It’s personal – and unpublished. Sheila abides by Sheilaism. Sheilaism is good for Sheila, but it doesn’t build community.”
Let’s be honest: this isn’t Christianity, though many so-called Christians are really “Sheilaists.” We hear it all the time:
“I don’t have to go to church; I can worship on my own.”
“God doesn’t care what I believe as long as I’m a good person.”
“The Bible teaches valuable lessons, but I can’t get into all the miracles and resurrection stuff.”
The early apostles were “Easterists,” not Sheilaists. They scattered into the Roman Empire with specific news on their lips: Jesus is Lord. This meant that the humble carpenter of Nazareth was, in fact, the Son of God, raised from the dead and “highly exalted” with the Name above every name – the Name that will someday thunder through the cosmos, causing every knee to bow, every tongue to confess.
If you are a “Sheilaist” it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you – far from it. But if you’re calling yourself a Christian, you might want to reconsider. The faith “which was once delivered unto the saints” is not your own religious playground where you get to make up your own rules and throw in a little Jesus for good measure. If you follow Christ, you deny yourself. You plant yourself in a community of faith and help carry out the mission of the church. You put your trust in the One who trudged to the cross and rose from the grave.
This is Christianity, and it tolerates no substitutes — not even fiercely-held Sheilaism.