You don’t have to choose between religion and spirituality
Religion has an image problem. This might have something to do with its patriarchy. Or its homophobia. Or its elitism. It could be about being sectarian and exclusive – allied to an inability to update its theological software, which, on its worst days, leads to schism and violence. Religion has responsible for most of the wars in history, claim its critics, but for all that, it’s pretty resilient. As the American TV presenter Jon Stewart says: ‘It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.’
Is it religion’s style that’s the problem? Or its content? Or that general enduring sense of impenetrability? Whatever it is, for many people religion no longer ticks their boxes.
Spirituality, on the other hand, does.
Spirituality does not have the same image problem. Unlike religion, spirituality is soft, not hard. Fluid not fixed. It’s about personal development and individual choice. If religion seems to be about guilt, duty and obligation, spirituality feels like its about growth and maturity. You have to fit into a religion but spirituality can be customised – it will fit in with you.
No wonder, as the comedian Lenny Bruce said, ‘Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.’
But maybe religion doesn’t deserve such a bad rap. On its good days, religion stands up against power, and violence, and sides with the weak against the strong. It feeds the hungry, and teaches people to read and write. It inspires social movements that transform history for good. On its best days, religion produces the likes of Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Marilynne Robinson.
It inspires heartbreaking music, powerful images, extraordinary buildings and wonderful stories. Its rites and rituals remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from.
It provides a home and a community when we find life bleak and lonely.
And yet… the critics have a point.
The unpredictable flame of spirituality is often doused by the controlling hand of institutional religion.
And religion is only meaningful if it’s informed by genuine spirituality. If it provides a home for authentic experience. If it opens a window into ‘the other’.
True religion will always make room for a spirituality that will develop us, individually and collectively. A way to find ourselves.
The American scholar Barbara Brown Taylor puts her finger on it: ‘Religion is the deep well that connects me to the wisdom of the ages. Spirituality is the daily experience of hauling up living water and carrying it into a dry world.’
It’s not contained anywhere it can’t be. As someone once said: ‘Sitting in church on Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.’
Love is a verb
Whatever we believe about religion or faith, most people think that love is a good place to start from, a good place to head to and a good way to get there.
‘All you need is love,’ we sing. And we do need it.
Yes. But. What exactly does that mean?
Love is not a thing, you can get, or own. And it’s more than a feeling you find described in a pop song or a sensation that mysteriously comes and goes.
Love is a verb. And a verb – as many of us were taught in primary school – is a doing word. Love only has real meaning when we demonstrate it. By being loving. Flowers, and chocolates, and declarations of devotion are not bad. But a kindness is better, an act of selflessness which looks for nothing in return. Actions usually speak louder than words.
When Jesus of Nazareth said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, he wasn’t talking about how we might feel about them but about what we might do for them. He told a story about a traveller who stopped at the scene of a mugging, noticed the victim was not from his class or ethnic group and still took time to look after him, get him to hospital and see that he would be cared for. A victim of street violence and a complete stranger. Practical kindness, one human being to another. Love made real, love as a verb. (And a stranger who is really a neighbour.)
The ancient prophets, such as Amos or Hosea, Micah or Isaiah, banged on about how the rich mistreated the poor, about bribery, unpaid labour or political corruption. They knew that love is more than feeling something. That love is doing something.
Loving someone is the most important thing we can do. Ever. St Paul, who was a serious whinge bag on some days, could also find himself taken with moments of transcendent, poetic insight. In one of his most lyrical moments he compresses all life’s virtues down to three: faith, hope… and love, which, he says, is the greatest.
We love someone when we put them at the head of the queue, and ourselves at the back. That’s what love does. And we show love, not to make us look good, but because that’s what it’s all about. Love. Actually.
Live in the long now
In the year 01999 (1999 to the rest of us) an American foundation bought part of a mountain in eastern Nevada. In this remote area of white limestone cliffs, they planned to build an unusual kind of clock – that ticks just once a year. It would have a century hand not an hour hand, moving only once every hundred years.
The 10,000 Year Clock is the dream of inventor Danny Hillis, who believes in what musician Brian Eno calls ‘The Long Now’. At the Long Now Foundation, they see time differently. They want to signal that life is not about speed but being present, not about faster and cheaper, but slower and deeper. None of them will live to see the hands on the clock move, but that’s okay because the 10,000 Year Clock takes the long view.
It’s the same perspective as the fourteenth-century founders of New College Oxford. The college dining hall was made with a series of oak beams across the ceiling, which, half a millennium later, by the end of the nineteenth century, had become infested with beetles. The story goes that the college called in a man who farmed college land, who responded: ‘Ah – we wondered when you might get in touch.’ For there’s a tradition going back to the fourteenth century that a grove of oaks had been planted on college land to replace those cut down for the dining-hall beams. These oaks were set aside, and century after century, the farmers had waited.
Today we’re less patient. We like to have things now. Our deliveries are tracked and we monitor their journeys towards us. We don’t wait for changing seasons before buying particular fruit or veg, because our supermarkets ship them from different seasons across the world, ready to satisfy our demands. Waiting feels like time-wasting. Waiting times are to be reduced. Don’t just stand there, we’re told, do something!
But sometimes, it’s only waiting that can tell us what we want or need. In the calendar of the Christian Church an entire season called Advent is given over to waiting, longing, for a new kind of world to be born. A time when time will be called on history. When time will be up.
It’s a tradition that grew from the story of the Hebrew people waiting for their Messiah. A waiting which had developed since slavery in Egypt, grown through exile in Babylon, and been incubated under Roman captivity. ‘A voice cries out in the wilderness,’ said the Prophet Isaiah, about 2,700 years ago. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’
It’s not a passive waiting but an active one. An alert, vigilant and intentional patience which recognises that we all live in the long now, and some days history won’t be fast-forwarded.
Waiting is part of being alive. Like sleep, it can’t be rushed. We wait to find out who we are, and what we could do. And sometimes as we wait, we discover we are waiting for something else altogether. We understand what we are to do.