I began my message on Sunday by asking the congregation to define religion and spirituality. The characteristics of religion that they listed included: dogmatic, rigid, external, knowing, controlling, man-made, rules, rituals, exclusive, organized, social community, and hierarchical. The characteristics of spirituality included: interior, individual, open-ended, experience, inclusive, freedom, peace, feeling joy and love, and intangible. Sadly, Christian culture has consistently emphasized religion and right belief over spirituality and exploration, even though Jesus (I would suggest) was by far more spiritual than religious.
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For Jesus the Kingdom of Heaven was within, loving was the highest ideal to strive for, he spoke to and had physical contact with women, children, the sick and the outcast even though that was against Jewish cleanliness laws. Jesus constantly condemned the religious leaders of the day for being so stuck in their laws as to forget how to be loving and compassionate. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, found within the 50 years among Nag Hammadi scrolls in Egypt, Jesus implores his followers, “Beyond what I have already given you, do not lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, lest you too be dominated by them.” And, yet, Christianity has done just this. It has insisted that we believe in doctrine such as original sin, transubstantiation, the trinity, and the virgin birth, when Jesus said nothing about these things. His “law” was simple, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
Many of you have heard me say that when I started seminary 21 years ago I expected to receive all the answers about God, Jesus, religion and church. I’m sure there are seminaries that would have gladly given me the answers to those things, but I was blessed to have gone to a seminary where they weren’t afraid to teach me to be critical, to question, to challenge, to look at the historical context, to delve deep into the text and the culture, the traditions and the doctrine. In hindsight, I don’t believe they took it far enough, still I learned that there are no hard and fast answers – that was probably the hardest thing, but the most important thing for me to learn.
As I began my work as a pastor, I was exciting to have all kinds of tools for digging deep into scripture and meaning. I was looking forward to a spiritual exploration with people of faith. But I was not prepared for people who didn’t want to do that kind of work. There was a deep fear of asking questions, fear of suggesting that doctrine (that Jesus had nothing to do with) was irrelevant, fear of exploring other ways of looking at God and our spiritual journeys. The indoctrination to be religious NOT spiritual is so strong that the opposite is looked at as heretical and blasphemous.
What I have finally received here at Sacred Journeys is a place where people aren’t afraid to question, explore, learn and challenge. I think churches are afraid that their religions will die if they allow people this freedom… but perhaps it is simply time for the churches to evolve into something that helps people to connect with God at a deeper level. To understand that we need to seek God within ourselves, not be ruled by a God who is outside ourselves. To emphasize intuition, meditation, personal time with God. To truly study scripture so as to understand it more deeply, not just take it at face value with a literal interpretation. To give ourselves freedom and authority over our own spiritual paths. To glean spiritual knowledge from many different paths and people. To simply follow the two commandments that Jesus said were the most important – love God and love your neighbor – and let the rest of our lives fall into place.