In our postmodern culture, religion seems to be going by the wayside. I was delighted the other day to be able to actually talk to someone about my religious experiences, as they just don’t seem to interest that many people. And yet, religion imposes a very heavy influence on the world, despite the omnipotence of secularism in the West. It is an underlying influence in moral discourse in social and political arenas, as such it is difficult to read the newspaper without some reference to a particular faith. We have numerous choices when it comes to religion: we can choose to ignore it, we can be a participant, we can work to bring it to a level playing-field when it comes to moral responsibility, or we can reject and attack it. At times, we can move through one or more of the above positions.
Today I met up with a couple of friends who were discussing church, one of them asking me if I were attending. What I find quite common is that church people generally mean well, but are not very deep when it comes to matters of faith. I would say in general that they are religious but not spiritual. In fact, the great majority of Christians I know would shy away from the whole idea of being ‘spiritual’. I have reached the point where I believe there is a HUGE difference between the two ideas. One is concerned with material matters, such as service structure, Bible studies, and social activities. The other is concerned with the inner life of experience. Now, whether you are the most materialistic person on the planet, you cannot question the existence of the inner dimension, the place of emotions and intuition, and some would say soul or spirit. Spirituality is concerned completely with the inner world, regardless of the belief system involved. This is why Christian mystics of the ages have been compared with Eastern mystics – in the world of the contemplative experience, the differences fade. The differences appear with the system of belief that is used to explain the experience.
Religion attempts to define spirituality on the outside-in, i.e. putting layers upon layers of outer concepts upon the inner experience. As such, most practitioners of religion are caught up in the outer layers and rather ignorant of the inner dimension. Hence why my friends were only concerned with the formalities of the service. Ironically, their church is contemporary pentecostal, and yet ends up with the same problem of outer concern that plagues the more traditional churches. These formalities do not encourage the desire for depth in spirituality at all, for raw experience is too risky inside the religious arena.
Contemporary Christianity does well to mask the spirituality inside the tradition through focus on the afterlife and a literal rendering of the Bible. As such, it is very easy for the Christian to be completely ignorant of the inner experience, where ultimately God can be found. For it is our beliefs about God which tend to hide God from the world of experience. When I speak of God, I am not referring to the theistic conception that most people understand. My idea of God is not of some kind of being somewhere who hears your prayers and intervenes in the world. There is no such being. When I speak of God, I speak of that which is the source of life and the thing that connects us all. God is the One Life, the Spirit is the manifestation of Life, and the Christ (Word) is the incarnation of Life.
I understand that these concepts will not be understood widely, I have trouble understanding them even as I write them. That is the problem with trying to wrap your brain around the inner world of experience, ultimately language fails. Karen Armstrong speaks of theology as poetry rather than historical fact. In other words, the sacred scriptures are not meant to be taken literally – they are the very product of people trying to put into words the indescribable. All traditions have layers upon layers of texts and interpretations of meanings, which end up only exacerbating any who approach.
So is religion really worth bothering with? In some ways, yes, in other ways, no. The mystics who speak most to the inner experience are largely found within religious traditions. Fortunately, we have such access to them today so as to not get lost in the layers of religion to find them. Considerable works today exist that speak of spirituality without resorting to religion. People who are inclined more to spirituality than religion, particularly those who have suffered from their religious experience, are of great value as ambassadors of the spirit to call upon all religions to look through the layers to the essence of their tradition. The unifying essence of any tradition is the only thing that can save us from the tyranny of the formalities.