Tag Archives: spirituality

How to Pretend to be Spiritual

One of the high-profile mantras of contemporary culture is to be “spiritual but not religious.” This announcement is delivered with serious humility and meekness, assuring the hearer that there will be no invitation, not even a subtle suggestion, to join in the quest. The speaker righteously disavows any intent to proselytize, choosing to leave everyone else to his own search for meaning, deliberately explaining that there is no “right or wrong” in anyone’s choices. This speaker is not like those religious fanatics who love God and invite everyone else to love Him, too. This speaker is no threat to anyone’s status quo.

Christians are taken aback by such a concept. It is hard to argue with someone about an idea so malleable. The discussion is a lot like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. There is no core belief to dispute, no fundamental truth to refute. There is no substance to such an avowal.

Christians think that the person who takes this step might be on a quest for something meaningful, but to believe that “spiritual but not religious” is a quest for meaning would be a big mistake. To choose to be “spiritual but not religious” is to choose deliberately to avoid the complications of meaning or truth. This choice is, rather, a choice not to allow meaning or truth to interfere with self-worship. In other words, someone who is “spiritual but not religious” is engaged in a chiffon-like secularism. Its very softness confuses Christians who expect secularists to be hardened defenders of reason alone. This “spiritual” quest is the same thing as the secular search for truth; you know you have found it if it makes you feel good. It is Satan’s way of providing something for everyone.

Satan’s strategy is always to pander to the human ego. All the temptations to which human beings succumb are about choosing self over anything else. The temptations Christ is reported to have defused were all about self. I’m hungry—I’ll turn rocks into food. I want attention – I’ll jump off a tower without a parachute and float to the ground. I love power – I’ll do what it takes, even make a deal with the devil, to become the most powerful human being on earth. The temptation to become “spiritual but not religious” is no different.

How, you ask wonderingly, is it egotistical and self-serving to be “spiritual” when you are choosing not to be “religious” with all the ritual and hierarchy associated with religion?

The answer is that this choice is not about God or gods at all; it is entirely about personal gratification.

Those who choose “spirituality” alone most commonly reject Christianity. Often they are actually drawn to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. (I know, I know. Buddhists claim it is a way of life, not a religion. Well, every religion either shapes a way of life or it is worthless. The rejection of Christianity is about rejecting the way a Christian is taught to live.)  They act as if to be vaguely “spiritual” is much more mature and sophisticated than to be soiled by participating in the life of the church. They cast aspersions on the whole idea that people who put their faith in Christ gather in groups, engage in shared worship, depend on the Bible, and organize in work and service. Most of all, they join in the secular outrage at Christians who believe that every moment of their lives is to be lived in submission to Christ. The idea of a relationship that permeates and transcends every moment of life is alien, and the idea of submission in that relationship is repugnant to those who want their own feelings to be more important than anything else. They cannot imagine deep happiness that is not about personal gratification.

Of course, the rejection of Christianity is justified by pointing to people who claim the name of Christ and live in complete denial of everything Christ taught. The rejection of Christ is excused because there are plenty of Christians who are not very Christ-like. Those who choose to be “spiritual but not religious” claim that they want purity, not hypocrisy, and they don’t want to associate with any hypocrites as part of their pure spiritual quest. The rejection of Christianity, or of any “religiousness” whatsoever is not rejection of anything that any religion actually stands for. It is rejection of people who don’t live up to their religious claims.

It sounds almost righteous to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  The problem is that being “spiritual but not religious” is simply another way to be completely secular.  It sets up a life with “sacred” elements and “secular” elements. It makes for an interesting cultural phenomenon. A secularist completely scorns the idea of Christianity, because the secularist rejects anything not measurable in time and space. Which means, of course, that the secularist equally scorns the “spiritual but not religious.” He will, however, tolerate the “spiritual” ones more comfortably than the Christians, because the “spiritual but not religious” are completely willing to keep their spirituality in the spiritual part of their lives while keeping a high barrier between the sacred and the secular. Secular thinkers have no problem with someone who worships himself or herself, because the secular thinker understands that world view. The “spiritual but not religious” are more comfortable with secular thinkers than with Christians for the same reason. Both worship self, and both believe that spirituality is a private matter.

