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.

It’s Always a Process

Readings:

Is: 55:10-11

Ps: 65:10,11, 12-13-14

Rom: 8-18-23

Mt: 13:1-23

What these readings have in common is process. We sow seeds, rain falls, crops grow and are harvested. Even the reading from Romans suggests that process is the key. Creation is a process that is being worked out in time.

Typically, what is garnered from Matthew’s parable of the sower, is that we must be the fruitful seed. We must take the Word, let it enrich us, grow in us and we must then use it to facilitate the creating desire of God. And that is perfectly true.

Yet, it also bespeaks something about our faith and how it prospers or not. I often wonder how a fundamentalist reads this parable. Surely they don’t see themselves as seed that has fallen on rock or the path. They see themselves as seed that fell into rich soil. They do not let the cares of the world, or the vicissitudes of life interfere with their dedication to Jesus and the Gospel.  They remain committed to their understanding of the Word.

But I suggest there is another way to look at the parable and the readings in general. They don’t necessarily relate to one’s tenacity in committment to “spreading the Word” but rather to the process of being in faith.

And what we see here is change. There is a process being announced. Seed, rain, soil, each is needed. The seed bursts forth, becomes a plant, sets seed, produces its fruits, and then is harvested. It’s not simply a matter of sowing day in and day out. It’s not merely a matter of reading the same passages again and again and reminding ourselves of the standard meanings.

Growth and change signify each of these readings, and that means ourselves as well as our duties to spread the “good news.”

To cast in iron the meaning of any parable or any passage is to stop growing. And to stop growing is death. We can wave the banner of faith, but if it is a faith that is stagnant, unyielding in its interpretation, then we are failing quite simply to honor Jesus’ words.

Faith is messy as some have suggested. It is, and should be full of starts and stops, turns, flips, inquiry, doubt, doubling back, and throwing up our hands in confusion. We should get angry sometimes, we should find deep peace at others, joy often, confidence–in other words, faith involves the entire panoply of our emotions.

Faith is a living thing. For we are in the process of a creation, one that is still ongoing, still unfolding. And we are deeply a part of that process. The very evidence that our world is not as it should be is all the evidence we need. It is not complete because we are not complete.

Faith is work. It’s not easy nor always pleasurable. Talk to those of advanced spiritual growth and they will explain all the months and sometimes years of deep meaningless agony that must be fought through. To the degree that we attempt to avoid that, but painting a picture of faith as steady and unchanging, we contribute to the stalling of creation unfolding from us. We become the rocky soil, the path where fruitless sowing has occurred.

It is like walking along with a handful of seeds and each step turns to concrete before us. We can sow seed all day long, and we will produce nothing. The vessel is sterile, and can generate no life.

That is what seems to me is the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist has deeply erred in concluding that any question, any confusion about what the Word might mean, is not faith and thus must be avoided at all costs. Fear becomes the stick that guides the fundamentalist.

We must realize that we are in process as believers. It is okay to say, I don’t know. It is okay to say, I can’t agree with that this seems to say, therefore, I must dig deeper to uncover its meaning. It is okay to conclude that perhaps the writer was wrong! But it is right to seek answers that satisfy one’s heart, because that is the truest location of good judgment.

It is all about growth. Jesus called his disciples to grow out of their old thinking into new thinking, and in doing so, he shows us how to as well. Remember, on more than one occasion Jesus made clear that there was ever so much more to tell and to learn, more than he had time for in his short time in our world. So he taught us a method–simply love your God with all your heart, mind and soul, your fellow human being as yourself, and be servant to all.

That is how we grow: by each day making a new effort to proceed throughout that day mindful of those directives.

Amen.

 

Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen, Yet Believe

I had a good friend years ago who belonged to Christian denomination that did not celebrate the usual holidays of the Church. No Christmas, no Easter, no Lent.

Her church argued that none of the actual dates were known, and that in any case, we should celebrate the events the holidays signify, everyday.

Point one, I totally agree. We don’t know the actual date of Jesus’ birth. We are a bit more certain of his death, since it is tied (at least in three Gospels) to the Passover, John disagreeing.

Yet, I disagree about the second, though laudable claim, that we should celebrate these events daily. We should. We don’t.

Our readings today speak eloquently to this fact. In the Gospel of John, the risen Christ has appeared to most of the twelve, and to certain of the women. They are ecstatic and joyous. Yet Thomas, who was not present, doubts. He has to see the risen Lord with his own eyes before he is prepared to believe in the resurrection.

This brings forth one of the most piercing of statements from Jesus:

“Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

I challenge you to read that and not slightly cringe and your own times of lack of faith and of doubt.

We see how that “first hand” knowing played out in the early community. Luke tells us in Acts that the community, remained faithful. They lived in communal equality, (communism actually) and were generous in their sharing. They attended church faithfully, and they were “looked up to” by everyone.

Yet, several decades later, this is not the case. We find “Peter” (probably not the apostle), writing in the later part (we think) of the first century, exhorting his followers to remain faithful in times of great stress and trial. It is thought perhaps that this was a time in Rome of persecution under Domitian or Trajan.

In any case, the writer reminds the community of all the things that have been promised, and what their reward will be. He commends them for their faith throughout the trials of the day. He notes that they have not seen the risen Lord, yet they believe.

Reading between the lines, we conclude that the writer is trying to buck up a stressed community, shoring up their perhaps weakening faith. “. . .you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.”

These readings remind us, still fresh from the resurrection, that we too are subject to falling away. We are still filled with the excitement of Easter after our long sojourn in the desert. We are joyful.

Yet all too soon our everyday concerns will interrupt upon our joy. We will return to the mundane and all the attendant troubles and trials that life visits upon us all.

