More about God

So, I'm having one of those arguments--ahem! conversations--that you get into on Facebook sometimes. You know the ones, where one of your friends posts something that he or she thinks everyone will agree with and then you weigh in out of the blue with your take on how the whole question has been posed the wrong way and make everybody uncomfortable because you simply won't let go. That's the great thing about having a blog; you can make the whole thing public! Today's topic: "I'm spiritual, but I'm not really religious."

Okay, disclaimer: I am an historian of Christianity, so this kind of thing is almost certainly going to rub me the wrong way, but arguably not for the reasons that you (at least, those of you who don't know me very well) might expect. Not because I believe that there are not great truths to be learned from other traditions (I do; Jaya Ganesha!); not because I am convinced that the Church in its hierarchy has always made the right decisions, whether about discipline or dogma (I am, after all, a Protestant, much as aesthetically I would like to be a medieval Catholic, i.e. Christian; there were no "Catholics" in the Middle Ages, end parentheses); not because I am personally convinced that I know the truth--far from it. In fact, I'm mostly certain that I don't. Which is exactly the reason why I am "religious" as well as "spiritual," with arguably rather more weight on the "religious" than otherwise.

Being "spiritual," as I see it, is relatively easy. I say relatively because, of course, there is nothing easy about struggling to realize one's soul. It's just easy socially: everybody I know is "spiritual" from the other students in my yoga class to almost every homeless person I meet on the street.* It is the American Way to be spiritual; we are all seekers, after all. But to be religious, well, that requires something else again, doesn't it? One might have to go to church or accept certain teachings on authority or believe in something that one might otherwise find ridiculous or repugnant, right? Well, um. No. Not the way I understand the word "religious," nor the way it was used at earlier points in our (that is to say, the western Christian) tradition.

For medieval Christians, the "religious" were those who were members of one of the various monastic orders. They were "religiosi" because they had bound themselves by a vow to live according to a particular rule. To be sure, in the later Middle Ages, this description created all sorts of problems: were those, like the beguines or the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, "religious" if they did not live according to a rule (which they didn't) or take vows (ditto)? Thus, arguably, all the kerfuffle in later centuries about what it really meant to be "religious": could lay people (definitely not bound by either vows or a rule) be "religious"? If so, then what difference did it make whether one lived according to a rule? None, according to the Protestants, thus the dissolution of the monasteries.

Fast forward to the present (don't you love how I'm doing this all without footnotes all on my own authority?): now, to be "religious," rather than something even lay people want to be, is somehow the last thing anybody will admit to. Too many religious wars over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? (Don't you love modernity?) Too much identification between the Church and State? (Again, don't you love modernity? And you thought modernity was about the separation between Church and State.) An abreaction to the bureaucratization of to the instution of the Church? (Okay, so they had that in the Middle Ages, too: the Church was the first great multi-national corporation, even before there were nations--fancy that!) Or simply a vulgarization of the great ideal of the Enlightenment, that every man should seek God through his own reason, without recourse to the tradition of the Church? (Ooops, I'm forgetting sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers; mea culpa).

I said this was a topic that tended to rub me the wrong way. Maybe I just know too much history. But then you'd think knowing all of this (I'd be happy to provide references if you want) I'd be all the more suspicious of claims to authority or (gasp!) organized religion. Surely "organized religion" is the source of most (some would like to say, all, but I think they're grasping) of the world's present difficulties, from the wars in the Middle East to the abuse that so many Catholic children have suffered at the hands of their priests (by the by, the stimulus for the current conversation). Except that it isn't: sin is. It's amazing--isn't it?--how easy it is to leave sin out of the equation. Perhaps--just perhaps--the reason human religious institutions (a.k.a. the Church Militant, in medieval parlance) are flawed is because human beings are, and human religious instiutions are made up of human beings. "Oh, then I don't want to have anything to do with them," my friends will say. "They'll just try to cover up for themselves and protect those in authority." Unlike, say, academic institutions or political institutions or businesses?

Oh, so you're uncomfortable with the claim that maybe human beings cannot by their own efforts create perfect institutions because they are burdened by sin? How then do you explain our (and I do mean "our") magnificent failures over the past century to realize heaven on earth or, at the very least, an equitable society, whatever that means? Surely, there is nothing standing in our way if what we believe about ourselves as "spiritual beings" is correct: that we are all children of the Universe in search of beauty and truth? Except some people simply don't seem to be. They go against every teaching of their community--that sex with children is evil, that priests should not engage in sexual activity at all, that...well, you fill in the blank with your favorite evils--and...and what? What do we expect to happen to them? That they be hit with lightening bolts? Ah, so you do believe in divine justice, after all; you're just puzzled why it doesn't seem to strike where you think it should.

