Through her organization Healthy Beliefs – Healthy Spirit
(healthybeliefs.org), Distinguished Research Professor Linda Mercadante, PhD ’86, serves as an interpreter between two distinct cultures—those who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) and those for whom organized religion is home.
Professor and B. Robert Straker Chair of Historical Theology at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio (MTSO) Mercadante says SBNRs attend seminary in increasing numbers. As church membership continues to decline, Mercadante speaks at colleges and churches, to sociological and psychological organizations, to news professionals, and is frequently interviewed by media about the rise in SBNRs.
“Our work at MTSO in social justice and environmental stewardship is a draw for the spiritual but not religious. They’re not going to want to be ministers, but may do nonprofit work. They’re seeking meaning. Through studying yoga, meditation, and popular culture, I can show that they are deeply influenced by the big questions,” she says.
Mercadante’s groundbreaking research for her recent book, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014), was widely lauded. In Secularism and Nonreligion, reviewer Donovan Schaefer writes, “The rich collection of interviews offered in Belief Without Borders makes it a treasure chest of data about the SBNR movement…an indispensable handbook for research in this field.”
Mercadante was herself a spiritual seeker. She grew up in a nonreligious Jewish and Catholic home, attended mass sporadically, but her dissatisfaction with Catholicism led her to atheism. She was a flight attendant, then journalist, lived in an ashram, and had a conversion experience in a European Christian community of the Reformed tradition. From there she sought undergraduate and master’s degrees, joined the PC (USA), graduated from Princeton Seminary with a PhD, and later became ordained.
“I was an ethnic girl from a Catholic, Jewish, evangelical, Protestant mish-mash of everything and not a lot like most of the people there. But what PTS gave me,” she says, “was a solid foundation in church history, in theology, and in the tradition.” From that foundation, Mercadante continues her free-ranging approach to religious exploration, and offers to spiritual seekers her uniquely open mind and heart.