Religion vs Spirituality

A friend of mine posted this a few days ago on Facebook. religionspirituality

I commented that “I could agree with that.”

And I can.

But like all memes it suffers from simplicity.

Often memes are just plain wrong upon further reflection. Sometimes they are right “most” of the time. Maybe they are mostly wrong except in a few circumstances.

This one I think is mostly right, but with a few caveats.

First of all, most religions are not “someone else’s experience.” They are a lot of someone elses. Where Christianity is concerned that numbers in the dozens. And that only relates to its scriptural base, the bible. If you add all the other writings not canonized, but still reflective of how people of generally the same time frame came to see the Jesus experience, then it grows substantially.

And of course, that says nothing to all the theologians and biblical scholars that have expanded our knowledge of exactly what that experience was, and how it should be conceived of. They number in the thousands over the years. And of course the mystical writers have their own experiences to relate.

So we actually have a lot to dig through in discerning what that “experience” is. Much the same could be said I suspect of most other religions. The end belief system is the product of hundreds if not thousands of minds. And of course, there is much conflict between minds.

But religions have surely set dogma and told believers that they should adhere to those beliefs. They divide them often into those that “must” be adhered to, those that should be, and perhaps those that are “up to your conscious”. And these change too, moving from one category to another. That is where the trouble begins.

Do we dare question the insights of a St. John of the Cross? Or The little Flower Theresa? Are their visions and spiritual deductions sacrosanct because of their sainthood? Is mine less so because I lack the imprimatur of the Church? That is where one’s spirituality conflicts it seems to me. And it is where the Church, standing for religion errs.

For the Church seeks, based upon its self-defined expertise, to tell the parishioner  what she must believe to remain within the good graces of said institution. An institution made by humans I might add, whatever your current theology might be about what Jesus intended when he laid the mantle upon Peter’s shoulders. This is error as I see it.

The Church has a serious and important role. That role is to nurture, care for, and raise up the individual who comes seeking. It can and should not judge, but only facilitate  with love and forgiveness, warmth and understanding, that relationship between God and creature. It should in no way be a barrier, EVER. When it does so, well as Jesus said, better tie a millstone around its neck and drown it.

And of course many would do just that. In the name of God.

And they are just as wrong as those who see the Church as God, speaking for, judging for, and forgiving for God.

For that purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and ministering to all who are suffering, is the primary goal and purpose of religion, or Church. And if, I would argue, it limited itself to that purpose, it might well effectively reduce suffering in the world in a degree that would stupefy modern governments.

That is not it’s only purpose however. It serves to be the gathering forum for believers, and that is of no small importance. For the scriptures make clear to us, throughout them, that the gathering of the people in “church” is valuable and necessary. In some sense the Trinity teaches us that–one God in three forms operating in perfect community. We are communal creatures, and Church can and should mirror that perfect community. We are called to act selflessly, and no better place to learn it SHOULD be the Church.

Instead of course, we find nothing but judgment and rejection for so many. As if God needs humans to prevent other humans from approaching the altar. As if somehow the Church sanctifies and not God.

Spirituality is not a substitute for church in this sense. All too many people are walking around proclaiming their spirituality and their self-interpretation of scripture. The trouble is, scripture is not something that one can “just understand with an IQ of 100” as a self-proclaimed atheist recently told me. Although not a believer, he insisted that our “debate” be limited to the four corners of the bible, and using the common sense meaning of the words themselves. Of course such a notion is absurd.

Millions of unchurched Christianists proclaim what God wants, needs,  and hates. They then insist that we conform to their beliefs. Church can and should be the counterpoint to this sort of self-serving Christianity. If it is wrong for a church to speak for God, how much more so when an individual seeks to tell another what God wills or punishes? Here faith is simply used as a defense to calls of bigotry. We hear, “I personally don’t care about _______, but God is against it in the bible, and it’s my Christian duty to speak up.”

This is what comes from unfettered “spirituality” absent the restraints religion heterodoxy. But heterodoxy is in the end a human endeavor, and should never be confused with God, now with eternal truth. It is the best of what we understand now, and not what we may realize tomorrow.

