Monday, April 16, 2012

Spirituality versus Religion: Or maybe it's not new....

I've been reading a lot lately around the blogosphere from people who find themselves at odds with "traditional Christianity," by which seems to be meant "the version of Christianity I grew up with."  One of the most interesting is here at Rachel Held Evans' blog: Kim Van Brunt describes leaving traditional worship services, in part because she felt the traditions themselves - the bulletins and Wednesday night prayer services and so on - were stilting her family's ability to hear and live the gospel.  Many of the commenters complained that she seemed to be advocating a church of one, an individual's paradisaical version of Christ's body - so before readers here jump to that conclusion, let me just say that in her own response to the comments, she now belongs to what would probably be called a "house church" - an informal gathering of people meeting to support and witness to each other.

There are others feeling compressed by "tradition".  One of the big ones, of course, is the viral video "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" which was followed up with numerous posts about being spiritual but not religious.  In another vein, there have been Catholics thinking through the contraception debates in relation to feeling like the "hierarchy".  In still another vein, members of the "emergent church" who feel that "traditional" forms of Christianity are increasingly irrelevant.  I'm putting "tradition" and "traditional" in quotes here because I don't think all of these various groups mean tradition in the same way - so it would be a mistake to equate the use of those words necessarily.  That said, I do think all of these posters bear some family resemblance to each other - they may not mean exactly the same things, but they're each hitting a common nerve about religion.

When I read or watch these posts, I often feel some sympathy - I've been there myself, more than a few times.  For example, I've felt anger, apathy, disllusionment, annoyance, and sometimes something close to despair upon reciting the Lord's prayer for the nth time.  All the criticism of it being rote, mechanical, dry, repetitive and so on, can be, well, true.  The Lord's Prayer is emblematic of a "traditional" worship service as a whole: it can feel very much like you get to church, and you're just going through the whole show (whatever your version of the show is) again and it really does feel like a show.  The choir seems poised for a perfect performance; the sermon/homily becomes the main act; worshippers seem more like a clapping audience than actual participants in worshipping God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The thing is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is so weird and wholly, utterly different from us, that a staid old worship service just won't suit.  After all:  "My ways are not your ways, says the Lord God."

Yet - I can't help but feel a sense of deja vu about all this too, a sense that there might be a lot of fellow believers feeling like they're having to do something new - when, in fact, I wonder if perhaps they're actually reinventing the wheel.

That is to say: discontent or disllusionment with "traditional" religion has been around, well, for the whole of the "tradition."

 I think of Augustine here, grown up with a Christian mother and a pagan dad, a 5th century version of a mixed religious family - he thought that scripture and prayer and all that sort of thing were pointless nonsense - until he began to wonder if there was something else going on there, after all.  Eventually he was not only baptized but made bishop of Hippo, in Northern Africa. As his treatises and catechetical sermons bear out, on his view, while rote worship appeared the same, it also opened up to all the beauty, mystery and craziness of God's love for us.

I think of John Wesley - born into a Christian family, raised as a Christian, but didn't quite feel the significance of the rote words of his childhood faith.  He and his brother both wanted a serious faith and started a "Holy Club" at university.  Still later, he went on a mission trip to Georgia, because he thought evangelizing in a foreign land would be evidence of true desire of God, and real faith.  On that trip, he discovered that in fact, being a missionary was not his vocation - and returned to his native England. It was a couple years later that Wesley found his heart "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate and went on to convert many to an intense love of and life for God.  He brought something new: he brought new hymns, and developed something of a new structure in his small group societies -   but he also relied on some of the same 'ol - prayer books, scripture, clergy, and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

I think of Theresa of Avila, who grew up in a thoroughly Christian home, went away to a convent but spent her time simpering in the guest room - cosmetics and fine food took far more precedence than the convent's prayer.  Eventually she, too, discovered a different calling and went on to reform the Carmelite Order, especially restoring its contemplative nature and its practices of fasting, prayer and poverty.  She opened some 83 women's houses, and wrote much that has been influential up to our present day.

In particular, she describes (in her book Interior Castles) the way in which rote prayer and worship can seem so dry - and that this experience is but one of many  necessary levels of a spiritual journey toward God.  At the same time, there are other times on that journey when rote prayer is the only way we can pray at all.

There are many more people I could name, but perhaps these three suffice for now.  I have three points in bringing them up:

1) Disillusionment or discontent is not new, and those who feel disillusioned are not alone.  There are a whole host of witnesses - and not just those alive in this world at the present moment.  Just as with Theresa, John, and Augustine, above, I think there are possibilities for God to make our discontent much more radical than any of us have in mind - to the point that perhaps we might even be contributing to the development of "traditional Christianity" by founding new religious orders, or preaching more sermons and so on.  I think this means radically embracing "traditional Christianity" in all kinds of ways, which relates to my next point....

