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What does it mean to be spiritual? (3)

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More from Phil on Spirituality vs Religion:

I’ve been organizing my garage, getting it ready for spring, wanting to make sufficient room for my pursuits. I like motorcycles, so I left room for them. I’ve ridden motorcycles for 45 years now, and don’t think I’ll be giving them up anytime soon. I decided to make a little space for my pocketknife collection and a place to sharpen them. My Grandpa Hank once told me that a dull knife is a dangerous knife, so I like keeping my knives sharp. When I finished cleaning my garage, I realized I had freed up an entire shelf, giving me the perfect space for another of my favorite things, power tools. If you own a house, you need power tools, and now all of mine are neatly organized on a shelf in our garage.

I had a little time left after organizing my garage, so I sat at my workbench and thought about motorcycles, pocketknives, and power tools and what they had in common. I decided to draw a Venn diagram. You might not know that term, but I’m sure you’ve seen a Venn diagram. They are overlapping circles intending to show similarities between distinct or different categories. Where the circles overlap is the common or shared trait these different categories possess. So, I drew three circles, one called motorcycles, one called pocketknives, the third called power tools, and I made them overlap then wrote in that little space the one trait they had in common—things that will probably kill me some day.

We’ve been talking about the differences between religion and spirituality and what it means to be spiritual. The first thing we said is that religion often compels, it often insists, it expects compliance. While spirituality invites, it beckons and attracts. We’ve also said that spirituality is often a consequence of suffering, while religion is often an effort to avoid pain. You’ll remember the quote from Scott Peck, that the avoidance of pain is the beginning of unhealthy behavior.

Today, I want to talk about the common place where religion and spirituality intersect, so let’s once again think of a Venn Diagram with two overlapping circles, one marked Religion and the other labeled Spirituality, for we are in both places, are we not. We are participating in a religious enterprise this morning. We’re not sitting at our home by ourselves, lost in our own thoughts. We have instead decided to gather and share certain rituals, among them prayer and singing and silence and speaking, in order to experience connection with God and one another. But we inhabit another circle we call spirituality that transcends religion. This is the sense of elation and awe and love we experience in everyday life. We can feel deeply spiritual and connected while holding a child or grandchild, while walking through a forest, while sharing a meal with people we love. Maybe some of us even feel this elation while riding a motorcycle or using power tools. It’s odd, I know, but I’ve heard it can happen.

We have these two circles, religion and spirituality, and where they overlap is what I will call, the church at its best. Let’s think about that a bit. If it is the case that a segment of religion’s circle is the church at its best, it follows that the remaining segment of religion’s circle is the church at its worst. What belongs there? Those characteristics of religious life that cripple human happiness and well-being, which have everything to do with power and nothing to do with love, which concerns itself only with rules and never with mercy.

Let’s look at an example of the church at its worst from just this week. When Russia invaded Ukraine, newspapers and people all over Russia spoke in protest. There are many good and noble people in Russia and when Vladimir Putin committed this horrific act, they protested at great personal cost. One group however, applauded the invasion. The Russian Orthodox Church, who has been most supportive of Vladimir Putin’s leadership, had not a word of condemnation about this grave injustice. Protestant churches, Roman Catholics churches, Jewish and Muslim communities in Russia all condemned it, all marched against it, while the Patriarch of the Russia Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, praised President Putin’s “high and responsible service to the people,” sending his “hearty congratulations” to his country’s armed forces, urging them make full use of their military power.

What is that, if not religion at is absolute worst? It is not unlike the Christian white supremacists in our own nation who applauded the insurrection of January 6th. Don’t ever forget that fascism and religion are often seen holding hands. Let’s put that in our segment called the church at its worst.

 Now let’s look at our other circle, spirituality. Are there elements of spirituality that can be harmful, dimensions of spirituality that cripple human happiness and well-being? Well, of course. It’s common to assume spirituality is always positive, but it can also be toxic. When spirituality is only concerned with the self, when it has no regard for community, spirituality can become self-absorbed, if not poisonous.

In my bachelor days, I lived in my own apartment for four years. In that entire time, I never argued with anyone, never drank, smoked, or danced. I read the Bible during my lunch break, prayed every night at bedtime, and went to Quaker meeting every Sunday. I met Joan, we decided to get married, so I was talking about it with my pastor, who asked me if I were spiritually mature enough for a lifelong commitment. I told him, rather immodestly, that in the past four years I had become deeply spiritual.

He cocked his head, looked at me, and asked, “You live by yourself, don’t you?”
I said I did.
He said, “Anyone can be deeply spiritual when they live by themselves.”

I thought he was full of beans, then I got married, and stopping praying at bedtime, having found something more interesting to do. Within a month, Joan and I had a big argument. I’d gone four years without arguing with anyone, being deeply spiritual, and within a month I found myself fighting over paint colors. All the time I thought I was being deeply spiritual was actually just me getting my way all the time.

Spirituality without community, without relationship, is simple. Anyone can do it. But when spirituality overlaps with community, and improves that community, then we can say it is a healthy spirituality. Religion at its best, spirituality at its best, share these things in common. They are willing to be challenged, and when challenged are still able to say, “We have left this world better than we found it.”


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