Christians are viewed like sand in the cultural cogs, because they bring their spirituality into everything. Why? A Christian is actually a little temple of the Holy Spirit, walking around carrying eternity and infinity wherever he goes. A Christian lives at the intersection of time and eternity, space and infinity. For the Christian, the notion of being “spiritual but not religious” has no meaning, because a Christian is the same in all settings. (Of course I know that we are all sinful saints as well as saintly sinners. So this statement must be understood as the teaching, not as a perfect reality. It is this teaching that drives Christians to assert that a business is only one of many ways the Christian serves Christ.) The standard for Christian behavior is set by eternal and infinite standards, not by how the Christian feels about something at some time. This is why a Christian engaged in commerce is not engaged in secular activity; such a thing is impossible for him. The Christian is a completely spiritual being.

Those who reject religion and claim to be “spiritual” without any real focus other than themselves are fooling only themselves. It is an empty enterprise to attempt to connect with something that is ultimately only oneself. To be spiritual without any spiritual identity is destructive, even if it does make someone feel good for a while. Incense, candles, and sacred rocks will be cold company when Satan unleashes evil in someone’s life. Long ago in a comic strip now defunct, a swamp possum named Pogo saw through the fakery of this kind of thinking. He said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Advertisements

Defining Our Terms: “Marriage” and “Religious Liberty”

You may or may not have seen this headline somewhere recently:
Tenn Bill would permit student counselors to reject clients based on religious beliefs 

This article discusses a problem which previously made national news in Michigan when a student in a counseling program refused to accept homosexual couples as clients. The bill being proposed in Tennessee will protect the rights of students in counseling programs who reject clients because the goals, outcomes and behaviors of the prospective clients conflict with the religious views of the counselor. 

Or this headline:
Florist refuses gay couple’s wedding due to her ‘relationship with Jesus Christ’ 

This article includes a comment by the state Attorney General for the state where the florist shop is located. The AG says, “If they sell flowers to any other opposite sex couple, they must sell flowers to a same-sex couple.”  

Maybe you saw this headline:
New Mexico Supreme Court hears appeal by photographer in gay bias case 

A photography studio refused to photograph a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple on the grounds that the union conflicted with the religious convictions of the owners and that to be compelled to produce such images would violate their right to express their convictions through their art. 

Perhaps you saw this one:
RI marriage equality bill may hinge on extent of religious exemptions

There is general agreement that the law may not compel clergy or religious leaders to officiate at a ceremony that conflicts with their religious convictions. However, opponents to same-sex marriage are proposing  a religious exemption that would permit private businesses as well as religiously connected organization to decide for themselves if they will recognize gay marriage or not. The inclusion of private employers makes this exemption unacceptable to most supporters of gay marriage. 

These four articles are selected from what is becoming a blizzard of cases and legislation arising because of political activism by the LGBT community. (I normally avoid initials and acronyms with a passion, but this is the way this community identifies itself. If that is their preference, then I will accede to it.) The four articles look at two terms that are at the center of the rising pressure from the LGBT community. The terms are marriage equality and religious liberty.

The LGBT community wants to use the term marriage to mean the union of homosexuals as if it were the normal definition of marriage. According to this community, they have a right to redefine marriage this way because marriage is a civil right, and that is at the root of their activism in the name of marriage equality.

The LGBT community includes Christians as well as atheists and other religious persuasions, but the community, including its Christian members, uses a completely secular definition of religion in its attitude toward religious liberty. The HHS definition of “religious employer” in the regulations enacting the Affordable Care Act best states where the LGBT activists draw the line for the religious liberty to reject and refuse to participate in the homosexual agenda. In that narrow view, religion is what happens in houses of worship where the acts of worship and the teaching of how to do it take place. This very secular view of religion disallows any notion that a Christian commits to a way of life by virtue of simply being a Christian. The idea that a Christian who runs a store or a doctor’s office is obligated by his faith to act according to Christian values is rejected by secular thinkers.