2) Disillusionment is not cause for a rejection of "the tradition" - it is cause to embrace it more fully and deeply.  Augustine, Theresa or John Wesley would never say that they had "fixed" the church; there were many times that they felt that the going was difficult.  One of my favorite of Theresa's words of wisdom: "We must strive and strive and strive, for we were meant for nothing less." Nonetheless these three remained committed to the people and places God had given them, which included parishes, dioceses, orders, and so on.  Sometimes they did this despite that the institutions gave them grief, closed down houses, brought them before the Inquisition, refused to ordain bishops headed to America, and so on.  And yet, I think it is precisely because of their commitments to people/places/institutions, in spite of everything, that enables us to see how much God worked through them.

3) Disillusionment is simply part of Christianity.  I think Theresa is right in this.  And I think we Christians are likely to experience bouts of it again and again, interspersed with more hopeful signs of community life too.  Christ calls us together to be the Body - broken and bruised as we are, with people who have been hurt by other Christians, and with all the variety of denominations and infighting that Christians "share" with each other.

But it is also "traditional Christianity", that Body of Christ, which is re-forming the way I see myself and the world.  It is where I have learned:

  • Not to objectify my body.  I know people often criticize Christians for their views on sex, which seem antithetical to the pleasure that our human bodies desire.  But I have to say: in this vamped up culture where sex oozes from most advertisements and where I often feel the need to look act and dress a certain way, it is so entirely refreshing to go to a monastery (or New Monastic community) and not be looked at in that way.  And of course - the Eucharist, the premier place where everyone gets to be invited to the table, including those I'd never invite to my house for dinner - that teaches me something about not objectifying my body either.
  • That I, too, do things to hurt others.  My experience of "secular culture" is one that by and large presumes I can do no wrong, so long as I do what feels right to me, and it doesn't affect anyone else.  But when I go to mass and I've got to pass the peace with older people and younger people and smelly people and so on, I begin to realize that it just isn't as simple as doing what feels right to me, and not affecting others.  In fact, some people need me - or need someone - to be there for them, in ways that means I can't just be about myself.
  • That I need you.  You're part of the arm of Christ, you're part of the Body that gathers.  I need you.  Including the people who raise all the pesky questions I don't ask.  And I hope I'm asking pesky questions (maybe from a different direction) of you too.  I'm not it, and neither are you.  So I need you.  And if there's one thing that joins us together - it's that we've committed to be on The Way together.
In my way of thinking, that means that sometimes, even if I don't particularly feel like "going through the motions" one more time, I'm going to do it anyway - because someone needs to hear everyone all together saying "thy will be done".  And someone else's two year old needs to see others kneeling and standing and praying and learn this way of life that is Christianity.  And someone else - maybe me - needs to some of the kneeling, because we don't kneel enough - we're not quiet enough - in this world of ours. 


  1. Jana, this is such a thoughtful and compassionate piece. I really appreciate it.

    I have another thing you might want to add to your list of "won't hear it anywhere in secular culture" things: love your enemies. It's why I still show up to church on Easter and Christmas, despite my humiliation and fear of being judged (by "better" Christians) as an Easter-and-Christmas Christian.

  2. Love your enemies - yes, that is true! And we don't spend nearly enough time praying for our enemies in the standard intercessions, I think.

  3. Great thoughts Jana! Thanks for putting into words what so many feel. Our CGS work of re-making materials for the revised Roman Missal has called me to a fresh look at the liturgy. While I am not a fan of all the revisions, the work of re-visiting the tapestry of the Mass has been a sweet occupation. Yes, there are a number of prayers and actions we repeat each week - I think of those as "grounding points" - but there is also much "new" each week: the opening prayers, the preface, the psalms, the readings; all have much to say about what we are celebrating and why. On good days, when I really pay attention, these prayers and the Word call to my NOW, and to the NOW of the world. When I bring my questions about life to the liturgy (public work of the people) the gathering of the community helps me to chisel away some of the "I", so often at the center of my questions, and opens up a broader vision.
    This week with the children we are celebrating Liturgy of Light. We begin with the blessing of the Paschal candle, and these words: "All time belongs to Him and all the ages". I remarked to the group yesterday that we sometimes forget this - we sometimes get so caught up in our own busyness that we begin to think time belongs to us! In fact, time is a gift. We cannot always choose what we do with our time, but we can choose how we live in it. I asked the children to consider what we were about to do: the great event we celebrate at Easter, and our own participation in the event. This time, I told them, is a gift to us - an opportunity to pray, and to celebrate our time, and all time, shared with God through Christ. This way of being connected to the cosmos is an awesome gift. We had a wonderful celebration!

  4. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful article, this whole current manifestation of anti-religiousness is vexing. I was recently reading an interview with Kathleen Hanna, the leader of the band/performance group *Bikini Kills* and *Le Tigre.* She said, “There’s no god...a god doesn’t looks like anything because there is no god. I think it’s just like a good force in the world, you know what I mean, like that thing that when your really freaked out keeps you from killing yourself.”

    I think that’s a pretty fair example of what a lot of folks mean by being “spiritual but not religious.”