Spirituality and Religion

Making-the-connectionThere are various definitions of what the terms “spiritual” and “religious” mean. For me, “spiritual” refers to the human intuition that life is more than it appears to be. In other words, when we add up all the parts of ourselves and of the world around us that science opens up to us, the “sum” of those parts doesn’t really begin to scratch the surface of how we experience our own humanity. We appear to ourselves to be more than the sum of our parts. And that sense of “more” is intimately connected to our need to make our life meaningful. For most of human history, that sense of “more” has pointed us toward the transcendent: that if we wish to penetrate the meaning of human life, somehow we must access a dimension of reality that cannot be directly observed, but that has been genuinely experienced by spiritual explorers throughout human history. It is a dimension of reality that seems to be anchored within ourselves but also seems anchored outside ourselves. I think when most people speak of “spiritual” and “spirituality”, they are speaking of this dimension of experience that longs for meaning and intuits that there is more to life than can be quantified. I believe this sense of “more” is not an accident — I believe that it is a part of us for a reason, that it is present to motivate us to undertake a spiritual exploration (I am indebted to Marcus Borg, who wrote about this sense of “More” in his book, The Heart of Christianity).

In my own Christian tradition, we find some intimations of this way of speaking of spirituality — what I like to call “first spirituality”. In the Acts of the Apostles, a story is told of St. Paul’s visit to ancient Athens, a place he had never been before. Having toured the city, he began a speech to a group of people by saying, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” (Acts 17:22–23a). For Paul, this altar to an unknown god was a testament to what I am here calling first spirituality, a symbol of a spiritual longing that could not yet be described or made substantial. Elsewhere, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20a). While Paul writes these words in the context of a passage in which he is unfortunately taking a rather hard line against those who do not see God the way Paul does, his insight is nonetheless important: as we look at the world around us, and as science continues to open up for us the breath-taking beauty and complexity of the universe, we should properly be overcome by a sense of awe, a sense that there is more to this than meets the eye, a sense that the universe and the life within it are meaningful. This is all part of first spirituality, a sense of something more that is waiting to be named.

To define “spiritual” in the way that I have leaves the term with a rather amorphous quality. I am speaking of our spiritual sense as just that: a sense, an intuition, an intimation. As we become aware of this intuition, we begin to be brought out of ourselves, and we seek to give some substance to this sense, as Paul is seeking to do for the ancient Athenians. One way to think about it is to close our eyes. By surrendering our vision, we cut ourselves off from the faculty that probably gives most of us our greatest sense of the world being substantial. We cannot see the world around us, but we “feel” its presence. Yet, we are challenged to describe what the world we feel looks like. If we imagine that we have never been able to see, and thus can’t rely on the memory of seeing, then we can begin to understand the magnitude of what we are facing: we know that the world is more than the darkness we see, yet we cannot say exactly what that world is like. If our blindness is not the result of a physical problem that renders our eyes inoperable, but rather simply the result of never having opened our eyes, then the possibility of acting on this sense that there is more to the world than we perceive in darkness remains active. All we would need to do is learn to open our eyes and see what is there.

It is no accident that, in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, there are seven stories of Jesus healing blind people — the single most often-cured condition in the gospels. If we recognize that these healing stories are just as much parables as are the teaching stories of Jesus, and that therefore the meaning of these stories is at least as important as the stories themselves, then we can easily see that, within the Christian tradition, Jesus is seen as the “light of the world” who opens people’s eyes so that they are able to see that which they did not see before. These stories are not so much about making people’s eyes work again as they are about helping people to perceive spiritual truths of which they had been previously unaware.

This brings us to religion. The word itself, in English, comes from a Latin word that means “to connect”. Thus, religion is basically a path that seeks to connect this spiritual sense — this “first spirituality” — to something substantial. Whereas first spirituality is an amorphous intuition that reaches out toward meaning, religion is what spirituality takes hold of in order to pursue its quest. If spirituality asks, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What does my life mean?”, religion provides both the tools or practices by means of which these questions can be explored, as well as a framework for the exploration. Religion is how we begin to open our eyes, allowing us to begin to see what we previously only sensed, and providing us an interpretive framework within which to make sense of that which we are starting to see. To use yet another metaphor, first spirituality is a cord with a plug at the end and religion is the receptacle that completes the connection and allows meaning to flood into our lives.

Of course, if religion connects us to meaning, then it is natural to ask about the source of this meaning. A connector must connect us to something, to a source of some kind. If religion is the receptacle that first spirituality plugs into, then the logical next question is to wonder what generated the voltage flowing through the receptacle.

