WHAT DOES BEING ‘SPIRITUAL NOT RELIGIOUS’ REALLY MEAN?

On March 19th, my blog post was entitled The Top Ten Religious Words that the Spin Doctors Doctored. Under #6 was the word ‘religion’, I wrote: “I don’t want to beat a dead horse here.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough.  But, this word, which has come to represent difference and divisiveness, was originally just a verb, religio, meaning ‘bringing together that which is separated.’ So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?”

My intention in this post is not to try to get you to go to church or not go to church, but to think about the implications involved in the personal belief statement of being “spiritual but not religious.”

When I’m at a party, the gym, at a school function…and I hear, “Oh, I’m spiritual not religious”, I always ask what the person means by that.  Usually, the answers are a combination of the following,  “I didn’t agree with a lot of what the xyz church that I grew up in believes”, “I don’t get anything out of going to church”, “Religion is a construct created by the powerful to appease the poor and downtrodden”, “They’re so hypocritical, the church leaders and so many people I know that go to church”, and so on. 

You know what, I agree with a lot of what they tell me.  There has been a lot of “unholy alliances” between individuals, governments, and church bodies.  Much of what they articulate about why they don’t go to church or practice a faith or why they feel disillusioned or skeptical about much of what is essentially dogma (a good working definition of dogma being, “a corpus of doctrines set forth in an authoritative manner by a church”), are all things I can give a hearty Amen to.

So when people say they are not religious, they mean they have chosen not to limit themselves to the reduced definition of religion as a particular church, synagogue, or mosque with its doctrines, its own definitions of sin, salvation, and exclusions.   

When they do express some of their spiritual practices or ways of experiencing the spiritual, there is also much to concur with. My Buddhist friends use a variety of meditations, both alone and in groups.  And while some will agree that using the original meaning of religion, they are indeed religious. While  others, on principle, still detest the idea. They prefer to call it a philosophy of thought. Here, again, semantics do indeed shape and inform our worldview. Whether it be early bad experiences with a “religion” that has scarred or the in-your- face fundamentalists whose fanatical zeal causes one to recoil…the result is the same.    

Some friends are in 12 step programs, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and their loved ones. One of the principles of these programs is that they are a spiritual not religious program.  Again, meaning they are asking you to discover for yourself “God as you understand Him or Her” and to turn your life and will over to the care of this “Higher Power”.  However, this is not done alone, but rather with the aid and support of the group.

When I get a vague answer about trying to be a good person, they often add how they don’t need a church to become one (agreed). Most of the people who say this, I know to be good people, caring and true.  So, when I ask them if they could be a bit more specific, they say things like they go weekly with their family to volunteer at a food bank or they are a part of quilting bee that creates blankets for those undergoing cancer treatments.    All of the above examples include a component of community as part of the individual spiritual framework.

“My own kind of prayer” and “being in nature” (responses I often get) are also spiritual experiences and are vital parts of the equation, but are not complete without the balance of others.  I too often find a  centering while walking in the woods, a wonderful “un-lonely” solitude, that feels a communion with God. Yet it also feeds me so that I can help, serve, and nurture others and that I am able to receive the same from them.

In closing, an excerpt from A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker:  

“Is it really preferable (0r even possible) to be religious alone?  Or, is there an importance to religious community life that need to be claimed anew, while protecting against the liabilities and dangers that community life can pose?  I strongly believe the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second is yes.  We need life together, and we would be wise to invest in rebuilding the walls of community.  My suspicion is that religious conservatism has grown not because its theology is more inspiring than that of liberal theology, but because conservatives in recent decades have been better at creating and sustaining religious communities that offer people meaningful connection with one another and support in enduring life’s trials and tribulations.”

 So…I am back, congregants of the blogosphere!…new job…yada yada.

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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part I)

Several months ago, I was casually listening to a piece on NPR when I was stirred, no, perhaps more accurately shaken, out of my decidedly complacent Unitarian Universalist perch.  A fellow on the airwaves had lost his religion and feeling very happy and free about it, wanted to share his experience with the rest of us, in the form of a book he had written.  Most of it was pretty standard fare-devout Christian background (Episcopalian I believe-but you could fill in the blanks here- I have heard Catholics and Southern Baptists relate similar tales), followed by feelings of disillusionment, first with their particular brand of religion, and then belief all together. 

