Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What religion offers (and what is doesn't)

Predominant religions of the world, mapped by ...Image via Wikipedia
A fast growing category in the West is "spiritual but not religious". Many of the people drawn to this designation look at abuses perpetrated in the name of religion and reject anything religious with a phobia bordering on neurosis, as if they might get religious cooties. Their experiences suggest that religion wants mental and emotional slaves and that being religious means accepting and affirming various ideas and propositions as "belief". But just because people screw something up doesn't mean the premise is bad. People screw stuff up all the time. Look at politics. Look at education. Look at anything really where humans are involved.

So we can either dump out the baby with the bath water, ignoring millenia of experience and insight, or we can become aware of the constant need for reform and humility. Religion offers us that experience, including effective ways to balance the tension between received wisdom and new discoveries and contexts. That's what we can gain from tradition, which also grounds us in a longer view of the spiritual path. The other thing religion offers is community, which is an essential aspect of any spiritual practice. Not a community to conform to or be lost in, but as a further grounding in the truth of our collective reality. The solo adventurer image may be tragic and romantic but it's just more fantastic nonsense.

As for what religion can't really offer, even when it claims to be able to so, it cannot give you enlightenment or salvation. It cannot give you the truth, even though it may point you towards it and offer time-tested ways to learn how to see it for yourself. At some point if we seek truth and salvation we have to let go and become vulnerable to ourselves and our situation in a total and unyielding way, without easy and fixed answers to prop us up. We have to have actual faith, working exposed and freely without a net and without assurances of specific outcomes. To float untethered in the ground of our being and know that all is well and that all will be well, open to all experiences we encounter with a spirit of acceptance and gratitude. The latter of course doesn't mean we stop caring or no long seek to aid those in need, but that we are willing to deal things as they are and as we are in an honest way.

When it works properly, religion can offer us training and support for such transformation. When it doesn't, it merely serves to reinforce the same urges, errors and tendencies that caused people to seek out and create religious communities and traditions in the first place. Religion becomes an excuse to not do the real work of sincere reflection and acceptance that need to be done and a substitute for meaningful and transformative faith. It becomes the kind of thing that makes people who want to explore spirituality feel the need to proclaim and identify as "not religious". Just another self-serving sham.
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