For most of human history, our explorations of first spirituality have led us to the conclusion that there is an Other, who is at once remote and intimate, in whom the meaning of our life is to be found — the source of the voltage. Of course, various human beings and communities have chosen to describe that Other in very different ways. And some have chosen to acknowledge that Other, and then to leave it alone, choosing not to say too much about it (Buddhism, for example). Despite these differences, there is perhaps one thing all have agreed upon with respect to this Other: that our ability to describe the Other is necessarily severely limited. Indeed, until relatively recently, we generally agreed that the only way to even speak of this Other was by way of metaphor and analogy, through the use of symbolic language that could suggest something to us that was deeply true about this Other, but could not provide a direct, straight-forward description. It turns out that religion, having given us the tools to connect to this Other and a symbolic, interpretive framework through which we are able to make some sense of this connection, turns us back to something less certain, returning us to the realm of spirituality.

The Hebrew Bible speaks beautifully of this second spirituality into which religion drops us: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:33b–34a). This is a passage that imagines a relationship of connection at the level of the heart (the metaphoric center of a person) that transcends religious law and instruction. St. Paul, too, speaks of this at length when he insists that our relationship with God must, in the end, be rooted in grace rather than law (argued most clearly in his Letter to the Romans). This second spirituality is different than the first spirituality with which we started. It carries with it a sense that our questions of meaning have been answered by connection to the Other, and yet the deepest answers can’t quite be put into words.

St. Paul, in the passage from Acts I quoted above, is seeking to make a religious connection for the Athenians, to take an amorphous first spirituality symbolized by the altar to an unknown god and plug it in to something more specific, a framework that would allow meaning to flow and make the unknown more known, leading to second spirituality. After mentioning this altar to an unknown god at the beginning of his speech to the Athenians, Paul goes on to say,

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (Acts 17:23b–28)

Paul is clearly attempting to build on what he knows is a foundation of human longing by connecting it to the understanding of God that arose within the Jewish tradition of which Paul was a part, and ultimately to his experience of Jesus. Indeed, Paul suggests in this passage that human beings are designed to take this journey, that is, to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

I want to be clear here that I am not attempting to argue that the Christian tradition alone can make this connection. The Athenians whom Paul was addressing did already have a rich philosophical and religious tradition, though Greek religion has not survived into our own time as a living tradition. Paul clearly believed that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided something that the Greeks were groping for but had not yet found, and that Greek religion was not a path that would enable them to find it. In other words, Paul doubted the ability of the Greek tradition to make an authentic connection with the transcendent Other. But I don’t want to get lost in Paul’s own religious biases. Rather, I would simply like to appreciate what is operating at the heart of Paul’s thought, namely, the first spirituality that I have been speaking of as a natural and even necessary part of the human experience.

Even as Paul believes strongly that the Judeo-Christian tradition is uniquely positioned to give an authentically religious focus to the first spirituality of the Athenians (and, for that matter, everyone else), Paul still recognizes that religion can only take us so far. He uses the word “mystery” a number of times in his writing, always with the conviction that something important has been revealed with the coming of Christ, but also equally with the conviction that there is much that is not understood. In one of his letters, he writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). What I take from this is that even when first spirituality is plugged into religion and the mystery of our life and the universe begins to open up a bit, we only ever know in part. As our eyes begin to open, we still see dimly. When Paul speaks of a time when we will “see face to face” and “know fully”, he is not speaking of this life that we are living right now. This lingering sense of mystery, this partial knowledge and limited vision, is the second spirituality to which religion properly leads us, a space of humility that must be left open in us. It is a state of knowing and not knowing at the same time, a state of being connected to the intimate yet transcendent Other without claiming too much.

Jesus and Hell?

241Many people seem to think that salvation, viewed through the lens of the Christian tradition, is about getting to heaven and avoiding hell.  But is this really the conception that we find in the teaching of Jesus?

Jesus only uses the word “hell” 11 times in the gospels, with most of those appearing in the gospel of Matthew. The term does not appear in John’s Gospel at all. Each time Jesus uses the term, the word in Greek (the language in which the gospels are originally written) is gehenna, a word that derives from the Hebrew name for the Valley of the Son of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. This valley, whose exact location is now disputed, is said to be the place where followers of Canaanite religion would burn children in sacrifice to their gods. As such, it was considered an evil and accursed place. Interestingly, in Jewish rabbinic tradition, gehenna was envisioned as a kind of purgatory in which souls would undergo a purification for their sins. Rabbinic tradition said that the maximum amount of time a soul could spend in gehenna was one year.

