Friday, September 19, 2014

Religious but not spiritual - a talk....

At our late Spring Church Retreat which took place in Camp Pringle on the beautiful shores of Shawnigan Lake in May I took a workshop/lecture/seminar thing for which I wrote my notes out longhand in a notebook - very oldschool - and it meant that I didn’t have them available to share. At the request of a number of members of the Church and the Quo Vadis group I have transcribed them and offer them here and at St John The Divine Staff Blog for comment and consideration!

Religious but not Spiritual
The trend to call oneself “spiritual but not religious” has reached epic proportions,  and so has the response within the community of faith which is the Church.  One book, by Lillian Daniel, is entitled When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Good Enough and expresses her frustration at what is, in her understanding, an epidemic of ‘self-made, self-centred, self-absorbed religion, passed off as an innovative spiritual approach’.  As she writes she talks of the need for the checks and balance of a community of faith seeking together, wrestling with the meaning within our scripture and our church life, and an acknowledgement of our part in a story beyond ourselves.  She deconstructs the whole phenomena of ‘spiritual but not religious’ with, admittedly, a fair amount of snark which I hope it’s Ok to reproduce some of it here:
p5  - a conversation on a plane:
“he found himself spending his Sunday mornings sleeping in, reading The New York Times, or putting on his running shoes and taking off through the woods. This was his religion today, he explained. “I worship nature, I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find good there. And I realised that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.”
he dumped the news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something that would shock a mild-mannered minister never before exposed to ides so brave and different and daring. But of course, to me, none of this was different in the least.”
or pp.6, 7
 “Have you ever notice that these people’s children are always theological geniuses? They amaze their parents with their wisdom. What are the odds? I presume it is because, like most children, they are parroting back their parents’ values. So the children also see God in nature, but because they are children and have bigger eyes, large heads, and high voices, they generally do so on much cuter ways. “I think there will be doggies and birdies and candy in heaven.” Awww…..
But let’s take that a little further, junior.  Will there he sharks and snakes in heave too? Ewww. How about blood-sucking vampire bats? Now that’ll keep you up at night, junior theologian.
These kids teaching their parents with homespun aphorisms, are actually being poorly service. If they went to Sunday school they could ask about bats and scorpions in heaven. They could ask about cancer when a grandparent gets sick. They would have a place, a spiritual community, in which to go deeper.”
or p 9
“Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain emails about sweet friends? Who are you , cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and the physically fit? Who are you, God the spiritual but not religious? Who are you, God the lucky, chief priest of the religion of gratitude? Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me?”
Strong stuff.
Another commentator, one who I heard at a conference for the Retreat Association of Gt Britain, spoke of some people being ‘Religious but not Spiritual’ – constructing a self-made religion, but rarely encountering the true depths of spirituality as shared by those through the ages who have met God within the community of faith and its discipline.

In the end, what many commentators do seem to say is that Religion is an essentially human construct which seeks to offer a discipline and accountability to oneself and to one another in our spiritual journey.  It may be misused, or become weighed down with expectation, tradition, bias – even bigotry and an unhealthy approach to life and faith.  But religion itself is not the be all and end all. It is a means to bind us together in faith and to share our journey.
When we use the term religion we are often talking about the constructs of a faith – the institutions and traditions (whether passed on to us, or self-made) – and Spirituality is that encounter with the Divine that comes from being attentive to what we might call our ‘soul space’.  Spirituality does involve discipline, and indeed accountability to oneself and to others, though much of our prayer may take place alone, there is also a calling to listen, to learn and to grow in community.
In Christian terms – it’s not just for, nor is it just about ‘me’.
Spirituality should make demands on us. Taking time for the Spirit, being open to the ‘other’, being prayerful, listening for God, working for justice,  and both stilling ourselves and taking action are disciplines.  These are all spiritual demands, and part of that which binds us together in faith to and with one another, those beyond our immediate faith community, to the dirty, and the unlovely, and the unloved. In fact there is some debate about the origin of the word religion, but many commentators think it’s a form of the  latin ‘Religio’ which may well derives from ‘legire’ – to bind. Religion at its best binds us to one another, to God, to our shared story of faith.
So, with Lilian Daniel I, though I have sympathy with many who declare themselves SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) I disagree with the terminology, I also think that it’s something of a cop-out, avoidance of the discipline of faith, a consumer based ‘does it give me what I want’ rather than ‘does it give me what I need, even if I don’t like it’.
But, guess what?
We do it in the Church too.
We construct our religious practice so often to serve ourselves. We keep our faith to one day a week, expressing our busy-ness, our own voyage of self-discovery, our love of nature/sunsets/bunnies/finding God in the garden (preferably with gin & tonic in hand – or is that just me?)
We find ourselves Religious but not Spiritual!
We do not nurture, care for, nourish our soul space. By which we so often do not intentionally  nurturer our faith,  our spiritual formation, our discipleship, our practise of following, seeking, growing.
Now, if that sounds grumpy, it’s because I cannot overemphasise how valuable, life giving, world changing and transformative such intentional practice can be.  Yes, we should take ‘me time’ and garden, relax, do tv, chill. Sometimes a “G n’ T’ is a good thing.  But to enter into an adult faith, a spiritual journey, takes some effort, some time, some work.
The principles of such a discipline, and discipline is of course the root of the word disciple – which is what we in the church, the body of Christ, are. We are the gathering, the ekklesia, of disciples of Christ – the principles of such a discipline are, I believe;
  • Soul Care
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Openness to challenging our current thinking
  • Openness to the divine
So here are some suggestions of how we might address our spiritual life, individually and in community – to add depth to our personal and communal journey:
Read: Spiritual writers and stories, new and old, beyond our comfort zone.  Novels, poetry, prose.
Listen: to speakers, podcasts, talks. But also music – with an ear and heart open to God,
Silence: learn to take time and space in silence. We fill our lives with so many distractions, or allow ourselves to be carried away in a tide of activity. Be intentional about not having a life which is ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (MacBeth, Act V, Scene 5)
Practice of Prayer: Try new ways of praying; centring prayer, Contemplation, Lectio Divina, Meditation, Mantras, Poetry and Music prayer (both experiencing and creating).  Explore prayer, preferably with a Spiritual Director/Soul Friend/companion/guide.
Meet: to worship, pray, talk – other than Sundays. There are lots of groups within our own Church community at St John the Divine, but also at Christ Church Cathedral, First Metropolitan, Grace Lutheran and beyond.  There are inter-faith groups and meditation groups, social action groups – all ways of exploring and putting into action a living and vibrant faith.
One way, perhaps helpful, can be to think in terms of what have  been traditionally called ‘Spiritual Disciplines’
For an easy and enjoyable read on the subject I recommend John Ortberg’sThe Life You’ve Always Wanted’ (terrible title, sounds like a self-help book, but the content is excellent!).  Ortberg looks at ancient practice in new ways, exploring the tradition of monastics and others over many centuries within a contemporary framework.  There is no definitive list of ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ but they include practices such as:
  • Celebration
  • Slowing
  • Prayer
  • Servanthood
  • Confession
  • Secrecy
  • Scriptural reflection/meditation
                                                 and much more.
Some would describe the careful and intentional attempt to practise these disciplines, indeed any attempt to pay attention to our spiritual life, formation and growth, as best served by seeking to follow a ‘rule of life’ such as comes from the monastic movement.
This isn’t a bad way to consider how to focus on and grow in our faith.  It is certainly the foundation of what is known as the ‘new monastic’ movement – one source of helpful information, and some inspiration, on this is the book ‘Cave, Refectory, Road’ by Ian Adams, which talks of the dynamic of a rule of life lived out in our everyday walk of faith.  Here in Victoria we have an example of an ‘Intentional Christian Community’ in the form of the Emmaus Community, who invite everyone to join in their daily rhythm of prayer and worship.