If someone believes that marriage means whatever we choose to say it means, and if someone believes that marriage is a civil right, then it follows as night follows day that it is okay to say that an agreement by two homosexuals is a marriage and that in the name of marriage equality they should be granted all the same rights, the same benefits, and the same privileges any other married couple has. If someone believes that religion only happens within a church building where one might engage in worshiping a deity or in learning how to worship the deity, then it just makes sense that one would say that a for-profit business such as a flower shop, a photography studio or a corporate board of directors does not engage in religion and does not express religion.

Not one of the men who served in the Continental Congress or who helped to write the Constitution would agree with anything in the paragraph above. When they wrote the First Amendment, they believed that religious principles permeated the lives and work of believers. It certainly permeated the lives of those men. They would be completely dumbfounded to hear that the federal government says that nothing religious happens in a for-profit enterprise. They would be shocked to discover that not only are homosexuals allowed to marry in the chapel at West Point, but that the academy requires that the chapel host homosexual weddings if asked.

On March 26 and 27, the Supreme Court will host oral arguments on two cases that will have immense impact on all these stories. The Supreme Court may or may not take ownership of the definition of marriage. The two cases cover the issue of the constitutionality of a state’s attempt to prevent gay marriage and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act which attempted to prevent any redefinition of marriage in the federal realm. This case is very important for the definition of marriage, but it will not likely speak to the issue of religious liberty. There are a number of lawsuits in the works relating to the exercise of religious principle relative to the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act and relative to the rights of business owners who reject being any part of a homosexual ceremony or union. The cultural and legal battles will likely continue for years.

Today the Denison Forum reported on the issue of the negative portrayal of Christians in the media, and Jim Denison asked what Christians should do about this. His question applies just as appropriately to the questions about marriage and religious liberty. What are Christians to do? He proposed prayer and even kicked off a prayer campaign among his commenters. This is exactly the right way to think about this problem. First we pray.

Too often Christians wait until they have tried everything else before they pray. They engage in social and political activism, they tell their neighbors, they tweet, they phone, they email, and when the problem continues to escalate and they cannot think of anything to do, then they pray in desperation, “Oh, God, Help us!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a great little book about Psalms in which he reminded his readers that Psalms was Jesus’ prayerbook. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for us. One way to change your perspective on a psalm is to look at a problem in the culture, for example, the assault on marriage and family, and pray the psalm the way Jesus might pray it if faced with the same problem. You can enter into the psalm, pray the psalm and learn from Christ as you pray.

 

Try praying Psalm 53 below as your prayer for guidance in the culture war to save marriage and family from destruction. Substitute your state name and “USA” for the words “Jacob” and “Israel.” Remember that if Jesus prayed this psalm, he was perfect, but we are not. We are made righteous by Christ’s righteousness which we receive because of his death on the cross. Humbly acknowledge where your righteousness in this conflict comes from, and think of all parties to the conflict as Jesus would. Jesus is the one, you remember, who prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as he was being nailed to the cross. If you are not comfortable with this psalm, find a different one.  

 

1     Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.
2     God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3     They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4     Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
5     There they shall be in great terror,
in terror such as has not been.
For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly;
they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
6     O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad. 

Leave a comment please and let me know what this experience meant for you. Or let me know any other thoughts God gives you about what we can do to participate in God’s work of preserving his plan for marriage and family and for preserving the right he gave every person to live by faith.

Religion? Spirituality? Who Cares?

In the culture of the USA there is currently a busy discussion of the difference between being spiritual and being religious. The conversation reveals some fairly huge differences of opinion between people who claim a specific religious connection and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious as well as those who claim multiple simultaneous religious connections. Numerous statements in blogs, comments and articles online make it clear that there are people who practice what might be called identity spirituality regardless of their connections with religion. The practice of identity spirituality is quite similar to identity politics with one very notable difference: identity politics is divisive by design while identity spirituality resolves all differences by simply ignoring them.

In order to contrast identity spirituality with identity politics it is necessary for you to understand what identity politics is. The point of identity politics is to recruit members by identifying commonality of political interest. In fact, activists in identity politics don’t so much make recruitment calls as they project an image with which prospects can identify. The identity Latino is deceptively clear in most people’s minds—a person who speaks Spanish and looks white but not Anglo-Saxon. The reality is that neither the appearance nor the speech of an individual will reveal all the people who might properly be identified as Latino, and the projection of the true factors of identity is actually a call for membership. Identity groups are used in polls and surveys, where participants self-identify with demographic groups and answer questions designed to uncover trends and attitudes within demographic identities.

