Religion and Spirituality

This is a question that always ‘bugs’ me and makes me think. I often come across “apologists” who try to back you into a corner with the usual dilemma – my way or the highway. All or nothing. You can only be either a fully committed card-carrying church Christian, or you have to be an atheist, an evil person, whatever – at least a pile of trash!

C.S. Lewis in his time was much more intelligent and sensitive with the apologetics than many are nowadays. You have to have the direction from the Church’s authority, otherwise, left to your own devices, you will become bad. He uses the analogy of going to sea with a chart – you have to read and understand the chart, and above all, follow it. I have myself been writing about the art and science of nautical navigation, and it’s quite complex. As applied mathematics, you get it right or you get it wrong. If you foul up on your calculations, you get lost.

Are “unchurched” people necessarily navigating the Pacific Ocean without a sextant and chart? I would say, not necessarily. People do what they do for different reasons. I find it quite hard to take criticism levelled at hermits or people spending their lives at sea, either because they are “socially handicapped” or they simply do something in life that causes them to be alone. Perhaps one does get the cocky type of person who despises any kind of authority or guidance, and this would be reprehensible and sinful, a kind of sociopathy in a mild form. Most are either “burned children dreading the fire” or have simply grown up somewhere else.

I often wonder what I would do if I were not a priest. I would then have to find a community in which to worship, and to which I could relate socially. Of course there is the local parish, and I would feel as alien to it as to the Buddhists or the Muslims. A Benedictine abbey? You can attend services, and even go to confession to a monk and have spiritual direction. But the lay worshippers come and go. They come only for the liturgy. So the solution is to move into town, the capital city, where churches are cosmopolitan enough to welcome strangers and make them part of the community. The point I am making is that we do not live in the same circumstances or have the same possibilities available. Then some people have to live in countries where Christianity isn’t allowed because of their job, or they spend months at sea without a chaplain or even other seamen wanting to get together for a prayer group.

Is being Christian being socially connected, involved in all manner of humanitarian activities and local community? Are we all of the same temperament? It is generally assumed that people who don’t go to church are hostile, indifferent or lazy. Or course the Church cannot be wrong, so it isn’t wrong. It’s the little people who are to blame and their addiction to TV, entertainment, consumer goods, pleasure, sports, celebrities and so forth. Give them a good war or take everything away, and that will do the trick! I don’t think World War II made any more converts than it did atheists.

Many people have been alienated from church all their lives, and use religious language differently, and we know how steamed up Christians get over the meanings of words and expressions! The secular world uses the word dogma to mean a moralising and domineering attitude. It simply means a teaching or doctrine to use the Latin word. Dogmatic theology is a different discipline from moral theology. But we have to see through words and language, understand what people mean in their concepts behind the improperly used words.

There is a legitimate subjective experience of God and the community known as the Church. Most of us were brought up in a tradition according to where we were born and our local culture. I was born into an Anglican family, baptised as a baby in the family’s parish church and spent a not very religious childhood. Church buildings and music attracted me, but cliquishness and stuffiness put me right off. That is my own experience, and it influences the way I think and write, and why I sympathise with those who have been burned by church.

Unlike the apologists, I understand why some make a distinction between religion and spirituality, as I make a distinction between exoteric Christianity and esoteric Christianity, between the democracy and aristocracy of the spirit. When we are told the exoteric is the only way, then we grow out of it. When the outer liturgy and church culture nurture and form our internal life, then outer and inner grow together into a whole. I hardly see that possibility in almost all parish churches and even most monasteries.

Some have found their peace and joy in their spiritual life, whatever form that life might take – if only for the person in question. They are serene and have no fear of death. They are connected to nature and the people around them, whether they are religious or secular. God is a part of life and life is a part of God, at least by way of analogy.

Others have been burned and are angry or bitter. Apologists tell them they are sinners and trash – and bound for hell. They are confirmed in their anguish. It will cost the armchair inquisitor dearly – he will go to hell himself for the damage he caused others! Some find they can “save” God only if they leave religious practice and the church. People have been punished, persecuted, hurt, confused, disillusioned, and emotionally or psychologically damaged in God’s name. God has been blamed, unfairly, for the sins of the church. And, I am not just talking about sex abuse of vulnerable persons. I am talking about the way many priests and religious have been treated and ended up on “ecclesial death row”. The Church is no more free from bullies and psychopaths than banks, big business and politics.

What is spirituality? It is not simply a branch of theology called “ascetic theology”, a kind of appendix to moral theology. It is the very life of a human person, the freedom of the spirit to transcend the base material world and evil forces. We are all hungry for the life of the spirit, and experience alienation and insecurity if we are denied expression and the right to be what we are. Spirituality is not an add-on, to be controlled by the institutional Church, but our very being.

If we can relate to the Church via a “man-machine interface” as it would be called in industry and technology, all the better. But, man will not be extinguished and become an unperson (as George Orwell put it) just because he was unable to conform to teachings or imperatives from the Church that violate and rape his spirit.

This is why people need to be free in their fundamental choices regarding the Church, or one church or another. I respect people who do not go to church, and I find religious marketing something obscene and distasteful. The more anyone comes at me, the more I go the other direction. I may not be a good priest, and I am only in a canonical relationship with a church whose very existence seems precarious. One demon writing comments on a blog affirms that the CDF was right to refuse me a nulla osta. I never asked for one, and I have never received a letter saying that the CDF granted me one or refused it.

