Today I am continuing the topic of organized religion vs. spirituality. There are two articles that I can recommend by Steve McSwain in which he argues in favor of a spirituality that is free from the entanglements of religion. In Finding God after Leaving Religion, McSwain tells of his own journey away from church in which he unexpectedly has a spiritual awakening. How to Know God Beyond Religion offers some helpful advice on being spiritual just by showing up and paying attention.
In the spiritual vs religious debate, rather than arguing for one over the other, I hope I can make a case for both/and. I can see the appeal of McSwian’s spiritual pilgrimage and the disdain for organized religion that is too concerned with its own survival. On the other hand, I think it is important for spiritual seekers to have guideposts. I think we should be free to leave an institutional church when it is not meeting our needs, but I also want it to be there to convey the tradition. We are all on a continuum in the journey, not everyone is at the same place or the same security level.
Social support is another aspect of church attendance. It is vital for us to have those social connections and places to turn to when we hit those hard patches in life. Most church members have an unspoken contract: “I will agree on a certain range of ‘beliefs and practices’ in return for the social support that I need to live a healthy life.” For some, the beliefs and practices may become too high a price if they are incongruent with knowledge and life experience, and they may seek another avenue of social support.
Baron Fredrich von Hugel had some helpful things to say in his classic work The Mystical Element of Religion. He outlined three stages of religious expression after studying the life of St. Catherine of Genoa. These stages, or elements, are often in tension with one another and often difficult to reconcile:
- The historical/institutional element
- The scientific/intellectual element
- The mystical/experiential element
The historical/institutional element is how most people come to religion. It is the structural support, the conveyer of the tradition.
The scientific/intellectual element is a stage of inquiry to explore the meaning and validity of the received faith. In my Baptist experience, this was often seen as threatening. Some people thought higher intellectual pursuits would “ruin” the faith of a Christian believer.
The mystical/experiential is that poetic, immediate recognition of the spiritual validity of faith. Many who cling to the historical/institutional element see the mystical as dangerous and ungrounded. Those of intellectual bent often see the mystical as too emotional, not feeling comfortable with the non-rational aspects of faith.
McSwain got fed up with the historical/institutional package he received and moved to more intellectual and experiential modes (all of which I can relate to). He may not be giving due acknowledgement to the historical/institutional gift he received which gave him the framework and basis for his further search for meaning. As von Hugel indicated, there is a tension involved in all of these elements.
Finally, I must say that I have disdain for the hucksterism that is often seen in religion, preying on the emotionally needy. Human nature being what it is, we will always see that sort of thing, but it is another reason to keep alive healthy expressions of faith and religion (which may not be as popular as the opportunistic entertainment which masquerades as religion).
* * * *
You may be interested in the following related posts:
Don't Take My Word for It
Spirit Work, Soul Work