Smart churches do this. All churches should do this.

Churches should be spending more time helping its members explore and think. As in all things, critical thinking skills apply. The dogma of the present church should but serve to start the discussion, and the exploration. God gave us these marvelous thinking instruments and they are meant to be used. Only by the deepest and broadest searching will we be rewarded with the most meaningful experience of God.

So, it’s not all one, or all the other. Each goes wrong by itself. It is the blending of both, and the value of both that enriches the individual.

Amen.

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And Yet We Try

Father GodOh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given him anything
that he may be repaid? (Rom 11:33-35)

This is a troubling passage for most of us. It suggests that no matter what we do, we are too small, too limited to understand God. When faced with some calamity or other that we cannot understand, we say oh so mysteriously “God has his reasons, and someday we will understand.” Such nonsense is less than helpful to the one suffering, but we are at a loss and so we say such inane things.

For a variety of reasons, many biblical scholars conclude that the real first attempt to set down in writing the oral traditions of the early Israelites didn’t occur until the tribes had secured the land of Palestine. That is only a beginning of course, relating to the ancient times, the exodus, the wandering and the entering into the land. It is no little stretch to see why this might be so. Given the bloody history of the take over of the land by the various tribes, it is not unexpected that some effort would be made to tailor the stories to defend all that invasion and mayhem as God-ordained.

Similarly when we look at the histories in Samuel, Kings, and so forth, we see justifications for the political lifestyle that was being faced by those returning from exile. We see theology melded around political necessity and reality. We see the winners proclaiming truth. The losers no doubt had their own version.

So what do we make of this thing called “THE BIBLE”? A collection of writings, all unknown today, and perhaps largely unknown at the time. At least the source of much that was put down in written form had come from hundreds if not more than a thousand years before. Traditions oral, handed down from generation to generation. And more than one in some cases for the same basic “history”.

We can of course make it all quite easy. We can simply declare that it is all written at the direction of the Almighty Himself–not exactly dictated, but placed within the mind of various scribes exactly as God desires, and they faithfully scribbled it down as if it was being read to them in their mind. To make it a “human” endeavor, we are told that each writer used his own “words” although it is hard to explain why God’s words wouldn’t be considered the best.

We can do this, making the Bible the “word of God”, smiling smugly and going on with nary another thought, glad that that problem has been laid aside as solved. No matter that it is not remotely true of course, or that someone so grand and perfect could surely “write” a manual of behavior much simpler and easier to understand. And do not say it is not hard to understand. If that were so, then pray tell why are there so many (30,000 at least) various “churches” all claiming that they have got it right and nobody else, quite right. To say nothing of all those millions who actually in their arrogance eschew “experts” and find the document easy enough for the average person to understand as written.

We actually know that the bible, or should we say the various writings that would one day be declared, by men long dead, the bible, have been rewritten more than several times. They are not all the same, there are longer or shorter versions of some books, parts left out, and new parts added. We can tease apart a good deal of this, but it all leads to something called an “oral tradition” that is not capable of being “located” or known. Our oldest copies are not so very old when we look at what they refer to. Most are from the Common Era, after the birth of Christ.

They are copies of things we no longer have, and they are probably copies of other things we don’t have either. And on it goes.

And the most we can say, is that God, we trust, has held these minds in loving embrace while they struggled to explain their history and times and how God had occupied their world and influenced it, changed it, and directed them. If we are to believe that God really means free will, then he did not put words or thoughts in their minds, but loved them fiercely and from that relationship trusted that they would speak truthfully as they understood.

So some of what they believed is true, and some is just not. But they were well-meaning, honest, and dedicated to showing this wonderful God as the center of the universe they lived in. And that is the best we can expect.

And it is humbling, this knowing.

For we are no different. We are well-meaning, and we are honest, and we too are dedicated to explaining to ourselves and to each other how this God we so love works in the world and in our lives.

And we struggle with words, and ideas, and concepts. And we don’t get it all right, but we get some of it right. And a thousand years from now, others will continue doing the same.

