Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Identify With Any Particular Religion?

Even if you see some value in pursuing spirituality through some traditional venue, why identify with a particular religion?

I've been sharing a few things over the last week or two that I see when I look at the current terrain in the spiritual landscape, starting with my own  current outlook.

The question asked here isn't intended quite as some might take it. One can argue that the collective wisdom received from tradition is never monolithic, that it and a community which bears it can offer insight, support, and confirmation of your experiences that would be lacking in a more "do it yourself" approach. One can argue the drawbacks to being in a particular religious tradition as well. I'm sure such things have been covered more than once on this site.

The question can also refer to how people come to be part of a particular religious tradition and community, which tends to get into personal history, cultural and social influences, and so on. That's also been covered here quite a bit.

Recently I've written about developments in my notions of prayer and faith (as well as spirituality, which you can find in the link near the beginning of this post). Today's topic is a natural progression from such thinking and reflection.

In a post-modern and culturally pluralistic society, even one that is only nominally so, when we look at shifts in economics, demographics, where people live, and how social identity is formed and maintained, the fallout is that people aren't locked or deeply sealed into a communal religious relationship anymore. Religious affiliation is optional and involves many consumer choices, based on whatever reason you have for wanting such an affiliation and how the available options make you feel.

Aside from claiming that some deity or divine messenger appeared to you commanded you to follow a particular religion, how does anyone who lacks ties to a religious tradition or community find one that is suitable? How does one maintain any kind of commitment to it?

Feelings, Friends, and Fads

Given the individualistic, consumer-oriented perspective involved, this is a serious question for seekers as well as religious communities.

If you just want something that fills your needs or stimulates your interests today, then what about tomorrow? You may find flexibility with a congregation or community that is highly flexible and idiosynchratic, but what happens when you want something more connected to a larger and longer tradition?

Even if you have a desire to serve others and at least an intellectual appreciation of the need for some form of surrender and a process of transformation, how do you know which religion (or school or communion or sect thereof) to commit yourself to? It isn't hard to find some aspect of any religious community and its associated tradition that is lacking somehow, that is off-putting or perhaps rubs you the wrong way.

Like all human decisions, the options associated with people we like, we trust, and we admire always seem more palatable, especially if we know those people personally and have a good relationship with them. This is a powerful factor in choosing a religion as well.

By historical accident, some ideas and attitudes may become associated with a particular religion, or at least the popular perception of it. It may currently seem hip to be Buddhist if you are individualistic, into scientific materialism or scientism, hang close to a form of (near) nihilism expressed in secular humanistic thought, and are not into imagery and inspiration related to divinity.

Nonetheless, both history and the present are full of highly secular and spiritually skeptical Christians tensely wrapped up in logical arguments and dispassionate analyses of scripture as well as bubbly smiling Buddhists who praise and venerate an Eternal Source of compassion and wisdom and who see themselves and the universe as embodiment of the sacred.

So other than feeling, friends, and fads, what is one to base their decision upon?

No choice is a choice

Recognizing the difficulties involved in making a commitment doesn't make the choice any easier. And inability to make a choice, or to stick with it, is also a choice. A choice to be flexible and keep ones options open. A choice to give oneself the time try to explore and think and learn a little more about the options.

But it's also a choice to delay whatever one might experience by joining a community and tradition.

The spiritual journey (the search for integration, meaning, and growth toward something beyond oneself) starts by following a sacred path through a vehicle of faith. To begin the journey one must pick a path and a vehicle. Are you seeking enlightenment? Salvation? Do you feel that contemplation is primary? Meditation? Perhaps devotion or praise?

For some, figuring out which religious traditions and communities are best suited to one vision of the journey itself and its components may seem the easier way to begin, but the journey itself is one of transformation, so that it may change right along with you. And honestly, one can find people of similar temperament, overall philosophy of existence, and orientation toward method in most of the world's major religions.

Whether one believes all paths lead to the same place, or whether each path forms a unique thread in a larger tapestry, or even that some paths lead to destruction is again up for debate. Eventually, the worn path of tradition may vanish and the seeker may find themselves trailblazing in the wilderness. But in the end, either one finds a way to make a commitment to one of them or the perpetual delay becomes a permanent rejection of any path.

Have you chosen a path and stuck with it? Are you struggling to find the right path, to commit to it, or to stay on it? Your thoughts are most welcome!

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