Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Religion As Cultural Spirituality

“I believe all religious forms are created over the course of the history of religion. But they have taken on a sacredness for us and are places where we come together with God … That’s what I call the practices … For a long time I was quite ambivalent about [doing the practices], but I’ve come back to … love practice.

I find that the practice is a moment of being in the presence of God, performing a religious act … These are moments in which I open myself to the divine Presence and, quite frequently, feel some kind of connection through them. So they have become very powerful in my life again.”  Rabbi Arthur Green, rector, Hebrew College Rabbinical School)

There are many different religions that exist throughout this world. Most religions split themselves into various subgroups (denominations) due to differences in detailed beliefs and practices. They further splinter off into differences from church-to-church / congregation-to-congregation due to local focus and priorities. In the blog posting “Living Spiritually” (6/5/2017), four characteristics inherent in living a spiritual life were described. If people in the fast-growing “spiritual-but-not-religious” group consider themselves as pursuing a spiritual way of life, what is it that they are giving up (i.e. “religion”) in their pursuit?

If spirituality is highly personal, religion is highly communal. Personal spirituality is inherently a place of individuality, of going one’s separate way, of a certain aloneness in beliefs and practices. For those to whom such states are intolerable, religion offers a sanctuary of familiar faces, a shared bonding, a security in numbers that reassures. In turn, the religion demands a measure of fealty to its form and structure, regardless of whether that community is supportive of one’s spiritual needs. The communal form stays essentially intact even as the individual seeker’s maturity evolves and experiences change. In religion, one finds blessed stability; in spirituality, one constantly walks the discomforting high wire of “new.”

If spirituality requires pursuing unending questions only temporarily answered, religion offers set answers that have been established and codified over potentially thousands of years. They are answers that are generally final and immutable, even as their applicability to an individual’s current events and circumstances may be less clear. Deference to those set answers is mandatory, else the religion collapses, because those answers are the glue that holds a religion together. If a collapse happens, it likely results in a splintering into even more institutional subsets of diverse beliefs. With such splintering, conflict – if not violence – often ensues. What should be seen as evolving and emerging spiritual growth often becomes treason to one’s sect. And the seeker is typically left caught in the deeply difficult middle: to stay, or to leave?

If spirituality looks to the intuitive and inspired mind, dogmatic religion offers solace in the rational, human mind. In a rational construct, uncertainty is replaced by seeming certainty. Potential answers are presented as “proved” or “disproved.” The community shares acceptance of an apparently reasonable conclusion – even though they are conclusions reached within the limitations of our human experiences and capacities, colored by perhaps questionable lessons previously absorbed. From such conclusions, trust in one’s inner sense of connection to things beyond the rational lies fallow. Thereby, one’s true, inner Self continues to sit in darkness, unknown and unrecognized.

If spirituality is experiential, religion offers a preset and prescribed package of often beautiful and inspiring experiences. They are experiences that can be shared with one’s contemporaries as well as in the company of one’s ancestry. There are religious holidays and celebrations; special foods and religious menus; rituals of passage (birth; maturity; marriage; death); family relationships and memories; standardized songs, liturgy and prayer practices. Yet these are experiences created by humans for humans, not experiences of humans with that which is beyond human. God never told us not to eat meat on Friday; these are our religious customs reflective of an historical moment in time, or the honoring of a particular person/event, that together make up a religious culture. They connect us to each other by our shared participation, and perhaps temporarily alleviate our loneliness. But that set package often precludes a direct, unique experience between God and us. In spirituality, one has to create one’s experiences, either by finding your own expression, or by opening yourself to allow the Universe to find you.

For many, religion brings us into a pre-structured place of community, perspective, insight, decisions, and experiences that reassures and works for us at points in our life. For others, religion’s structure closes doors of individual discovery and resulting personal fulfillment. In religion, we share ideas and forms passed down as gifts from the ages. In spirituality, we create a gift to give to the ages. There is no right or wrong in either of these alternatives. There is only “appropriateness” – and appropriateness varies over one’s lifetime and circumstances.

Ultimately, spirituality and religion are simply potential means to bring us inward to our spirit, outward in good will to all others, and open to a Universal connection and understanding.  Danger arises when 1) religion loses its humility of knowing that it is here to serve the seeker, not to be served, or 2) we come to believe that our religion is appropriate for all – which it is not. That is why we are continually challenged to carefully discern between God and humankind, and between religious content and practices versus fallible human beings. That is why we seek to distinguish between the teachings of the great spiritual masters, and the institutions human beings have built around those lessons. That is why we need to hold our religion very lightly to ensure that our religious decisions move as we move – which we surely do. When we allow ourselves to move, we instinctively find our way closer to our spirituality, our discovery of our unfalsified true Self, and our connection with God.

In religion, the seeker comes to the Church. In spirituality, the Church comes to the seeker.

©   2017   Randy Bell