There are some conversations that crop up all the time when you’re a pastor. One of the most common ones occurs once people find out I’m a pastor and they say something like this: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” In truth, this usually cues an inward groan on my part. Part of me is curious and would love clarification, explanation of perceived definitions, etc. Then part of me is convinced there are some of us who just parrot this phrase, because I hear it repeated so often. Do we take ownership of an idea we don’t really care about or have a passion in just so we can keep from having evangelical conversations? Yes, it is rather jaded, I admit. My problem stems, at least in part from this, I’m an “all in” kind of person. I’m not offended that you don’t agree with me, or that your ideas conflict with mine, I would rather you be fully committed to something one way or the other. For instance, I can deal with the proclaimed Atheist better than the wavering Agnostic.
What do people mean when they say they’re spiritual? When I listen carefully, I find that I hear less of an esoteric, mystical understanding of defined deity, but someone who does not want the connection to a religious institution. I hear time and time again how they do not want to be forced, tied down, restricted, bound to formal, organized, institutionalized religion. And these sentiments are not said with blase casualty; they usually come with anger, hurt, disgust, and even wrath. I understand that. I know how there are churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, religious communities all over the world that get it wrong. They hurt, when they should be helping to heal. They alienate, when they should welcome. They divide, when they should unite. I’ve been there. I know that kind of pain. Yet I know I cannot punish all Christianity, much less all organized religion, simply because I have had my share of bad experiences. To hate a religion for being a religion, and attributing your dislike to it being “a man-made institution” is naive at best and often absurd.
(Image courtesy of hermes-press.com)
Are there dysfunctional religious communities? Absolutely. I could name you two that personally hurt and offended me, but I walked away from them, not Christianity, not the Church Universal. While Agnosticism has always felt like, well, honestly a cop out to me, this spiritual thing takes the cake. The more I think about it the more I find that it exhibits the very problem that Christianity is called to confront: extreme individuality that leads to selfishness. To say I don’t need the community of faith, I don’t need anyone to connect me to God is all about me. It’s about what I want and about what I don’t want, in this case, to be tied to anyone or anything that might not wholly agree with me. All the major world religions came to be because their God or gods revealed themselves to humanity, even the personal revelations came with the requirement to spread the news and build community.
So what prompted all this thought, this reaction? This article: Giving Up Religions for Individual Faith. Is There a Difference? Author Frank Raj makes the statement, “Besides creating competition for religious power, and dividing the human
race, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc., have made little
difference in the world.” Utterly uninformed, naive, and ridiculous. Sorry, Mr. Raj, but this world has been shaped by the good parts of all of those religions and more. We have a plethora of knowledge, art, culture, and strides in social growth because of religion. For thousands of years people looked up to the heavens and wanted to know about the divine that dwelled there. So they mapped the skies and charted the stars. They began astronomy and the science of space. Islam rediscovered ancient Greco-Roman texts and developed modern mathematics, most especially Algebra which we use in our architecture, our sciences, our medicine, and our development of new technologies. The classical arts – sculpture, architecture, painting, and music – all received funding and exhortation through Medieval Christianity. Judaism has given the world a great gift in its culture of humor and love of performing arts. Albert Einstein was a Jew and we all know what he contributed to this world’s growth. Buddhism has been and remains one of the greatest peace keeping presences in East Asia, living by example and showing the world that we can find a middle way to exist together in harmony.
All of this says nothing about the charity, the acts of selfless kindness, that these faiths have given to the world. The world religions, each in their own way, bring food to the hungry, medicine and care to the sick, and the willingness to be present with those who suffer, even more, to advocate for them. The most iconic leader in the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a ordained Reverend in the Baptist Church, a Christian. His religion gave him fortitude, strength, and the ability to combat the social ills he saw others struggle with, and our society is better because of him. Mr. Raj denies the religious who suffered and struggled to make this world a better place any credit. While they do not need his acknowledgement, they do not need to be insulted. God knows what they have done, and where their hearts lie. To be continued…