Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Spiritual vs Religious

Why pretend? It's confession time. I've never really thought of myself as all that deep. Peers have said they thought I am, but I think they're just acknowledging my attempts to sound like I'm deep. Seriously. It's probably some sort of compensation mechanism. Freud would have a field-day with it. I think I like to sound deep...it sounds deep when I can really come off sounding deep. Do I think I'm really as deep as I can sound? Oh heck no! Yeah, yeah. I know. Kind of a funky self-image for someone bent on an academic career. TELL me 'bout it!

Here's a problem that goes with that though...Spirituality is deep.

At least it is in experience-driven North American evangelicalism. The inward experience, the transcendent journey, the connection to the Divine is viewed as paramount. For this reason, the person of exceptional piety, of regular Bible study (I'm speaking within the Christian context), of verse memorization, of ubiquitous artwork and inspirational reminders following an uplifting saturation principle, of negligible faults and flaws is lauded as the greater believer.

Now, don't misunderstand. Those traits are all quite positive. But when they are juxtaposed against the "religious" person that finds the trappings, traditions, gatherings, history and structure of Christianity comforting, that's when spirituality - unfortunately - can actually be net negative.

How could I assert such a "heresy?"  Isn't life all about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and my assurance that I'm saved by grace through faith? Again, I say there is nothing wrong with that at all. However, it often is used as an excuse to perpetuate the triumph of individualism in the America, which has done more to erode the work of the Church in the West that perhaps all other exterior attacks combined.

Years ago, when I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with how little my spirituality resembled the "Christian experience" a millennium ago (American Evangelicalism often prides itself on being un-moored from tradition and history), a friend of mine admonished me to consider a different tack. I often spoke of martial arts as holding value far beyond the mere pragmatism of fighting skills, but also containing history, heritage, tradition and trainer successions that I was pleased to be a part of. I spoke of the necessity to find these things within The Art, as opposed to just learning some MMA moves and then calling one's self a "martial artist." He challenged me, saying, "Aaron, if you ever get to the point where you think of being a Christian the way you think of being a martial artist, you'll find yourself in a liturgical tradition (Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox)." He was right.

Developing as an Anglican Christian, some of the old individualism is starting to come into stark relief against the backdrop of the Church in its communal and historical (even "tribal") glory. Increasingly I am recognizing the interlinked needs to both believe AND belong. Growing in my faith is fine, so long as it runs parallel to growing in The Faith. They are two sides of the same coin. Heads=belief/tails=belong. A coin lacking the validating image on either side would not be legitimate. Both sides are needed for the coin to have value.

This "balance" of believing and belonging, though, is seldom the focus of those touting their spirituality. On the contrary, great pride is taken in the fact that "I can believe in Jesus without having to go to church." They typically don't like it when I reply, "Indeed. Similar to how I have encountered many a firefighter that can fulfill their dream of fighting fire without having to belong to a department." Yes, so foreign is the concept of considering one's self a part of "the family of God" (enjoying all the benefits) without any regard for belonging to the visible "family of God" that the idea of a Christian not belonging to a church would have stymied the ancient church fathers of the 1st millenium. Their bewildered glance would have conveyed the rhetorical: "Who would claim to be THAT who did NOT?"

Nevertheless, many who seek to be "deep" and "spiritual" often do so specifically to differentiate themselves from the rest of the mindless simpletons that blindly attend services week in and week out, just committed to a tradition and ritual that seemingly doesn't help them grow. What the "deeply spiritual" person fails to account for are the advantages that the simple, tradition-driven person (whom that often denigrate) has over them; namely, continuity, community and comfort. In those churches services whose praxi fide is all about the individual's spirituality, countless sermons on "achieving" a sense of community are constantly necessary. Whereas those that already have a sense of belonging through a communal faith find it happens more naturally anyway.

In the choice between being "spiritual" or "religious," a balance is always the bulls-eye. But in a culture that already champions individualism and personal autonomy, I don't benefit from my faith discipline echoing that message. Considering what is most often meant by "spiritual," I find I'm better off weighing more heavily as "religious." In that case, I can belong to something that transcends how I feel any given day, that has a sense of tribal ancestry (Church Fathers), and meets my needs of socio-cultural integration without even having to try very hard.

I encounter often the person that confesses, "I consider myself spiritual, just not religious." Without batting an eye, I declare back, "That's fine. I consider myself religious, just not very spiritual." In this way, I can quickly concede that they are the "deeper" of us two, and move on without much debate. Of course, in my mind, I know I have a sense of belonging (regardless of how my belief fluctuates any given day), and that they will likely struggle with that once the effort needed to maintain "their faith" all the time starts to wear on them.

No comments: