Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why I am religious, not just spiritual

For many years now, the elite tiers in our culture have frowned upon religion -- specifically on Christian religion; we generally give a pass to anyone else. There is a peer pressure to talk about "meditation" rather than "prayer": though religious people may do both, spiritual people are far more likely to meditate. There is a certain peer pressure, a certain gateway-to-acceptance, to identify as "spiritual, not religious." And the opposition to "organized religion" is so well-established that there are long-standing jokes about "Don't worry about us; we're not that organized" -- long-established jokes meant to deflect the long-established hostile environment. In light of that, I wanted to state why I am religious, not just spiritual. 

For Christians it will come as no surprise that spirituality is part of our faith: that spirituality is the heart of our faith. Some of the best-loved Bible passages are spiritual, such as the ancient Psalmist's cry "Create in me a clean heart, O God," or St Paul's reminders that build on Jesus' teachings: that the law is fulfilled by love. 

Yet spirituality alone, without the framework of faith, tends to be wishy-washy. If it can be anything that I want it to be, then it is limited by myself -- and limited to myself. This ultra-subjectivity means that there are no grounded intellectual discussions to be had with someone who shares the same reality, no firm basis for the growth of understanding, no consensus to be formed. My spirituality can guide me, and your spirituality can guide you; but it doesn't generally lead us to organize for the common good.

And it is that shared belief with its result of organizing for the common good that are among the strong suits of religion. Yes: I'm aware of the long line of people eager to bring a catalog of times when religious people have made bad calls. In a healthy religious system, the bad actors are called out by other religious people based on those shared values and shared rules of life. The moral absolutes of the faith empower even the lowest person to take on a corrupt person who has gained power: the standard outranks the person. A good religion makes the bad actors in its ranks accountable to a higher authority, and so puts a stop to them. It is true that bad people exist, and that bad people will abuse whatever kind of power is handy, whether it's religious or political or economic or educational or any other kind they can find. The fact that bad people use power in bad ways is not, rightly, a call to become disorganized but a call to check ourselves and clean house.

The different values and particulars of each religion have led down different paths, so I will speak here to Christianity, while other faiths can ably speak to their own experience. 

Christianity has from its foundation worked kindness toward our neighbors as part of our faith. In the first years when Jesus led Christianity with his own physical presence, he helped peoples' physical needs by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He met peoples' needs of acceptance by his presence and his practice of hospitality. He met peoples' spiritual needs by teaching, building up their understanding and faith, their compassion and their hope, their sense of connection to their neighbors. He taught as one who has authority.

Still in the early years of the faith when the New Testament was being written, the early Christians were already organizing to get food to widows and to the poor, and organizing to get disaster relief to famine-stricken areas. We know this because the New Testament mentions some of the efforts there. The organization of religious efforts is a blessing to those who receive the generosity and kindness that are the intent of the organization. Down the centuries, churches have fed countless poor, hungry, and bereaved people in their time of need. Churches have organized to create and sustain hospitals and schools, charitable organizations and disaster relief funds. Down to this day, I have seen churches take the lead in disaster relief. A few years ago after hurricane Harvey, I was grateful to receive some free meals dropped off just-in-time by church groups, as I worked at a clothing distribution center, or helped with a cleanup crew in a flooded home. The people of Christ have been there for me, just as I hope I have been there for others.

Jesus left a clear call to those who follow him, a clear picture of how he judges our actions as good: 

"I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me."

I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors. I am grateful for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in the faith. I am grateful for the shared music and art that enrich our lives. I am grateful for the intellectual heritage of so many great thinkers. I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of so many saints. And I am grateful for Jesus' authority -- which I recall him citing on these occasions: the authority to cleanse the Temple (that is, to purify religion to what it should be), and the authority to forgive sins.


Martin LaBar said...

"I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors"

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Always intriguing to me which parts catch peoples' attention.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF