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Spiritual vs Religious
We are well established in the era of “Spiritual but not religious.” There have been enough books written on the topic to fill a number of book shelves if not a whole book store. I don’t have time to count how many blog posts have been written. And generally those books and posts fall into two camps. There are spiritual folks who pan religion as out dated and bad. And there are the religious folks who pan the spiritual folks as shallow and undisciplined.
It seems that the two sides will never meet, right? I hope not. First, I am a religious person, it goes with the territory of being an ordained
priest in a religious tradition. I am fully aware of the ways my tradition and others have betrayed the trust given them. Christianity in particular has historically totally failed in our stated mission. We have wandered off doing our own bullshit, instead of following the teachings of our supposed leader. Mostly that’s because those teachings are hard, but that’s no excuse. There is no religion that is immune to this, because religions are full of people. It’s been said that Christianity would be great if we could just get rid of the Christians.
Many of those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” do so because they have been deeply hurt. My religion (Christianity) has waged war in the name of a man who preached radical peace (the guy let himself be killed rather than have his followers fight for him it doesn’t get more peaceful than that), we’ve justified slavery (seriously who did that shitty theology?), we’ve justified the subjugation of women (despite the fact that this Jesus guy hung out with, debated, and relied on the supposedly weaker sex), and we’ve persecuted LGBTQ persons horribly just to name a few of our sins. My own, progressive, branch of the faith only approved same sex marriage blessings in 2012 for heaven sake. And we’re the progressives!
What is Religion
Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience. – Deepak Chopra
Often we confuse human beings using their influence to maintain a status quo, that benefits them, with religious belief. This is an error, though an understandable one. At it’s most basic, religion is a shared set of beliefs and practices by a group of people. Obviously groups and systems are open to corruption, as we’ve seen throughout history. But at it’s most basic there is nothing anymore wrong with being religious than there is with being spiritual. In more communal cultures being spiritual without religion would make very little sense, but we live in a highly individualistic culture. Me and I is paramount. The group is downplayed.
And so as Deepk Chopra puts it so well, we tend to gravitate toward spirituality, toward our own experience of that unnamable something beyond our tiny human realm. Religion obviously is meant to include and encompass spirituality, it is the shared spiritual experience of a group of people that brings them together in religious practice. Religion does not require that you give up autonomy. My own tradition tends to joke (we even have t-shirts) that in the Episcopal Church” you don’t need to check our brain at the door.” The implication being, other places do. It’s a bit smug of us really. But this joke makes clear what people are really afraid of when it comes to religious faith: unthinking adherence to things that don’t necessarily make sense or are just plain wrong simply because it is “how we’ve always done things.”
Why religion still matters
Deepak Chopra is right, and I think he’s explained exactly why we still need religion. Back in 2003 I stumbled on a book called “Zen for Christians” by Kim Boykin. (Out of print but available used.) It is both an instruction manual for Zen practice, and the story of her conversion to Roman Catholicism as an adult. In the book she tells a story that has stuck with me ever since. For this story to make sense you need to know that during most Christian worship the congregation reads a “creed” together. A creed is simply a statement of the beliefs of that religious group. For example: “we believe in God the Father…, etc.”
As she tells it Kim was preparing to be baptized and called her spiritual mentor (a wise nun, of course) and told her that she needed to call the whole thing off. When her mentor asked why she didn’t want to be baptized Kim replied: because half the time I don’t believe whole portions of the creed! Her mentor smiled and said something like this “Oh is that all? Not even the Pope believes all that all the time, that’s why we say “we.”” Kim’s mentor went on to say to her that we have ups and downs in our lives and in our lives of faith. And when she couldn’t say the words of the creed the rest of the church would carry her with their we. And when she was doing great and her mentor was having a dark period, Kim would carry her with her “we.”
It is similar I think to the reason my tradition uses the Book of Common Prayer, a set of prayers we use every week. That’s right, pretty much the same experience, every week. It might sound totally dull but we do it for the same reason as the statement of faith is printed in “we” form. Our prayers carry us, even when we aren’t “feeling it” that week. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a spiritual experience that week or just showing up, the words are still there, the meaning is still there. And it (and the other members of my congregation) carry me when I need that.
The Abrahamic traditions use the desert as a spiritual metaphor. The desert is where change happens, it’s where struggle happens, it’s where we find ourselves lost and wandering. It might also be where we encounter Holiness face to face in a way we could have never imagined. But the important part is that we acknowledge that it isn’t always roses and lollipops. Sometimes yoga is just hot and sweaty and tiring, you don’t want to draw, or meditating turns into composing your grocery list over and over again. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try your spiritual experience is empty and barren and dry.
You could give up. And if you are doing this all by yourself you might, you might decide there’s nothing out there; or that you are a spiritual failure. You might walk away from the whole endeavor and forget about the joy and the connection you’d once found, or be convinced you imagined the whole thing. It is the most dangerous place for individual practicers, the desert. When the Jewish people wandered in the desert for forty days they didn’t do it as individuals, they did it as a group. They had one another, and a whole host of leaders to call them back over and over, to remind them of their story, of who they were and where they’d been.
Religion acknowledges that sometimes our own spiritual experience isn’t worth shit. That sometimes we’re depressed, and empty, and tired and we need to lean on the experience of other people. That reliance isn’t a crutch. It isn’t copout. It’s part of our journey together. It is how we can hold one another up, support one another, love one another. It’s how we can help one another down this path called life.
We’ve been lied to. Personal spiritual experience is vital, but it isn’t the only thing. I don’t want to be a little island, all alone in a big stormy sea with only my own experience to rely on. I for one don’t want to do this life thing on my own. Community saves me, and it can save our spirituality. “Don’t give up!” we call to one another, we lean on one another, we carry one another, and we walk the journey together.
When we fail, (which we will) when we are less than the best that religion can be, we need each other’s voices calling us to account, naming the hurts, and calling us back to the journey. Putting religion back into spirituality is about putting community back into it. That’s messy, but it’s vital as well.