Monday, September 14, 2009

Less Religious and More Spiritual?

“Am I becoming less religious and more spiritual?” That question, one of ten in the “spiritual audit” devised by Fred Smith ("Leadership Journal," Winter 1998), has been posed the last two weeks to those of us who attend the Wednesday evening adult studies at Second Baptist Church. The question implies, of course, that we should be more spiritual and less religious.

How we think about that question naturally depends upon the way we define religious and spiritual. But, as those you who know me might guess, I think most of us probably need to become both more religious and more spiritual. But maybe some people even need to become less spiritual and more religious. Again, it depends on definitions.

I have often had critical things to say about religion—and there is much done in the name of religion that needs to be criticized. But if we look at the words of James 1:27, we find that pure religion means, among other things, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (NRSV), that is, to care for those who are the neediest and most vulnerable in the world around us.

It is easy to criticize religion at its worst—but that is “contaminated” religion, not the pure religion James talks about. On the other hand, being spiritual can be, and often is, very individualistic—the inner delight of fellowship with God (or the Ultimate or the Absolute, for those who do not wish to use religious terms). Even that spirituality can, and surely does at times, lead to concern and care for others. But it can also be skewed into an inner ecstasy that remains quite private.

Those who have pure religion, in the sense defined by James, engage in, or at least support and encourage, action for the well-being of needy people. What would that mean in our society today? Among other things, wouldn’t it surely mean supporting health-care coverage for the 45,000,000 Americans who currently do not have it—and maybe even some concern for the desperate “aliens” who come to this country illegally?

It seems to me that those who oppose universal health-care and fear that some “illegal aliens” might possibly get some free medical help—including the Congressman who shouted “You lie!” when the President was addressing this most serious situation--are in need of some serious soul-searching, especially if they consider themselves spiritual and/or religious.


  1. Craig Dempsey, a local friend and fellow church member at Second Baptist Church, sent me the following insightful e-mail--and then gave permission for me to post it.

    "To me, religious and spiritual are different measurements, like weight and size. The root of religious is the same as for ligament, so religion is sort of a re-ligament, a metaphor for something holding us together. The root of spirit, of course, comes from breath or wind. So choosing between them is like choosing whether to lose the breath of life, or the ligaments holding together my body. Pretty much the same final result either way. Having said that, there are people who seem to live with only one or the other. I suspect one way to define fundamentalism would be as religion without spirit. And postmodernism comes close to spirit without religion.

    "Which leads to the question of the relationship of religion and spirit to truth. And here there is no way to avoid the mathematical/empirical powerhouse of science. That is not to say that science has a monopoly on truth, but rather that any discussion of truth apart from science is unintelligible. And indeed, postmodernism banishes the whole discussion of truth by treating science as just one more myth. Which is sort of like Lucifer treating Jesus as just one more dead soul arriving in Hades. Putting science into the world of myth explodes the world of myth. This is because science begins with simple common sense such as 2 + 2 = 4. With simple experiments, such as Galileo turning a telescope to the sky. The only way the Catholic Church could deny the overturning of Aristotle's physics and Ptolemy's astronomy was by literally refusing to look through the telescope. Thus was the "truth" of Aquinas protected.

    "Religion lives like a mountain range, flung across the continents, waiting to be explored. No more than a mountain range can it hide from science, yet no more than a mountain range need it fear science. The spiritual life can be inspected by psychology and sociology, economics and political science, yet it will no more be exhausted by them than a mountain range is exhausted by science.

    "So where does that leave us? Science makes a powerful argument that the universe we perceive is about 12 to 14 billion years old. The earth we stand on is just over 4.5 billion years old. Life appeared on the earth 3 or 4 billion years ago. Around 600 million years ago hard shells appeared, allowing the first major fossils. Primates emerged as a distinct group of mammals some tens of millions of years ago. Hominids appeared a few million years ago. Homo sapiens exploded onto the scene some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Some 30,000 years ago some of those homo sapiens painted some exquisite cave paintings in France, and elsewhere. Some 5,000 or 6,000 years ago early civilizations reached a point where they counted years and left written records. A little later an advanced phonetic alphabet made literacy much more common, and one of the first things to be written with it was the Bible. About the same time, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, etc. were creating a Greek heritage also of great importance to us. 400 hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote with such power that he redefined what it means to be human. A century ago Einstein redefined what it means to be a universe. Last year Obama redefined race in America, even as the economy redefined economics. And now we stand in awe, looking back on all of this. So what if science calls this "evolution"? We find things in mathematics and logic we can know with terrifying certainty. We find other things we seemingly cannot know at all. And quietly, in that most ancient of books, we read, "Be still and know that I am God."

  2. Well, Craig has offered us not a discursive statement as much as a poetic one. One simply stands back and admires the view and thinks of how to express it in music in the presence of such a reflection. But his poetic vision does inspire some deliberation on the notion of truth and its entry into the general question of religion vis-a-vis spirituality. Only, for the present I would suggest that we consider two components of religion, and possibly spirituality, too, to be that of contemplation and action. It seems to me that in the acquisition of truth at least these two contrasitive capabilities of both individuals and communities be recognized as constitutive of the aims of both Leroy's statement and Craig's.

    One of Jewell's newest mottos is "live what you learn." Indeed, we would like very much for students to embrace such an end for their education. But, how does one live out a liberal education? Is it through contemplation or through action? No one would deny that it involves both, of course. Still, in this case, I think that contemplation gets shortchanged as being somewhat outmoded because of its medieval overtones. Yet, the discipline of thinking about ideas, attending to the details of ideas, evaluating their validity, universal applicability and even their efficacy, and then appreciating how essential they are in forming personal and communal systems of value, should not be undervalued. Again, the tendency of the current age is to diminish anything that does not have as its outcome some action. And yet, action simply for action's sake, namely, action that has not been steeped in contemplation of its value, its end, can be seriously misguided and result in all kinds of unintended outcomes.

    It's clear that our society needs health care reform, but not just any health care reform will do. Who could question that caring for the poor is of paramount import, recognized intuitively by even the most callous in our society; and, explicitly stated in the words of Jesus as preserved by the Evangelists. But how to do it so that it is broadly effective and just is a matter demanding great contemplation. It's more than simply salving our consciences by dropping a buck in the street-person's box, no? While that even serves a purpose, too, is that really all we mean by caring for the poor? No, I don't think so. I think the ever-expansive vision is really one that eventually takes our thoughts to systemic redistribution of goods and services across society. No?

    Acting without serious contemplation of these implications seems minimally effective. Oh such action allows us to say we are doing something for the good, and indeed we are, but how good is it if it is not backed by the best kind of thinking? Living what you learn leads to action, to be sure; but the right action is a result of the discipline of contemplative thought.

    I'm a bit suspicious of the term spirituality, being somewhat uncertain what it means. I feel on more solid ground in saying that true religion does involve Craig's notion of the search for truth, and that that search consists of a life of contemplation that leads to the action that is genuinely good. Thus, being religious involves both thought and action.