The practice of identity politics not only demands acceptance and respect for a group’s unique identity (example, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) but it also distinguishes the members of the group from individuals who might fraudulently claim the group’s identity without meeting its unique definition. This practice was displayed when Barack Obama first entered the Democrat presidential primaries. He was easily identified as a black man, yet he was scorned by such public figures as Al Sharpton, because he did not have “slave blood.” His racial identity with other black political figures was marred for his lack of identity with survivors of the civil rights rallies of the sixties. Further, identity politics seeks special consideration for itself as compensation both for past injustices and for the insult of having endured past injustice, a state of affairs that is extended by constantly finding ways to demonstrate that the injustice continues. A prime example is the use of the term racist in the context of events and statements where the obvious intent is not to further an important public conversation but rather to receive the benefit of sympathetic support in words, legislative action and voting power that is occasioned by any perception that real racism persists in public life.

Identity spirituality is a very different concept. People who practice identity spirituality shun identification with any group whatsoever. Yet, in common with identity politics, the practitioners choose the relationship based on an identity. Something in the religion or spiritual practice resonates with something in the individual. The defining element is that the practitioner chooses religious or spiritual practices on the basis of their resonance with the identity of the practitioner. It might even be a resonance with the individual’s search for personal identity.  A person who practices identity spirituality is comfortable saying, “I identify with whatever moves me.” Or he might say,I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” Practitioners of identity spirituality are open to anything that feels spiritual to them, whether it is Christian, Buddhist, or even science. They don’t belong to a religion; they collect spiritual ideas that that they appreciate. The individual shapes a spiritual experience the way a sculptor might craft a mobile. That simile was deliberate, because the choices are fluid and elusive, and most practitioners of identity spirituality prefer it that way. Unlike identity politics where walls are deliberately constructed to foil attempts to reconcile differences between groups, identity spirituality simply ignores any walls that exist between religious and spiritual groups and picks and chooses among spiritual components as if the world of religion and spirituality were a giant shopping mall.

This is a point on the plane of all degrees of religious and spiritual convictions where spirituality fades into agnosticism and atheism. It is a place where ideas that claim a sacred element can be merged with completely secular views. Secular thinkers accept that cosmological hypotheses describe the physical beginnings of the universe, a point in time when no human observer could have measured anything, yet they categorically reject any suggestion of a supernatural power. The practitioner of identity spirituality can comfortably merge an astrophysical cosmology with a Buddhist meditation in the lotus position and consider all of it to be her personal spirituality. This blend of mathematics and mysticism is a place where nothing is firm or solid or predictable. It is the place where Eckhart Tolle took all his readers – that place where a person is his own god. Whether a person says that he is his own god or says that he chooses bits and pieces from the teachings of many gods, the ultimate truth of his spiritual or religious experience is that he chooses elements that satisfy him in some way. The experience is all about the person who experiences it. He may not call himself his own god, but he acts in lieu of any god.

Christianity does not recruit adherents on the basis of identity. There may be people who join Christian churches because of some identity factor, but that is not the teaching of the faith.  People who choose to follow Christ are not identifying with him. They are receiving his forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but they are giving up self, the very thing practitioners of identity spirituality clutch most fervently. To receive Christ is to be indwelt by God himself. Yet through the mystery of the Trinity, God remains on his throne in heaven, in the eternal and infinite perfection of heaven, while living within each of us messy and sinful human beings in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t identify with Christ; they serve him. They worship him and learn from him and depend on him. This experience is a life, a way of life, that is not in any way confined to a worship ritual or a worship building.