Because, of course, "religion" is not about making people good. That's ethics, which doesn't require religion. Religion is about binding ourselves in our human weakness to God and worshipping God as best we can in spite of that weakness. If we turn ourselves fully to God, yes, we will behave better towards other human beings. But that cannot be our reason for worshipping God. To do that is to worship society rather than God; to make society, in other words, our idol. It's also the problem that I have with the claim that "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious": it is making an idol--goal, end, ideal--of a certain kind of experience (mystical, prayerful, meditative), rather than focusing on God. What if, in all my prayer practice, I never achieve ecstasy or enlightenment? Have I then been wasting my time? What if, in all my searching, I somehow can never get out of my own way enough (read, surrender my pride) to have that experience of "flow" I am so anxious for? Well, serves me right. I wasn't doing it for God.

The danger here is in confusing the means and the end. Our end must be God, otherwise we are worshipping something of our own making. The means may be all sorts of things--service, devotion, work, art, all of the various "yogas" or "bindings"--but if the end is anything other than God, we are deceived, not to mention deluded to believe that we will somehow succeed. Goodness, I've gotten preachy in my old age. But, yes, I really do believe this: our only hope is "religion"--binding ourselves to God. Anything else will end only in sin.

Ask me tomorrow about how to define God.

*By the way, I've solved the problem of how to deal with the poor woman who asks for money. Give her some--on condition that she (or he) write her name in a little book that you keep with you at all times so that you can then pray for her. I've got four names now, all very special people to me.


  1. Thank you for this post, F.B. I've been wrestling with this issue myself for some time, but have never been able to express it as well as you have. It reminds me of something that the pastor at my church said once about Christian hope: "Christian hope doesn't mean that we think the evils in this world will ever get better, but that God will always forgive us for what we do wrong and will take care of His children in the end." That's a paraphrase, but it's what I remember. Of course, his point was the same as yours; the evils won't get better because of us and our sins, not because of God, and as long as we're in this world, there will be evil. Nevertheless, we hope and believe that He'll forgive us and take us to Himself at the end ot things, because He said he would. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to cure those evils as best we can, in fact we're supposed to try, but as long as we think it's completely within our power to fix them, we'll always be disappointed. If we give ourselves to God, on the other hand, then we have a hope that can't fail.

  2. Very nicely put, Christopher! That's very much what I was trying to say, but you've expressed it much more clearly than I have. Thank you!

  3. First, I love reading your blog. I have several friends that are well read on the subjects of religion and Christianity, but your posts always give an interesting perspective that I enjoy and would not have thought about otherwise.

    That said, I think there is an unspoken premise that you have assumed that I am not sure I fully agree with. The premise (as I see it) is that all people want to make the world a better place. I think (please correct me if I am mistaken) that you believe this and that people fail because of the human frailty of sin. You then believe that the best (not only, but best) way to make the world a better place is to bind yourself to God.

    I think (although I have seen evidence both supporting and refuting this claim) that a person is hardwired to act in a way best advancing themselves, and this is where I believe the debate between spiritual and religious comes into play. I think that some might believe being "religious" (as you define it) is the best way of advancing themselves (and thus the world). I think the answer of "spiritual" gives a person the a way out where they can focus on themselves instead of serving God.

  4. Thanks, Rob! I'm so happy to hear that you enjoy reading my posts!

    Does everyone want to make the world a better place? Well, clearly no (although I am optimistic enough to believe that the majority do). But from a Christian perspective, at least, this would be (again) because humanity is fallen and, therefore, cannot always choose for the good. From this perspective, yes, the answer is still to bind ourselves to God, that is, to worship him rather than our idols. In answer to your question, certainly, some people can make an idol out of being "religious" (going to church/synagogue, doing the "right thing", being generally "holier than thou") but this is, again, to worship something other than God, without, paradoxically, actually worshiping God. My main frustration with the "I'm spiritual but not religious" claim is the way it ignores the importance of tradition--including the tradition of dissent and reform--in the spiritual growth of a community as well as the assumptions that it makes about how we, as human beings, learn from each other and create institutions, but in the post I wanted to stress what being "religious" means with respect to God.

  5. Oh, and I think I see what you were suggesting: people like being "spiritual" because they don't want to be focused on God. Certainly, but, as I said in the post, this is to make an idol of one's "spiritual progress," which is still a sin (i.e. turning from God), which the monks, at least, would call vainglory or pride. The trick here is in defining God, which, you may have noticed, I actually haven't done except apophatically (i.e. to say what God is not). Unless we believe that we ourselves are God (which I know, for some, at least, seems to be the case), however, then clearly "focusing on ourselves instead of serving God" isn't really going to be the right option, either religiously or spiritually speaking.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

One Angry Judge

Would you sign a letter in my support?

Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

A few words of advice to Trigglypuff--and her teachers