But this is a discipline – and that is something that does, again, need work. Not that we do it alone, as we seek the guidance and strength of the Spirit, the Wisdom, of God on this path.  If we are followers, disciples, people of discipline – we are following the example of Jesus who took his spiritual life very seriously indeed and it filled and fired his own life and ministry.
Ultimately, where both ‘SBNR’ and ‘RBNS’ falls down is that neither really make the demands that making ourselves spiritual discipline; intentionally, in community, does.
We are encouraged to explore faith in community:
  • That we might learn and grow together
  • That we might be encouraged
  • That we might be held accountable for our spiritual life and action
  • That we might work together to change the world
My own statement of where I believe we are being called:
  • We are being called, in our community at St John The Divine and throughout the Church, to be attentive to our Spiritual path.
  • We are being called to maturity – or as Darmuid O’ Murchu says – an adult faith
  • We are being called to transformation
  • We are being called to take responsibility for one another’s growth in faith and for the life of the Church
  • We are being challenged to explore the heritage of our faith
And I believe we have the most fantastic opportunity for crafting our ‘Soul Space’ in the current church – there is a vitality and life which we can call on, ways and means of learning and exploring which haven’t been available to previous generations. In St John the Divine we have resources, including some amazing people, which offer us opportunity to learn and grow and be stimulated and challenged and inspired.  This is an exciting time to be a part of any Church, but particularly so in this, our spiritual home of St John the Divine.


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the Alastair, It parallels my comments on the book Religion without God by Ronald Dworkin I reviewed (after a fashion) recently, but you are clearer in your outline of the issue.

From within the church, I am asked the hard question on violence in the psalms again and again. I get such questions from the lectionary when we leave out the real corkers. I get the question from the prayer book when it leaves out Psalm 58, most of Psalm 109, and the last two verses of Psalm 137. I get the question from priests who leave out further verses so as not to disturb the congregation. I get it directly from priest and people.

It is a similar problem to the cherry picking that the non-religious spiritual being can do - but they too are hit with violence and they call it an act of God - the insurance tern you cannot protect yourself from.

There is indeed, as you note, a wider story of which we (within Christendom) are a part, whether we are inside or outside the current church.

The question of how we deal with violence focuses us on the reality of violence in our society and in our foreign policies.

The story in the Psalms is the history of Israel, a place which still figures large in the religious flareups that we hear of in the media.

When I look at the violence I am dependent on for my current life in the world (police, army, US drone strokes, etc), I wonder how the modern poet will drink the cup to the dregs (Psalm 75) so that the fire-brands of bow, shield, sword, and battle can be shattered (Psalm 76) and enemy and avenger be given rest (Sabbath) (Psalm 8).

Without the violent passages in the Psalms, I could not be assured that my own violence is dealt with by offering it even from within my own weakness as part of the burnt offering and ascension that is ours in Christ. I tried to express this in the introduction to my book (page 15):

"If one believes in the nature of God, say for analogy, the infinite, as opposed to our own perceived finitude, then when one prays in, to, or from such a presence, it becomes impossible to take violence into one’s own hands."

This is not an ad - but thanks for the stimulus - again.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for this, Alastair (a typo)!

Alastair McCollum said...

Thanks Bob, great comment. I find myself challenged by the violence and militarism throughout Scripture and the language we use in the church. It's an ongoing question and something I need to address in myself, and my understanding of the God of love I understand to be revealed through Scripture!

Eloise Gladders said...

In my studies of Compassionate Communication some years ago with Sister Judy, one of the Sisters of St Ann who was also the Chaplin at William Head Penitentiary we learned compassionate ways of expressing appropriate boundaries.There were men from the prison in the class. I am so grateful they were there because we also learned that they needed to invoke the protective use of force. Sometimes language is not enough and one has to hit somebody or have their lunch taken. So perhaps a Bible without violence and militarism would not be a true reflection of the realities of life. Just a thought!

Alastair McCollum said...

Thanks Eloise - apologies for leaving it a while to respond! I agree, I think Scripture challenges us with it's not always PC language, and calls us to confront the violence within us. Jesus' example of turn the other cheek seems to challenge the assumption that - on a personal level - force is ever justified (there's a whole other conversation to be had with regards to the wider issues of pacifism in that respect). To use force, it could be argued, even to save one's lunch, is to buy into a cycle of violence that perhaps itself needs confronting....? I know reality doesn't fit comfortably with that, but it seems that some of the greatest examples from history, including Jesus himself, of peacemakers didn't resist the violence that was visited upon him...