Callers ranged from those wanting to cajole him back to some sort of faith, ones who wanted to argue, and a much smaller number calling to say, “Good for you.”  But when one caller asked if this gentleman had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church or considered the UU faith, he responded, “Unitarianism is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, what’s the point?”

I suppose if this were just one man’s opinion on a talk radio show, I would have just let it slide.  But it’s not.  Over the years, my mother has affirmed, “Unitarian Universalism, it’s not even a religion really; it’s more like a philosophy.” My friends ask if we ever even talk about God in our services, never mind Jesus. 

Mostly, I get condescending little chuckles at social events and the like, conveying a good-natured tolerance of my folly.  Sometimes it’s a small, woeful smile, an “Oh, you’re one of those.”  What they mean, of course, is that I am a member of a loosey goosey, Birkenstock wearing, noncommittal, not as legitimate as their faith, only “kind of” a  church.  And aside from having a liberal bent, I can attest to having none of these attributes.   

As a trained theologian who arrived at my faith by a long process which involved both head and heart, I feel compelled to respond to that off-handed comment.  To infer that there is no meaningful effect on one’s life and the community or no tangible compass by being a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith is simply wrong.  It continues to be perpetuated by the reticence of Unitarians to feel that they are trying to “sell” their faith to anyone combined with the fact that other religions in the U.S. have most successfully evangelized theirs. 

It’s a tenaciously held prejudice, a myth propelled by a shroud of misinformation, which I attempt here to dispel.  It has become abundantly clear to me that the time has come for someone to defend this little known, oft misunderstood faith.  So,  following in the tradition of the early Christian Apologists, remembering Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, defenders of their young faith amidst an onslaught of skeptics and persecutors, (while unlike them, without the fear of being martyred), I hereby humbly submit a Unitarian Universalist Apology to the mainstream Protestants, fundamentalist Christians, and all strata of Roman Catholics of these United States of America.

Theologically speaking, I am going to climb out on a limb here and state that Unitarianism has been around since the first groups of Christians were meeting to worship God and Jesus in their own physical locations and with their own unique emphasis.  This went on for several hundred years in a relatively non confrontational way (amongst the Christians themselves at least) until 320 or so, when the lack of uniformity posed a threat to the social and political order of Constantine I (the first Roman Catholic emperor). His desire was that these “divisions” be quelled.

Citizens were certainly having heated arguments over who exactly Jesus Christ was, what his relationship with God the Father was, and whether he was God or not.  There were a host of variant but equally passionate opinions; there were almost as many ideas about Jesus as there were people to convey them. These discussions were taking place in  local shops, at the bakery, the dinner table; it was the topic of the day.  

The debate took on an increasingly ferocious nature as Arius, a priest from Egypt, and his followers (Arians) believed that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father.  There was a time that Jesus was not.  God was the Eternal One, a Unity unto Himself.  The seeds of Unitarianism planted.  His opponent, Athanasius, a priest also from Alexandria, hostilely disagreed (an influential predecessor to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity).  Not only was Jesus cosubstantial with the Father, so was the Holy Spirit. They all had been around since the beginning of time.

When Constantine demanded coherence and orthodoxy as the Church became an accepted political force, 22 bishops descended upon Nicaea in 325CE to determine an official theology.  Athanasius’ theology won the day. Arius was labeled a heretic (318CE) (a sentiment libeled against Unitarians over the ages).  He was excommunicated, banished, and many say, finally poisoned.

Open and lively discussions were then funneled from a continuous stream of diverse dialogue to a (one size does not fill all) limit imposing creed.   The vague philosophical language being bandied about (substance, cosubstantial, coeternal) were conjured up by the closed circle of bishops and religious authorities. Political power and not spiritual presence was the real motivation for these councils and their formulas. 

Yet the conversation still continues, with heretics still having their say…tomorrow I will share some of the American voices that embraced the Oneness of God and the belief in universal salvation.

Book of the DayA House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker    

Quote from the Book of the Day-“Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” my grandmother once asked me.  “We aren’t saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.  People who believe that focus on hocus-pocus and avoid having to live out the teaching of Jesus.  We are saved by every person in every time and place that has stood up for what is true in spite of threat.  Like Socrates did.  Like Jesus did.  Like many others have done.”