And bit by bit, perhaps we will piece together some mosaic of this Godness. At least enough to know that it is too grand for each of us, for all of us.

It is a process we experience, this doing God. It is touching ourselves in our aloneness, and in our neediness. It is discovering that the only important thing is love, and from that all good comes. And when we feel that perfect loving peace for short moments, then we know in some place deep inside that we have for a brief instance brushed aside the veil and we have seen.

And we scribble hurriedly before it slips from us, as it must. And others will judge if we have hit the mark or failed, far from now.

For we are creature.

And yet we try.

Oh How Can It Go So Wrong?

humilityWho among us has not felt the ugly cloak of self-righteousness upon our shoulders? For most of us, it is a humbling and heartbreaking experience, one that leaves us filled with shame and begging to be forgiven for forgetting who and what we are.

Not that I favor the constant not-really-so-humbling- practice of constantly confessing loudly our sinful nature. I find that rather self-righteous actually. I see no need to heap ashes upon my head on a regular basis. My failures and limitations are known to God and to me, and in the quiet of my own heart these things are pondered deeply and acted upon appropriately. All else is for show it seems to me.

Today’s liturgy focuses on the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we all know, the Pharisee was among his peers an object of piety, a stickler for the details of Jewish law, and always quick to call for perfect compliance in the strictest sense. The tax collector, was an outsider within his community, working for the Romans, taking his pay as a cut from the exorbitant tax bills of his fellow Jews. The more he got from them, the more he got. He was shunned and hated by all those who saw him coming.

The Pharisee enters the temple and begins reciting all his virtues–how he is superior to most of his fellow Jews, especially this lowly tax collector. He apparently thinks that God needs reminding and remind Him he does. On the other hand, the tax collector dares not even raise his eyes heavenward, so ashamed of his sinful nature is he. He begs for mercy.

No doubt the Pharisee, perhaps not with words, but in intent does not beg at all, but merely asks to be given his due, what he assumes is his (wealth, prestige, power) because he is who he is, a Pharisee.  The tax collector expects nothing, but he trusts that this God of love will consider his plea.

We are led to recall the first reading from Sirach:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay. (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18)

Can we relate?

If there was ever a story to point out what Pharisees might appear like today it is this story:

A server at a popular Italian eatery in Kansas was shocked to find that customers had left behind an anti-gay message on their bill in lieu of a tip.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent,” the customers had written. “That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.

The customers continued: “We hope you will see the tip your fag choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’S love, but none shall be spared for fags. May GOD have mercy on you.”

No doubt any decent person finds this type of thing utterly shocking. One can easily see the self-righteous arrogance of the writer. So very sure they are right. So very sure they know the mind of God. So very sure they will be properly rewarded for their public chastisement of the young waiter. The slurs make it clear that there is no human love offered, but merely condemnation.

Good people of faith will of course be horrified and condemn this behavior for what it is, an utterly misguided reading of scripture, a failure to recognize the over-riding directive of love that we are all to obey first and foremost, and a blatant exhibition of raw bigotry.

Others will condemn the words used, but claim that the action was still appropriate because they too are sure they understand the bible correctly.

Some few others will remind us that it is our “job” to advise the sinful of their sins, since they may be somehow “unaware”. Christian duty is their cry.

People of no faith will nod their heads and once again point out that this is what “religion gets you”. If there is anything good in religions of any kind, it has long been lost to powerful interests within and their acceptance of “rules” that on their face are unfair, unjust, ugly, bigoted. No God who would create such a rule, they argue, is a God worth worshiping or following.

As I remain separated from my Church, I watch as it struggles with these issues. Pope Francis signals that at the very least, our rhetoric has been ugly and off-putting. It does no good to welcome with the one hand while the other is demanding that to be a member in good standing, one must cease and desist being who you are. There is no welcoming in this. There is only some sick pathetic attempt to portray something one is not.

One wonders how the patron at the restaurant learned such ugliness. Jesus certainly modeled no such behavior. The companies like Hobby Lobby who are suing the government in order not to be required to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of birth control and other reproductive assistance is another example. Where does Jesus model this sort of “my way or the highway” approach. Did he not uphold the Samaritans on many occasions–a sect reviled by ordinary Jews.

