Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Spiritual but not Religious

I remember the first time I heard these words:
"I don't like organized religion."
What did he mean?
He doesn't like organization?
He doesn't like the church?
He doesn't like religion?
He doesn't like institutions?
Is he just excusing his lack of participation in a community of faith?
I'll admit,
it was jarring
and I was unprepared to dialogue about it,
though I am sure I asked a few questions for clarification

If I had a dime for every time I heard these words
(or one of their many variations)
"I am not religious but I am spiritual."
What does THAT mean?

More often than not, I think these statements boil down to two things:
First, the modern perception of the church and
Second, a modern preoccupation with the self and the immediate

To be sure, the church has had some less-than-stellar moments in our history
Moments for which we cannot be proud
Moments about which we should, even now, weep in shame
Moments which clearly do not reflect our best practices and the values of God's Kingdom
Many folks seem to relish in pointing out the church's historical and contemporary flaws
and it seems to give them sufficient reason to not only reject the church
but ridicule any and all who practice the Christian faith.

I am not so sure.
Irrelevant has come to mean more like "What have you done for me lately?"
Clearly the church is relevant in the lives of countless of people both within and outside of the church.

For instance, my congregation was relevant in the lives of about 900 people a few weeks ago as we handed out free food to the hungry
Unfortunately, it's the seedy, not the positive, story that gets told in the press.

(I will have to admit if we are talking about a relevant message, I will agree that I have sat in worship services listening to a completely irrelevant message given by a less-than-passionate preacher praying that a brick would fall on my head and stop the pain.")

That said, I find it hard to believe that one can reject a whole organization and mock millions of followers because of a small minority of events and people.

Today "being spiritual" has become, not only trendy, but an escape.
Today what passes for spirituality is a home brew of pragmatic practices and beliefs borrowed from a vast array of religions including both Western and Eastern religions
as well as aboriginal religions.
These spiritualities are all about what works for me now
Practices are about making me a better person
They do not hold me to an authority beyond my own conscience or pleasure
They do not demand that my "beliefs" be cogent
They are not about how I can make the world a better place
They do necessarily hold me accountable to how I treat others
Or how I steward the earth and all that dwell on it
Ethics are about what works for me and can be abandoned
the minute they cease working for my pleasure

Don't get me wrong
I don't think the church is perfect
And I applaud any attempt to transcend self
and find a transforming relationship with God
But what I have found
is that community - like the church
or the synagogue
or the mosque
however imperfect
is the right and best place to sustain
a wise and healthy spirituality

I am not sure what people mean by
But I AM sure that
Thomas Merton
John Wesley
Mother Theresa
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
the Dalai Lama
and those like them


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