The fact that rabbinic tradition does not see gehenna as a permanent and eternal dwelling place for the wicked leads me to suggest that it is likely that Jesus did not view it that way, either. Though, admittedly, some of the passages in which Jesus uses the term seem to understand it as a place, not of eternal torment, but of destruction of both body and soul.

When the life and teaching of Jesus are considered as a whole, these verses in which Jesus uses the term gehenna seem outweighed by his other teaching and the way in which he lived his life. As a result, I remain unconvinced that, for Jesus, salvation was really about saving people from hell. Salvation, instead, appears as a healing of the soul, a healing of that duality that keeps us in a state of separation from everything around us, and from God. In the teaching of Jesus, that state of healing is what it means to be in the kingdom of God. In those few verses where Jesus does use the term gehenna, he uses it to talk about life outside the kingdom of God. And, in several of those verses, he suggests that anything that is keeping us out of the kingdom of God should be discarded and gotten rid of (see Mark 9:43–47, Matthew 5:31). Sometimes, I think that he uses strong language — like the term gehenna — to get our attention, to wake us up to what he is really talking about.

It seems clear from this teaching that whether I am in the kingdom of God or outside it depends on my choice. If I am willing to do the spiritual work necessary to enter the kingdom of God, and thus to abandon the duality of the egoic, or small, self, then that is what Jesus is inviting me to do. If I am unwilling to do this work, then Jesus warns me that remaining outside the kingdom of God is like being in a gehenna of my own choosing.

It reminds me of something St. Paul says: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillippians 2:12b). This suggests to me that while God offers us salvation, that is, healing from our small self and the alienations that result from having our hearts centered there, that salvation is never forced upon us. God is not a God of coercion, but of persuasion. God invites, but does not force. Part of the spiritual journey is to choose to accept the gift of healing, to do the spiritual work necessary to live with our heart centered in God and God, therefore, centered in us.

Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17a). He is, it seems to me, pointing us toward this idea that we have a spiritual illness that requires a physician to heal us, not a judge to punish us.

Theologies of Exclusion

exclusionAs the afterglow of Pope Francis’ visit to the US continues to fade, some people seem to emerge from it more quickly than others.  One who seems to have let go rather quickly of the gentler tone that the Pope seems to be trying to set is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, whose diocese encompasses the northern part of that state.

In a letter written to the clergy of his diocese, he makes clear that persons whose lives or sympathies don’t conform to the teaching of the Roman Church are to be excluded from Communion and the church’s sacramental life.   His letter reads, in part, “The Church will continue to cherish and welcome her members and invite them to participate in her life to the degree that their personal situation permits them honestly to do so.  Catholics must be in a marriage recognized as valid by the Church to receive Holy Communion or the other sacraments. Non-Catholics and any Catholic who publicly rejects Church teaching or discipline, either by public statements or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the Sacraments.”

These instructions embody what I would call a theology of exclusion.  Such theologies are rooted in the idea that it in order to truly be a part of the church and participate fully in its life, one’s life must fit into an outline or mold shaped by church teaching.   Those whose lives don’t fit the mold are to be excluded.  As a rule, those who would defend such theologies of exclusion argue that excluding people who don’t conform is a disciplinary act, that will ultimately force them to conform (and, it is made clear that ultimately, salvation depends on that conformity).   And, of course, they have their scriptural warrant at hand: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17) and “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11), to name just a couple.  Paul, in advancing his own theology of exclusion, believes that being denied full participation in the community can result in a change of behavior.    And, in the absence of that change, will protect the community from being contaminated.

So powerful is this impulse to exclude those who don’t conform that someone dared to put it in the mouth of Jesus: “‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”  (Matthew 18:15-17).   But if we look carefully, there is plenty of reason to doubt that Jesus ever said such a thing.  In the first place, this passage uses the word ‘church’, which would not have been a word that Jesus would have used, because it refers to something that developed later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  More importantly, however, is what this passage says at its end:  that if the person refuses to be corrected, then they are to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”   The implication is that they are to be excluded.  But the funny thing is, Jesus did not treat Gentiles and tax-collectors in that way.  Indeed, the person whose name is on this Gospel (Matthew) was himself a tax-collector!

In fact, Jesus made people like Gentiles and tax-collectors the very center of his ministry.  Jesus deliberately spent a great deal of his time among those people whom the culture and religion of the time had classified as “excluded”.  He stood among them and he assured them that while they might have been excluded by their community, they were still included in the love, care, and forgiveness of God.  So, from the point of view of the “big picture Jesus” that the gospels present to us, to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax-collector really means that we must work very hard to include them, despite the ways in which they might make us uncomfortable.