If one believes that this is from God, then surely one must be horrifically wrong, for this is not love, this is not compassion, nor is it forgiveness, welcoming, community, support, loving kindness. There is nothing good here at all. There is only hatred, fear, and self-righteousness, that suggests that in finding you lesser I am somehow better.

And this cannot be so.

This cannot be God.

 

Naming our Golden Calves

Golden bull sclupture on grey glassIt’s ironic isn’t it that the Israelites created a golden calf and not a golden bull. I mean given their belief that their God was a jealous God, one prone to dangerous anger, one wonders at their use of a newborn, still fragile, unknowing of much of the ways of the world, as their symbol of deity.

In any case, the story is fraught with puzzlement. Like much of the Hebrew scripture, God is portrayed as hardly all-knowing and often not all-powerful. He often argues and gives in to human logic (or what passes for it), and he seems to be in need of human hands to accomplish his ends at times.

This is perhaps why some folks think they know God and know what He wants on any given issue.

So Moses argues with God and dissuades Him from destroying the people for their “stiff-neckedness”, something one would have thought God had learned by now. It shows that Moses is the more rational of the two, reminding God that all His work to date would be for naught, and worse yet, he would look pretty weak and puny to non-Hebrews if in the end, he just mashed his sculpture into a ball and started over again.

Literalists of course, ignore all the strange and contradictory conclusions to be drawn here. Historically a lot of them used to (and perhaps still do) tsk, tsk, at the Catholic church for its use of statues of saints, calling it idol worship. One of course often misses the plank in one’s own eye when busy pointing out the planks in other people’s.

There are so many problems with concluding that the Bible is the “word of God” in a literal fashion. Least of which is that none of the fundamentalist crowd will ever answer the questions. They are quick to point out ( having matured no doubt) that they don’t claim that God literally “wrote” the bible, but only that he caused the writers to write down “in their own words” all that he desired humanity to know and nothing he did not want them to know.  Since they have pointed this out, I think it only fair to answer, “well why?”

Why what, you ask? Well, if God “used” people to write “in their own words” my question would be why would he do that? A God who can inhabit a burning bush, cause tablets to magically contain the ten commandments, part waters, create plagues of locusts, bring forth water from a rock, can surely manage to make a book of instruction can’t He? So what is the point of using these intermediaries?

Well, the answer begs the question. It’s just a not very logical way of explaining why God didn’t just start with one, and go through a list of commands. He did it once, so I guess he could make a longer list right? It explains why the Bible doesn’t read very God-like. Rather of course, than just simply state the truth–men (maybe women but we don’t know) wrote it.

My friend, Dr. James McGrath from Butler, said it thusly:

“People spoke it, others wrote it, still others copied it, still others collected the writings together, still others elevated the collection to the level of Scripture, others claimed that collection to be the Word of God, then the words of God. And that doesn’t “settle it.” The Bible tells me so.

So to claim that it does settle it, under the fundamentalist adage, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, suggests to me somebody is busy sculpting that calf again.

Churches can become calves too. I’m afraid that given enough time, almost all of them do. The church becomes THE thing. Certainly true of the Roman church, where rules and rules upon rules tell every Catholic what to do and when. They’ve relieved a bit of that, given the falling numbers, but there is still plenty of it. The Roman church formed from a winning of the battle of orthodoxy. But it didn’t go away. It erupted full force during the Reformation. It continues today. Most every church is formed around the belief that only they have the “true” understanding. That human hubris  sounds pretty darn calfish to me.

Then of course there is the infighting within the denomination. Who is a heretic? Who is a real prophet, seer, Guru? What is right teaching, wrong? Churches split nowadays over gay rights even suing each other over the very physical structures. People vie for personal power within the institution. People steal from the coffers in the name of something or other that somehow or other they justify as being “Godly”.  Your preacher “needs” to live in splendor given that he is “sweatin’ for Jesus” and you have no idea how stressful that is with the powers of Satan working so feverishly at every moment.

