Why Be Religious?

It has become fashionable in the past two decades to be “spiritual but not religious.” There are many reasons for this, probably the biggest one being the clergy sex scandals, particularly in the Catholic church. Perhaps another big reason is that our society values busyness more and more, and Sunday is no longer a day off so people can now work 24/7.

By being religious, I don’t necessarily mean going to church, although that could be part of it. What I mean by “being religious” is “connecting with one of the great world religious traditions.

These traditions are like super-highways of spirituality. They all have people who are recognized as being super-spiritual. Normally they are called saints or mystics. These spiritual super-heroes have developed ways of drawing closer to God that are tried, true and shared down through the centuries with everyone within the tradition.

Also, the scriptures of all these traditions are super-countercultural. They tell you that you are loved not because of how rich or famous or beautiful you are, but just because you are a human being. You are loved without conditions, unlike in the “meritocracy” most of us live in where your worth is constantly being calculated by how much you produce and consume.

Numerous studies by contemporary psychologists have shown that religious people are healthier, live longer, have better relationships, more friends, better marriages, better sex and are more generous than non-religious folks.

Also, these traditions specialize in giving people the big picture when asked the fundamental questions: who are we, where did we come from, how are we to live, and where are we going?

On top of all this, these traditions have engaged in major charitable works throughout the world, founding schools and hospitals for the poor and advocating for their rights.

If you are spiritual but not religious by yourself, you would have to get other people to join you if you were going to get any significant charitable work done. And as soon as you get any group of people together, you run into the same problems religions have always faced regarding who gets to lead the group, how to keep your egos from clashing, etc, etc.

So why not just join one of the major world religions that have tons of lived experience down through the centuries to share with you?

RETHINKING GOD AND EVIL SPIRITS

The older I get the harder I find it to say what our “ineffable” (unsayable) God is like. A long time ago I dropped the “God is an old man in the sky waiting to punish me if I do wrong” narrative. That god is really Zeus not the God of the Bible. All that the old man image needs is some lightning bolts.

Christians often say that “God is love” and indeed it says that throughout the scriptures. Lately I have been thinking that God is not just love, God is also wisdom, patience, forgiveness, trust, etc. In fact, the Dalai Lama said “My religion is kindness.” God is all virtues.

So, whenever someone is engaging in virtues or “spirits” like gentleness, peacemaking, compassion, justice, fortitude and goodness, God is manifesting through them. God is incarnate (embodied) in them. God is all these good spirits. This liberates God from being restricted to any one church or religion. Anyone engaging in these virtues/spirits, whether they are a believer in God or not, has God working in them, whether they acknowledge God or not.

As a believer, I can therefore comfortably relate to atheists or anyone who exhibits these spirits, basically to “all people of good will.”

On the other hand I am starting to think of evil spirits not as beings in red tights with horns and pitchforks (I never thought of them that way but I did not know how to say what they are either) but rather as spirits of lust, anger, gluttony, pride, deceit, greed, fear and so on. Anyone engaging in these vices has an evil spirit working in them.

God is manifest or incarnate in the world in anyone who has the good spirits/virtues working in them. And evil spirits are manifest/incarnated in anyone who has chosen to let the evil spirits listed above to go to work in them. So devils/evil spirits might manifest themselves as a greedy banker, corrupt politician or lawyer, schoolyard bully, etc. There are indeed evil spirits among us, just as God is among us.

3 Big Ideas for June 12, 2019

  1. When you experience the universe’s immeasurable zest for life, longing to create, ineffable beauty, and listen to her story, you inevitably fall in love with her – a love that demands caring action.
  2. Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), a Benedictine monk, founded Shantivanam Ashram (Forest of Peace Ashram) as he thought western Christianity was too masculine since it was built on Greek and Roman Empire models of existence. He thought it needed to discover the intuitive, contemplative, feminine spirituality of India and China: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Western youth who visited Shantivanam then took contemplation back to the west in the 1960s. This “eastern invasion” was a spiritual counterpart to the “British invasion” (rock music) and was the beginning of people becoming “spiritual but not religious” – if you could experience God directly thru meditation, why did you need organized religion?
  3. The Catholic Inquisition was just trying to protect the Church from heresy, tried people by rational means, and punished no one – they left that to the state authorities. Stalinist and Nazi terrorism used irrational means to kill more people without trial in a few years than the Inquisition did in four hundred years. In general, secular culture sees the sins of the Church but is blind to its own sins.

3 Big Ideas for May 23, 2019

  1. The only way to understand the power of the message of Jesus is by imitating him and actually living the life of a disciple.
  2. The problem for most of us in the spiritual life is that we want to be a saint but we also want to experience all the sensations sinners have. If we become too angelic we can be no earthly good. And if we become too focused on the body alone we can become lower than the animals. It is always difficult to keep spirit and body integrated.
  3. The marriage of eastern and western religion may be necessary not only for the Church but also for the survival of civilization itself. Eastern religion emphasizes contemplation and western religion emphasizes social justice. Together they would keep the transcendence and immanence of God alive. Contemplation counters civilization’s obsession with consumerism and social justice counters it’s obsession with individualism.

3 Big Ideas for March 28, 2019

  1. The codependent person is often a chronic worrier, a compulsive helper, suffers from a wounded inner child, and feels shamed in his or her essence. Surrendering to the grace of God in the intimacy of prayer can heal and transform these four maladies of codependents.
  2. The very first liberal Protestant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, wrote in the 1800s that “Religion does not come from fear of death or fear of God, as philosophers previously thought. Religion is neither a metaphysic (a grand philosophy of what is beyond the material world) nor a morality. In its essence, religion is an intuition, feeling, or direct experience of God. Even dogmas are not religion. Dogmas derive from religious experiences.” Religions that do not give people direct experiences of God, in spite of being strong on metaphysics, dogmas and morality, will gradually lose followers. This is what has happened most mainline churches.
  3. The Fourth Precept of Buddhism is about mindful speech. Accordingly, when it comes to conversation, we need to avoid four things: lying/exaggeration/’forked tongue’ (telling one person one thing and another person something different about the same event)/and ‘filthy talk’ (insulting or abusing others). Things haven’t changed much: politicians, lawyers, and athletes could learn a lot from Buddhism.

3 Thoughts for February 11, 2019

  1. The problem with scientific methods is they can seduce us to think that all truth can be reduced to observable data, and therefore God and the great religious traditions of the world are irrelevant – humans are self-sufficient. However, these methods cannot penetrate the intimate, personal meaning of essential experiences of life such as suffering, sex, death, and the search for meaning itself. Nor can they give us answers to life’s biggest questions such as why are we here? where are we going? Is life and the universe essentially trustworthy?
  2. Nine seemingly good things that can become key temptations if you overdo them: striving for perfection (where nothing is ever good enough); helping others (to the point of burning yourself out); efficiency (when you ignore the needs of those right in front of you); authenticity (sharing too much of yourself when it is not appropriate); knowledge (dwelling only in your mind); security (being afraid to try anything new); idealism (to the point of losing touch with messy reality); striving for justice (to the point of always being angry about everything); self-deprecation (to becoming a doormat).
  3. The Church, rather than being, as Karl Marx wrote: an “opiate of the masses,” should be a radically counter-cultural force challenging the prevailing ethic of consumption that is destroying our planet.