One of the reasons often given for being spiritual but not religious is that religions are too rigid, too organized and too full of hypocrites. Practitioners of identity spirituality visit a worship service and then say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” consigning what Christians consider to be a time of focus on God to a time of focus on self. They complain about Christians whose religious principles forbid them to engage in contraception, sterilization and abortion, and they complain even more about Christians whose religious principles against participation extend to the funding of such activities for others. They complain that religions in church buildings are old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern life. Then they complain that Christians are trying to impose their faith on others by expressing it publicly outside the worship space. They say that they believe that people are born good, and they don’t want to hear that people are born sinful.

Is this deep disconnect between Christians and the practitioners of identity spirituality really different from the disconnect between Christians and secular thinkers? What do you think Christians have to say to people who are spiritual but not religious? Do you think Christians need to change the way they worship in order to attract more members? Do you think Christians are giving a rich testimony to Christ that wicked people simply reject? Do Christians themselves need to change in some way? Should we take a survey and find out what would entice people to want to be Christians? Why are more and more people saying that they have no use for Christ or Christians or Christianity? Why do statistics show that Christians are the most persecuted people on earth? What might that have to do with our inability to communicate to practitioners of identity spirituality?

Looking for a good Christian book? Read my review of Martin Roth’s The Coptic Martyr of Cairo

What is the Point of Interfaith Dialogue?

There are people in the world who will take extreme umbrage at this question. There are others who will laugh. This question is not intended to evoke either response. This question is absolutely real: Why engage in interfaith dialogue? 

A report of a recent gathering at the University of Chicago entitled “Coming Together 6” led me to this question, because the author asked how people with multiple spiritual and religious identities participate in interfaith dialogue. It was the first time I had ever considered the possibility that someone might choose not to choose a faith at all – that someone might choose to attempt to glue together a number of different religious or spiritual worldviews. Choosing whom to serve has always appeared to be a rather exclusive decision because as Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.” It appears that there are a number of people who try to do exactly that. 

That choice appears at first glance to be an irreconcilable contradiction. How can someone, for example, be Christian and Muslim and pagan all at once? Yet the author of the report quotes a friend who is studying in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her friend says, “I identify with whatever moves me. Sometimes that means Islam, sometimes that means Christianity or Buddhism. Sometimes it’s not even a religion. Wherever I find something that impacts me deeply, makes me wonder about my own identity, that’s spiritual to me. I’m looking for truth where I can find it, via the Vedas or a physics book. And I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” After reading this statement several times, it is still difficult to imagine what this person means by faith when engaging in interfaith dialogue.

The key word may actually be not faith but identity. This man starts talking about religious pluralism (the focus term in Jem Jabbia’s report) by saying “I identify with whatever moves me.” This response is not the way converts to Christianity, for example, describe their experience. The teaching of Christianity is, first of all, that Christ calls people to confession and forgiveness of sin through Christ, and then if people receive Christ and his forgiveness, the ensuing relationship is exclusive. It isn’t about choosing a club to belong to, and wearing those colors on the club meeting day while being free to belong to other such clubs and to wear the colors of other clubs on other days. The same exclusivity applies to Islam. The idea of a spiritual decision as the recognition of identity does not ring true for Christianity or Islam, the first two religions or “faiths” named in the friend’s response.

The notion of loyalty based on identity is more commonly expressed in politics. During the recent presidential campaign, two women were talking about the candidates, and one said to the other, “I can’t identify with some rich guy who doesn’t live on a budget like I do.” Some of the political announcements were testimonials by people who made comments to the effect that they found they could identify with some candidate because of the candidate’s views on a topic that was important to the voter. In other words, the voter appeared to be choosing the candidate most like himself. The identity mentality of voters might well explain the degree to which candidates sometimes contorted themselves in relation to certain subjects; they may have been trying to express identity rather than commitments.

Is it easier now to answer the question: What is the point of interfaith dialogue? If people connect with a faith, which in the context of the term interfaith dialogue is more commonly called a religion, on the basis of the way they identify with it, then it appears as if the religions are all in a campaign for the favor of people. If a religion wants to grow in numbers of adherents, then it would need to find ways to express its identity with a lot of people. In fact, it might need to find identity with many different views, just a politicians campaigning for office seem to think must be done. It is a very different way of looking at religion. If Jem Jebbia speaks for the 120 participants at Coming Together 6, then those people are not looking for someone or something to serve. What, then, are they talking about?