All that power, so necessary to “rightly lead” is a calf for sure awaiting its gilt covering.

We can get real personal and find that calf growing in our garage with that car that is oh so essential “given my long commute”, or that state of the art entertainment center, because after working so hard for the Lord, I just got to unwind! The calf grows in our relationships as we struggle to be in control, and form our partner into what works for us, draped in a facade of “what is the right way” to be a couple.

We are a stiff-necked people. Until we stop using the poor Israelites to teach a story to OTHERS about their lack of piety, well, we will continue that tradition. It’s all about your own calves. They surround you and me.

Is it time to melt down a few?

Simplify. Quiet down.

Find your real God.

She’s waiting.

If We But Understood

Scripture-1I’ve been reading around a lot lately. By that I mean, I’ve been reading a lot of different things from a lot of sources, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist. I seek truth and somehow it’s one of those things that you know it when you see it.

It has made me puzzle a bit about scripture.

We certainly do revere it, and no doubt we should. There is so much wisdom to be gleaned from texts written from times so far ago.

If you begin to delve into how

scripture became such, well, it’s a bit jolting at first. I mean to learn that what we consider scripture today was not always so considered is a bit unnerving. It must be one of those things that fundamentalists avoid thinking about.

In terms of Christianity, scripture was, well, more or less what some group or other said it was. Various “churches” relied on different writings as sacred. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of agreement of course, but on the fringes, there was lots of disagreement. It was nearly four hundred years in before the “canon” was officially set, and of course Protestants today don’t agree about what Catholics call The Apocrypha.

We don’t consider things like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary Magdala  and a few others “scripture”. We (not us of course, but church elites) have decided this for us, determining that such tracts are from heretical sects “stamped” out by the “true” church.

But all this tends to depend on how you view the bible. If you are that strange thing called a fundamentalist then you believe that the bible is the “word of God”. They mean by that that although humans wrote the bible using their own language and idioms, God made sure that the essential “facts” were all there. In other words, nothing is in the bible that God didn’t want in it and nothing is not in it. Which is all very weird when you think about it.

This means that God made sure that the people who were deciding what was and what was not scripture must have been led by the Spirit to choose just the “right” ones. I mean, after all, there is that Protestant thing about some books not being scripture, so doesn’t that sort of mess up the whole “spirit-guided” theory as to what IS the bible?

I suppose other religious groups faced and dealt with the same problems.

All this, of course, depends on our conclusion (and it is one we surely made), that God said all he had to say about “things” a very long time ago. Because I don’t hear any Magisterium or their Protestant counterparts, sitting around debating any “new” stuff.

This seems to me to be just flat-out wrong.

The bible is a collection of writings, made by almost all  men, and anonymously for the most part. Surely they were inspired to speak of God as they saw him, and as they saw God interacting in his creation. That seems to me a fine definition and an accurate one. Given that they were inspired by God, they gave us wonderful wisdom of the love of God, and His greatness.

But is God no longer interacting with his creation?

If He is, and certainly I can think of no one who would argue otherwise, then is he not inspiring others to write of their understanding of His workings in the world? Surely every theologian and every biblical scholar thinks they are writing truth. Surely this is true of every hymn writer, and every “inspirational” writer.

Are they too scripture?

Well, perhaps not all. Some are in it for the “job” and the money and the power. Some are sadly misguided. Some are deeply immature in their faith. But we all agree, mostly at least, that some people have an ability to lift us to the heavens with their prose or poetry. Some speak so beautifully that we are forced to see God more clearly, more deeply than before. Is this not scripture?

We all can point to those who do this for us. Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Walter Brueggeman perhaps. A Jon Sobrino perhaps? I suppose it might be hard to decide but clearly we can all point to those who speak truth about God and us.

Is this not as beautiful as a psalm?

How Great Thou Art Hymn

Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;

Refrain:
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
and hear the brook, and feel he gentle breeze;

Refrain

And when I think that God his son not sparing,
Sent him to die – I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin:

Refrain

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home- what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Is this not scripture, God-breathed and valuable for teaching? (2Tim 3:16)

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