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September 5, 2011

On the Ballot: Religious vs Spiritual

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My blog topics are a result of little frissons I get in my solar plexus.  Something funny happens and it laughs down there.  Or something thrills when I feel passionate about an idea.  Or I get triggered by something that upsets me so much I want to pretend it doesn’t.

I got one of those triggers on Wednesday.  It is now Sunday.  So that’s five days of trying to pretend I was above it all, above being bothered by something I read on a UCC web site.  UCC is the denomination of the church where I am the choir director.  It’s so liberal that after UCC, you can only go on to Unitarian and from there, well, we all know where that leads.  So it’s about two degrees removed from new age, pagan, atheism.

Anyway a UCC pastor had written that she dreads a particular conversation that ensues after someone has found out she is a minister and feels the need to tell her he is “spiritual but not religious” as though this is some “daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the status quo.”  Next thing she knows, said person is telling her he finds God in sunsets.  “Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset!” she says.

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she continues. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Life with God gets rich and provocative when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.  .  .  .You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”

Wow, I think.  That’s quite a diatribe. That’s quite a load of assumptions about people who have had the misfortune to sit next to you on a plane.    It bothered me so much I got heartburn from my bland American sandwich of white bread and Miracle Whip that I washed down with Sanka.

I am getting heartburn over this piece, but I am pretending it doesn’t bother me while I make dispassionate (and dissociative) observations about it.  When I was involved in a religious tradition I did not invent for myself, that heartburn would have been called “conviction by the Holy Spirit.”  My fundamentalist mother would have said “You’ve gotten away from God and you aren’t eating enough broccoli. That’s your problem.”

This “Reflection,” as the author calls it, is fundamentalist-speak.  This is how war starts.  Someone reduces part of the human race to a small capsule of imagined characteristics and there is a reaction from the other side of the new barricade.   Ancient religious traditions are very good at provoking this.  Next thing you know, there’s a “holy” war and everyone is running around being religious but no one has even approached spirituality.

My war right now is internal.  I have let this writer’s language pull me out of balance.  I have projected her into an enemy out there so I can be infuriated by her complacency, and lack of imagination, the latter being my deepest judgment of another human being.   Her nanny language makes every inch of my skin grimace.  The psycho-analyst in me sees a ten year old child telling adults what is and isn’t appropriate.  I want to spew a comment at the end of her (non) Reflection but there is no place to comment.  I have sarcastic thoughts about that.

My opposition has made it a battle which I have already lost. All my fighting but articulate thoughts (more articulate than hers, so there!) have already spoiled five days and fogged the atmosphere.  I have lost my equilibrium and have heartburn.  It’s too late.

Finally, after five days, I am starting to settle into my rich but non-religious depths.  This pastor is doing something we all do.  It’s so condescending and sounds so awful that I developed amnesia there for a few days.  I have a blog.  I bloviate about anything I want to.  I introduce my prejudices.  I lecture about live music, and my theories of learning.   I even have a category called “Spirituality” where I put blogs that aren’t “religious.”

We meet ourselves in each other.   We are solitary and we all live in relationship with each other.  Do we really have to choose just one?  And do we have to vote between religious or spiritual?  Wars have been fought over less.   Above all, when we demote our uniquely fascinating selves to the one or two characteristics that happen to be on top today, could we at least have some awareness about what we are doing?  Even  if it takes us five days.

We really don’t know what it’s like to be anyone but ourselves.  We are alone no matter how much we “work in community.”   We can only approximate connections.  Billy Collins has a lovely poem that’s about many things, including marriage and relationship.  Here’s the surprising last stanza of “Osso Buco” from The Art of Drowning,

In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of the night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.

The only place I know is myself.  What it feels like in the marrow, when I am alone or with people, whether conscious or unconscious, that’s my spirituality.






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