Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Letter from John

From: john
Subject: e-mails and a question


Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts -- always appreciate hearing from you.

Hey, I was thinking this weekend about something you said at that Christmas gathering we had in '09.  If I remember correctly, you said (and I may be weak on some of the fine points) people generally don't go to church for spirituality, but rather for social interaction and a feeling of connectedness.  Tough to argue with that one.  My question:  why go to a church for those things?  Why not just join a social club, meet friends at the mall or a restaurant, or gather in one another's homes?  Would be interested in your take on this.


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John, I don't mean to disparage social interaction and a feeling of connectedness.  We’re human because we’re social creatures and being connected is essential to everything else we do.  True spirituality and true religion for that matter must begin with what it means to be human in all that that entails. Religion is a corporate experience wherein we acknowledge and celebrate our common values and affirm our experience.

But spirituality is personal, not something we can share with anyone.  It's what makes us who we are in our relationships with others, with ourselves, with God.  Fact is, we seldom learn spirituality in church although the church is supposed to supply us with the classical resources of our traditions in order that we may learn the pathway of spirituality. We first learn that pathway from a number of sources, beginning with our parents and relatives and extending to friends, teachers, colleagues etc.  

At some point perhaps we are perceptive enough to discover that something is missing in our learning and experience.  We have questions with no satisfactory answers.  We sense injustice and pain in the world.  We feel a need to express our gratitude and we need help in our struggles.  We want to know more about who we are and why we are here and what is required of us. Then we look to religion to help us answer those questions.

Problem is, religion as commonly practiced often fails to give us much help.  Religion is concerned with outward forms and traditions and with conventional manners and morals Too often our religious institutions are primarily places for social purposes. A pastor frequently has no more concern, ability or education than the members of the church, especially if the pastor lacks seminary training which is not a requirement in many conservative denominations.  In the best of worlds, training or no, the church is primarily concerned with transmitting an ancient tradition in the same form and using the same words that have been used for hundreds or thousands of years with no consideration that our world has changed. We think differently, we have a different understanding about ourselves and the world, a different world view. We recognize the need to take science seriously. The situation is changing very slowly, but we are a long way from a church that takes our new knowledge and world view seriously.

The church is not creative.  BUT . . . . the passing on of a tradition is certainly not without merit.  It's usually not possible to creatively move on to a new area unless one knows where one has been previously, with some degree of familiarity with the past. That is why genuine education will emphasize the study of Latin, history, the classics IN ADDITION to science and mathematics.  The ancient traditions of the church have much to offer us but they must be reinterpreted in light of who we are and what we know now. The classical spirituality traditions, however, remain largely intact because they deal with human nature, not science or theology. The church is a repository of the best of the classical spiritual tradition, but someone must guide us to it.  The church ignores the classical spiritual tradition for the most port because the institutional church usually has a different agenda, maintaining order and control.

Classical spirituality is learned from a master teacher.  A guru, yogi, shaman or spiritual master in the Western tradition.  It's not easy to find a spiritual advisor in Western tradition because very early on in the history of the Christian church, the church all but abandoned spirituality in favor of doctrine.  It was all done in a spirit of desire for organization, control and power.  Spirituality can't be controlled and, furthermore, spirituality is actually against those things.  But spirituality in all the great religious traditions has a central core that is difficult to master and is a work of a lifetime.  It has nothing to do with doctrine or history or organization.  

Basically, spirituality consists of relinquishment of the ego, learning to love and forgive our enemies, mastery of our emotional impulses, relinquishment of materialism, abstinence and celibacy.  That being said, obviously for most of us we are going to be reluctant to become celibate hermits living in cells in the woods, although that is the classical stance for someone who REALLY IS SERIOUS.  But we understand the importance of self control, living in moderation and leaving a small carbon footprint.

Most of all the spiritual life is a struggle to master the ego.  Ego stands in the way of most of the other stuff. Now ego is a good and necessary thing up to a point.  It's what drives us to excel in our endeavors, master a trade or discipline, invent and create.  So these are good things.  But the ego that can exceed only at the price of putting someone else down, or gaining power over others is what we're talking about.  We never hear much about the Seven Deadly Sins the church once taught, but those are the impediments to spiritual development.  Pride, Anger, Envy, Lust, Greed, Gluttony and Sloth.

So back to the church.  The church is like school.  It's the starting point for the spiritual life.  Unfortunately, most people give up after confirmation or catechism or when they get old enough to intimidate their parents into letting them stay at home.  So their education ends around Jr. High.

Or, for most other people, they never have any training at all in the classical spiritual or religious traditions of their culture.  Neither they nor their parents have any religious or spiritual memory.  We have up to three generations of those people now.  I leave it to you to decide how society has been helped by that.

Let's lay aside the empty notion that anyone is "saved" from declaring that they believe in an empty set of words such as, "I believe I am saved because I believe in Jesus and that I'm going to heaven and anyone who doesn't is going to hell."  Well, saved from what? to what? for what???

Salvation is a hugely misunderstood and misused word.  Not denying it's relevance, but only after intense parsing.  I was hoping that when Pope John Paul II declared that "heaven is not a place and hell is not a place but those are metaphors for a relationship with God" that the matter would be put to rest.  

But the need to believe is stronger than the belief itself.

Spirituality is not about believing in anything.  It's about how we live, how we walk the pathway.  About relationships.

So I think everyone should go to church, or synagogue or mosque or whatever.  And take the kids.  Tell the kids that their religious training is as important as their education at school when they object, as most of them do in our self-indulgent culture. They also make up excuses to stay home from school if we let them get away with it.  And after they are grown they can decide for themselves what to do next.  BUT until then, they are going to be trained in the basics which is what raising children is all about.  Without that training, they won’t be in a position to decide anything because they won’t know what’s out there.

If a person attends one of the mainline denominations that hasn't completely given itself over to the pop culture "church lite" trend, if they attend a church that takes the liturgy seriously which means the whole monte including the traditional scripture readings (there are four in the Christian church) and basically ignores the sermon (unless the pastor is particularly gifted at oratory) over the course of the first 18 or 20 years of their life they can get a pretty good start at mastering the "basics".  (The sermon is the least important thing that happens in a classical liturgical service.) You can explain to the kids that Adam and Eve and all those good stories are metaphors. Their relevance lies in looking for meaning, not in actual fact. Spirituality is concerned with meaning.

If every parent understood this necessity, maybe some of the people who have quit the church because it is failing to update itself would stay around to kick butt and challenge their pastors and seminaries to do a better job.  And withhold their tithes if they don't.  What if parents gave up on public education.  Yeah yeah yeah,  I know.  Many of them seem to have done just that.