Indeed, when we see Jesus on the cross, we see him being made a victim of exclusion.  His teaching and enactment of the kingdom of God was so threatening to the powerful of his time that they decided to exclude him permanently — and make him an example to others who would dare to challenge the established order of things.   The resurrection teaches us that God will include those whom we exclude.

Ultimately, every Christian theology of exclusion can trace its roots back to the Garden of Eden story in the book of Genesis, where God is depicted as excluding Adam and Eve from paradise because they broke the rules.   It is a sacred story — a metaphorical story — that imagines God responding to human non-conformity with exclusion and punishment.   I don’t believe this story really tells us anything about God, but it does tell us a lot about the human perception of God:  that God is like us, responding to those who don’t conform to the status quo by casting them out.  In Jesus, God is seeking to overcome this human misperception by showing us the depth of God’s inclusive love.

When the churches and their leaders resort to a theology of exclusion to defend what they consider divine truth, they are deluding themselves.   What they are really doing is refusing to see Christ in those who disagree with their official teaching.  They are refusing to entertain the possibility that the Spirit is moving in ways they might not expect, and that God can and does speak through unofficial channels.   And, they are acknowledging (without intending to) that their truth is so fragile that it might fall apart in the face of any contrary point of view.   And truth that is that fragile needs to fall apart, so that something stronger can take its place.

Of course, exclusion never accomplishes its intended goal.  People who are excluded don’t give up their point of view, they don’t change their minds.  They just leave, giving up on a church that is no longer able to say to them, “God loves you.”

Narrative and Being

what is your story question

Our being as humans is largely constituted and made sensible by narrative.

When we deal with questions of identity and meaning, we tell stories. And those stories contain facts, certain data points that are objectively verifiable; and they include subjective interpretation, the way in which we personally connect the data points together in a narrative that makes them meaningful and sensible to us. It is this story-telling that creates and sustains our identities, and in the absence of story-telling, we would not be able to say much of anything about who we are and what our lives mean. Indeed, we would scarcely be able to make any sense of the world in which we find ourselves. It is likely that you have no sensible memory of your life prior to the acquisition of language, when the ability to receive stories, and then to tell your own stories, began.

Just as story-telling, or narrative, is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us, so is story-telling central to religion. Sacred narratives share the basic properties of our own personal narratives: they include some factual data points and they include subjective interpretation. Sacred stories are meant to open us up to something, to induct us into a larger ocean of transcendent meaning. They are meant to call our own personal narratives into question, and to point out how our personal narratives contain limits that block our spiritual development.

The Judeo-Christian tradition underscores the importance of narrative by naming it as a divine power. In the first story of creation in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the various elements of creation come into being because God “speaks” them into being.

Beginning with “Let there be light” (Genesis 3a) and ending with “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 26a), every element of creation named in these first words of the Hebrew Bible comes into being because God “says” something. One might say that the early Jewish tradition imagined God telling the story of creation, and as God told the story, it took form. The early biblical writers who told this story did not intend to describe how the world was made — they knew very well that they weren’t present at the time, and had no way of knowing. What they did wish to do was affirm a connection between creation and the transcendent Other whom they named God. Interestingly, they affirmed that connection by telling a story of God telling a story. They knew, I think, better than we do, the power of story to create identity and their dependence on narrative to understand themselves and the world around them. In a very real sense, they knew themselves as having been created as a people by story, and that led them to experience the creative power of God as rooted in and expressed through narrative. Indeed, in the Bible, and in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the word of God is arguably the most potent expression of God’s power in relationship to us and the universe.

In Christianity, John’s Gospel makes God’s narrative power central to the mystery of Jesus:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1–4,14).

Building on the Genesis narrative, John perceives Jesus as the creative, narrative power of God “made flesh” in a particular human life, Jesus of Nazareth. John identifies Christ as the divine Word who is both God and with God, through whom everything has been made. When we think about how language works, and about the power of story, this identification makes a certain sense. When we speak, the thoughts expressed by our words carry a power with them that both reveals something of who we are and can creatively impact others. Yet, we cannot be entirely reduced to the words that we say. In a similar way, John sees Jesus as the Word of God expressing something of who God is and creatively acting on us, yet, God cannot be reduced to Jesus.

Recognizing the power of narrative in our lives, and in our sacred traditions, can invite us to reflect on the way in which the power of narrative can build up or tear down.  While the divine narrative power is seeking to heal us and make us whole, our own stories often block our own healing and the healing of others, because they contain too many limits, too many judgments.  That old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is patently untrue.  Words weaved into narrative can produce great harm.   It is important for us to allow the divine narrative to change our personal narratives, so that we can experience the grace of liberation from all that binds us and limits us.