The report listed some organizational questions that came up. That is understandable. Any conversation needs ground rules, even if they are more or less assumed. The easiest way for a conversation to be transformed into combat is for the parties to operate according to different rules. This sort of questions calls forth images of navel staring, but it is more or less necessary.

There were a few meatier issues:

  • What does it mean to be spiritual and not religious? Are these concepts mutually exclusive?
  • How do I represent my own faith at the table when engaging in interfaith dialogue?
  • What about those of us who inhabit multiple spiritual and religious identities?

It is fairly easy to imagine the group discussing the first two topics, although neither question will get to the answer of the title question: What is the point? The third question brings up an issue that is likely not very familiar to many people. How many people “inhabit multiple spiritual and religious identities?” What does that even mean? 

The story of the Israelite escape from Egypt and from slavery, the trek through the wilderness, and the subsequent invasion of the Promised Land under God’s leadership is replete with moments when they were expected to make choices. After they had made some headway in conquering the inhabitants that had been in residence in the Promised Land, Joshua called them to Shechem where he said, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) There is plenty of evidence that even though the people had been led through the wilderness by the Lord, their loyalties to their Provider and Protector were not unwavering. Joshua, however, called them to make a choice. He said they could serve whomever they chose, but they could not serve all the different gods that might appeal to them. The relationship with God Almighty who had taken them out of Egypt was an exclusive relationship, just like marriage. In fact, in other places in the Bible, the relationship between God and his people is precisely and exquisitely described using the model of the relationship between a man and a woman – a marriage, an exclusive relationship.

Islam calls people to the same sort of exclusivity. In fact, in Islam-dominated countries, the very idea of someone following two religions, of which one is Islam, would be considered blasphemous. In such countries, nobody is permitted to convert away from Islam, either. Being a Muslim is not about finding a god with whom a person can identify. It is about serving one god.

There are religions in the world that have no barriers to pluralism. Buddhism is often the religion people turn to as a model for tolerance and open-mindedness, but then Buddhism does not actually claim to be a religion and does not actually worship a god. Religions that worship a pantheon of gods are not usually exclusive, either, but the gods want what they want and are usually reputed to take terrible vengeance if they are offended. Where do people pick up the idea that it is their job to approve the religions that they identify with rather than that religion involves obedience and transformation?

It may actually be a product of cultural changes associated with rising secularism. Among the attendees at Coming Together 6 were people who self-identified as agnostic, seeking, or even none. In a traditional view of religions and conversations among people of faith, it would look peculiar to include participants with no connection to any religion. However, in the context of the interfaith dialogue at Coming Together 6, nobody seemed to think it odd. Does any of this information answer the question: What is the point of interfaith dialogue?

This gathering is likely a sign of things to come, maybe even a sign of things that have already come, things that have slipped into the culture while Christians were not looking. It appears that some people have scrapped the whole idea of religious faith as an expression of adherence and obedience to someone greater than self. The idea of becoming subject to transformation by that higher power is even less palatable. Why would anyone who chose his or her faith because he could identify with it or simply because it moved him at the moment ever let go of himself in favor of being transformed?

Many other questions come to mind after reading about Coming Together 6.

  • What is a faithful and loving Christian response to someone who says, “I can’t identify with a religion where somebody is brutally executed.”
  • Or this, “I can’t identify with a religion that tries to invade my body and tell me what I can do with it.” How do Christians respond? 
  • What is the Christian message to people who are trying to glue Buddhism and Cherokee shamanic practices into a personal spirituality? 
  • Is there really a difference between spiritual and religious?
  • Is there really a difference between Christianity and all other religions or faiths?
  • Is it possible for someone to be a Christian as a consequence of identifying with Christianity?
  • What might be the difference between identifying with a religion and living by a religion?

What do you think?

Is it an Arab spring or a Christian winter? Read Living on Tilt the newspaper

 

 

Spirituality is not the same thing as Discipleship

A couple of years ago I located a great site for writers and joined right away. The site is full of energetic and talented writers whom I admire very much. I learn a lot from them about the craft of writing. I have learned to be very careful about absorbing other ideas from them. I feel called by God to write and share what I learn about the Christian faith. I can learn things about the craft of writing from any good writer. I need to be more discriminating about learning anything else.

