Monday 12 March 2012

Spiritual but Not Religious?

Perhaps the big attraction for the modern liberal individual private spirituality is that it seems to offer the prospect of personal or spiritual growth that can be had without responsibility or without any external commitment. It seems the ultimate working out of an unbridled capitalist ideology whose advocates can say that there is no such thing as society only individuals. And these individuals, consumers if you like, can go and buy their faith as a commodity, something to be consumed or disposed of until the next fad comes around so that one's life can become a continual search, a merry go round of esoteric, mystical, spiritual, workshops, much like the endless stream of self-help publications all promising a pathway to happiness and no doubt to success and wealth. It all becomes a mish-mash of competing ideas, a kaleidoscope jamboree where one can hop from one idea to the next. But where does it all end?

I think in a way it ends up becoming just like the worst aspects of the religion that was rejected in the first place, the religion that placed emphasis on the law, and on self righteousness, on one's own spiritual purity and individual salvation. We are reminded of the famous exchange that Jesus had with one such spiritual seeker when Jesus was once walking down a road and a man ran up to him saying, "Good teacher what must I do to have eternal life?" In this story Jesus says, 'Why do you call me good? Only God is good. Jesus simply reminded him to keep the Ten Commandments, to which the man replied, "I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man". Then Jesus looked closely at him and replied saying, "There's still one thing to do. Go and sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me." "When the man heard this he became very sad because he was very rich.

Then Jesus looked at his disciples and said to them, "It's hard for rich people to get into God's kingdom" According to Mark, even the disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say this and just to make sure that nobody was in any doubt he said, "In fact its easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!

And when we think about it too it is quite a shocking revelation, it is a disclosure about the true path to the spiritual life, it clearly is not about adhering to this law or that law though of course it may help, and it's not about personal salvation in terms of self righteousness as the man found out but of a giving up of everything of all that we love for God. When the disciples saw how harsh the terms for salvation were, they asked, 'How can anyone ever be saved?' Jesus simply replied there are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything." Like the mustard seed we have to let the kingdom of heaven grow slowly and gradually within us, we have to let God into our lives in order to make these changes for us. And in a church or a religious community we are more easily sustained in our religious or spiritual lives, our spiritual quests, where we are reminded to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, to care for others. It was no accident either that Jesus told the man to give his money to the poor because the true spiritual life demands that we must pour out our love in the service of others.

An editorial in a New York church magazine commented that being 'spiritual but not religious' can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,"  "If it's just you and God in your room and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor? The religious life is not an easy option, it has its rewards but it necessarily has its responsibilities as well. Religion is not a hobby or a pastime, it's not something to be 'privatised' or made subject as part of this individualistic trend to 'aggressive marketing', and sold as being 'spiritual but not religious'. Rather it's a calling, a way of life that acknowledges people's need for each other, in worship, in community together where we may acknowledge that divine love, the presence of God in our lives.