I fully understand the “unchurched”. It is better that they go it alone and find peace and union with God than go to a church and find nothing but bitterness and dead men’s bones. When the bullies lay off, maybe someone may be able to live the Gospel and communicate it without saying a single word. An act of kindness? Some sign of love and beauty and goodness? Generosity?

Well, I’ll read the comments and take it from there.

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7 Responses to Religion and Spirituality

  1. Derek Olsen says:

    This makes a lot of sense to me. The precise relationship between “religion” and “spirituality” is a complicated one.

    A lot of folks are trying to recover from ham-handed experiences of the institutional church. Some people come to me and tell me that they’re thinking of entering discernment/training to be priests and ask what sort of formation is helpful. Among other things, I tell them that I don’t think anyone should be ordained who hasn’t been seriously screwed over by the church at least three times. On one hand, these experiences prepare them for the further damage the church will inflict in their lives as priests; on the other, it helps them to be more sympathetic with parishioners/questioners when they are wrestling with such issues…

    • I’m very happy to hear from you, Derek. What I find most obscene in the institutional Church is they’ll ordain you if you’re “green” and a pawn in the system, having never known anything else. But, giving consideration to the “New Goliards” will never be so, because human beings are an expendable commodity, just like in secular big business and politics. Where’s Jesus and the Gospel?

  2. Neil S Hailstone says:

    There is much here that strikes a chord with me. So much so that I have permitted myself an exception from my ‘No posting on any Blogs rule’. I am myself unchurched for the last 6 months.

    I know many people who identify themselves as Christians and have no wish to rejoin or enter the existing Denominations. I think listening to people that the main reason is all forms of extremism and fundamentalism. Daft ‘I’m saved but your doomed’ authoritarianism.

    This is well covered in the article and I will not attempt to add to it. In the case of the Church of England it is the extremist ‘liberals’ who will countenance no opposition or any diversity of viewpoint and exhibit a spiteful eagerness to trample on the individual’s conscience. This caused my own exodus. Examples abound elsewhere and this is by no means confined to liberal extremism. Indeed there are hordes of infallible little ‘Popelings’ to be found all over the Christian Church.

    I would say that it is very possible to live one’s Christian life without formal church membership and many do. I can understand this. I’m not sure whether I would wish to remain apart from formal membership permanently but it may come to that. I cannot say that my life appears to have worsened during the last 6 months. I have a daily prayer routine and try to live a Christian life not by any means always succeeding.

    If the Union of Scranton should come to England as I have hoped and prayed it will then that could be a possible way back to formal church membership. I think Fr. ‘A’s use of the word ‘timid’ to describe their efforts when a constituency waits in hope for their arrival is unduly benign.

    Am I to become a New Goliard ? I ask myself. Well I’ve been looking at the history of the older variety. Mmmmm! True history is often distorted by polemic we know for certain but from what I have been reading I wouldn’t be able to pass the drinking and riotous behaviour test. I’m no Puritan don’t get me wrong – a glass or three of good wine now and then is always appreciated.

    • Neil, Thank you for your candid comment. Many are made to suffer because of the lack of empathy of people who call themselves Christians and monopolise churches. Knowing what things are like in England, I would liken you to a man at sea, like those who go on a transport ship from Southampton to Australia, South Africa or China. They spend months at sea and there is rarely a chaplain on board. If a seaman wishes to practice his faith, he would read his Bible, spend moments in prayer and carry out his duties faithfully. That is all many can do.

      Of course, what I mean by New Goliards is priests and other clerics who find themselves unchurched, and not always living a riotous or sinful life. Try to find a monastery when you are travelling and attend their Office. There are a few in England, both Anglican and RC.

    • I empathize with your alienation. I have been where you are (although I was, at that time, attending, but not a member of, a Byzantine Rite, chalcedonian Orthodox parish). In my case, I did not receive Holy Communion for approximately one year, and it was hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ that forced me to make a move in order to be fed.

  3. Neil S Hailstone says:

    Thank you Fr. Gregory. That was a supportive and helpful comment and I appreciate it.

  4. Neil S Hailstone says:

    In further violation of my No Posting Rule I would like to add the following. For seven years I was involved in the largest reenactment society in Europe which staged battles and skirmishes which occurred during the 17th Century English Civil War. On the Royalist side of course. I mean what can you say about the other lot who regarded Church Bells as a form of superstition and Mince Pies as a vain Popish Invention. I was the Provost Marshall in Col. Sir Henry Bard’s Hys Regimente of Foote a Cotswolds Regiment formed in Chipping Camden. In addition to smiting the opposition, members of the Regiment and other members engaged in serious historical studies.

    One clear fact which emerged was the total intolerance of the Rule of the Puritans in England.

    I recall research showing that a congregational minister carefully sifted through his congregation in London and found only two octogenarian ladies ‘fit’ to remain. Meanwhile, of course, Rood Screens were being destroyed, altars profaned , crucifixes burnt and artworks destroyed, and Mathew Hopkins very busy executing ‘Witches’, so far as we could discern harmless elderly ladies.
    This is where authoritarianism in the Christian church can lead. You have it in this day and age. Only one way permitted. Believe otherwise and your only fit to be discriminated against, chucked out or worse.

    The similarities with fascism are striking but I won’t go there as these have been well set out elsewhere on this blog.


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