I have discovered that, like me, most writers feel that writing is an extension of their lives. To write is to engage in a conversation about the things that shape my life, or the actions that grow out of the shape of my life. Writing and living are tightly intertwined. Having grown up in rural communities and lived most of my life around people not considered sophisticated by urban dwellers, I found some of the life stories told on the writers’ site startling to say the least. I felt an inner warning to filter what I read before absorbing it as fact.

I soon discovered that many writers consider themselves to be spiritual. There are so many, in fact, that my well-loved writing site has a whole group of writers who gather together on the subject of spirituality. When I found the group, I was immediately attracted by its name. I clicked the “join” button and began to get acquainted.

It was a real shock. Not for the first time I was educated to understand that my perception of the definition of a term is not necessarily its actual meaning. Most importantly, my perception of the meaning of “spirituality” was completely different from the perceptions of 99% of the members of the group. I joined the group in the expectation that the other members shared my idea of growing in spirituality. I could not have been more wrong.

For most of my life, I have used the term “spiritual” to mean anything related to the Holy Spirit, or to my relationship with the Holy Spirit, or to my growth in the disciplines and practices of my faith in Christ. The writing group uses the term to mean whatever is not of the material world. Members belong to many different religions or to no religion at all, yet their common bond is a belief that the world we live in is not exclusively made up of physical matter. I share that understanding, but little else. Some members believe that “the universe” is a spiritual force they can relate to. Some believe in ancient gods I thought had been abandoned centuries ago. Some believe in something ephemeral and immaterial that they relate to in terms like hope and faith and luck. I encountered a couple of group members who were Christians, but like me, they felt no common bond with the majority of the members. I left the group after a few weeks, and I imagine they did, too.

This experience should not have shocked me that much. I should have been prepared for this. After I had made this mistake, I looked around and realized that the world is full of people teaching “spirituality” which is wrapped in more beautiful imagery than Halloween, but which is otherwise not a lot different from the masquerade of that October holiday. Spirituality is a popular theme on talk shows like “Oprah,” but it is nothing like what I mean when I talk about spirituality in the context of my Christian faith.

There are a lot of words floating around in our daily lives which are wrapped in spiritual imagery, and often those words delude us into believing that they are Christian words of inspiration, motivation and faith. Many, many of those words have nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with God, or Christ or the Holy Spirit. Many of the words and images lure us away from faith into behavior as pagan as Moloch or Baal ever was.

For example, you have no doubt received a “prayer” in your email inbox that concluded with a statement similar to this: “Forward this prayer to ten people, including me, and something magnificent will happen to you at 10PM this evening. Don’t break the chain, or you will be sorry.” The first time I received one of those prayers, I was upset. It reminded of chain letters I used to receive in snail mail, threatening me with being responsible for dire things happening to the person who sent it if I failed to forward it to ten more people. Those old letters made me angry, and these “chain” prayers make me angry, too. They are not prayers; a better word would be incantations. This kind of prayer is not so much a blessing as a curse. In fact, I feel that the sender has tried to enslave me as surely as he or she tried to enslave God, as if either or both of us might be a little genie in a bottle, compelled to do the bidding of the one who opened the lid.

Prayer to Almighty God in the name of Christ does not work the way those chain prayers allege to work. Prayer is not about compelling God to do anything, and it is not about calling down bad luck on people who do not participate.

There is a lot of “spirituality” in the world around us that could easily lure us away from the truth. We won’t find God’s truth in chain prayers on the internet. When we do get confused by chain prayers or any other “spiritual” words in the news or on television or in our inboxes, we must remember that we cannot listen to every spirit that competes for our attention. There is one who always speaks truth, and that One is the indwelling Holy Spirit. We need to study the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to know how to distinguish truth from lies.

Many people who claim to be spiritual but not Christian are good people by humanist standards. They are kind. They don’t steal. They help others and pay their taxes and would not hurt a fly, let alone a human being. We can enjoy them as neigbors and friends. However, people who do not know Christ cannot guide us into all truth; only the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth can do that. We need to be careful who we listen to.