Our doubts, now we think forever eradicated, will return, if not as outright questions, at least as lukewarm attendance to God and our faith.

The problem with “ordinary” time is that it is all too ordinary. We get too busy with barbecues and lawn mowing, of concerts in the park and farmer’s markets. Our God-time shrinks to an occasional formulaic prayer each day, and an hour squeezed in on Sunday.

For those of us who are on a knowing and deliberate path, this is a time for vigilance. If we are to progress (and isn’t that our goal?) we need to maintain our seeking, our dedication to all those practices that have so far proven useful to our growth.

We, each of us, must plumb the depths of our being and discover what direction God is drawing us to. Is it more study of scripture? Or is it more meditation? Is it more church attendance? Or is it more study of the mystics? Are we finding God in something we do? Or something we enjoy with our senses? Is it nature? Or art? Or music? Is it service?

These are the questions we need be asking, lest we become stale and as unbelieving as Thomas was before he met the risen Lord. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

Amen.

** readings are from:

Acts 2:42-47;  1Pet 1:3-9;  Jn 20:19-31

My Cooking is Killing My Sheep!

Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.” That responsibility falls upon us as a believing community. Yet Paul reminds us that we all have different gifts.

One of mine is surely not pastoral care. Mind you, I did some graduate work in this area, but it’s not my forte.

I screwed it up, as they say.

You will remember that I spoke about finding some bloggers who were in transition, having freed themselves of fundamentalism. They were in deep pain, struggling to retain a faith that had lost it foundations.

I felt that my offerings were not helpful. Yet one commented on that post and I felt encouraged enough to continue. I should have left well enough alone.

I have not the right words it seems, or the right attitude, or something. In point of fact, I think I misunderstood the “place” of the other person. I negligently thought I saw a person still struggling to retain faith. Rather I think I found a person who rejected fundamentalism in its interpretation of the bible, but accepted its underlying threat: It’s all inerrant, or you have no reason to accept any bit of it.

This is the constant and insidious ugly side of fundamentalism. Not only does it convince that a book is God, it convinces that if the Book isn’t God, there is no God to be found.

Most of the other commenters on this post are agnostics or atheists, so they were challenging me as well as supporting the doubts raised by the poster. Trying to argue a person out of agnosticism or atheism, especially when it is newly acquired is a worthless proposition.

But it did get me to thinking. How very different my own journey.

While I knew plenty of Catholics in my young life, they were never ones to speak of their faith. It just wasn’t done. When I did learn anything about religion and God, it was from a fundamentalist point of view. This was true through my early 20’s and  through my 30’s.

I simply rejected it out of hand for this reason. I could never have believed in a God that was projected by a inerrant reading of the Bible. In fact, upon reading it, my reaction was, “what an evil and awful thing this God is!”

For, intuitively I knew this: God had to be at least as perfect and beautiful as ANYTHING I could create in my own mind. I suspected God was much more, but the Creator MUST be at least that perfect. I was merely a person, with a reasoning brain after all.

So reason, before I knew a thing about real theology, was a hallmark of believing. Remember, I am the one who, upon learning that there was no Santa Claus, placed God in the same category. Wispy magical imaginative whispers of non-reality. Nice, but not real.

Thankfully, God did not stop knocking at my door. And one of my first questions to Sister Doris when I explored entering the Roman Catholic church was, “Do I have to believe all this stuff in the bible literally?”

“My, my,” she laughed, “of course not. True, we do have tenets, things we accept in faith, but we don’t think God tricks us. The earth is certainly not a mere 6,000 years old, for instance. We have dozens and hundreds of fine Catholic scholars who study and examine the manuscripts and explain what certain texts mean.You will learn about myth and allegory and such in your preparation to join the Church.”  

We had a lively conversation, and I left assured that my common sense and reason would never be assaulted by the strange child-like machinations of fundamentalist demands.

Since that time, I’ve studied under priests and other nuns who were theologians and biblical experts, some in the Roman tradition, and recently in the Episcopal tradition. They, individually, studied in some of the most respected and intellectually rigorous universities in the world.

I was never asked to accept their beliefs. I had the benefit of their scholarly learning, but one thing that all of these fine men and women taught me, was that questions were never bad, God was big enough to handle them. And moreover, I understood, whether said directly or by implication, that the hallmark of a mature faith was one worked out individually.

I have come to see it this way: God is like a key hole. We are the key. Yet, we are a key blank at the beginning. Our experiences, study, prayer,  and so forth serve to try to create the key that we can place in the lock and turn. We work at this, making it sometimes jiggle, turn a bit, turn more, stick. We withdraw it at times and look it all over again. We hone, chisel, sharpen. Over time, with effort, we begin to unlock God.

Jesus, of course, was a perfect fit. Perhaps Buddha was as well. Others, those we revere as great mystics and teachers, have got the lock almost open. Once open, the kingdom is ours, today. Jesus tried to explain to us how to do this. He showed us “the way.” But there are other ways, I think, since I dare say the Dalai Lama thinks the Buddha’s way is such.

This is a God I can love, and revere and work hard to emulate. This God, who joyously provides all his sentient beings with keys, calling them to fashion themselves in his image.

Some wonder why it is hard? Should it be easy? What can we possibly learn if it is handed to us on a silver platter? No, we become Christ-like by the struggle. Study is my joy, teasing out the delicate threads of real value in sacred scripture. Sacred? Yes indeed, for all was wrought by believing minds speaking their truth as carefully and completely as they could.

Confound it, but I cannot speak this in a way that convinces the unbeliever. I preach to the choir only. It is my frustration. Is it yours?

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