This is the sixth post in a series. Click here for part 1.
Doctrine … depending on where you stand spiritually, the word could be either good or evil. To the spiritual but not religious crowd, it probably invokes images of some spiritual leader poking a bony finger in our face and telling us that we are on our way to hell if we do not affirm that his favorite brand of mayonnaise is the very brand that God loves. (It strikes me as odd how often God agrees with fundamentalists… but I digress). In all seriousness however we find that the term doctrine, or its companion dogma, inspires indigestion in those who hunger for spirituality yet at the same time have come to see teaching/doctrine/dogma as something counterproductive to that.
Honestly, I can totally identify. In a sea of relativism where the spiritual seeker seeks something to cling to, some point on the horizon to swim towards, it seems that the religious have often majored in minors. Rather than offering something substantive to nourish our growing spirituality, it seems that at times religion has encumbered us with weights that hinder rather than help. I must admit that I am among those who are spiritual, at the same time however I love religion. As author John M Sweeney says in his book Almost Catholic:
I know plenty of people who are “spiritual and not religious” and many more who have discarded organized religion altogether because they have been hurt or have felt misled. I sympathize with all of them – I’ve been there myself. Spirituality is full of promise as we ourselves are, and that usually feels good. Religion, meanwhile, will probably always be a mess, a lure for the power hungry, and hierarchical beyond all that seems reasonable. Nevertheless, I am spiritual and I also love religion. I love what Thomas Howard calls “the ancient Church and all that she holds for us in liturgy, her teaching, her disciplines, her devotions, and her spiritual writings.”
Religion does not have to be an ugly term. In fact religion can be a beautiful thing. The traditions and pageantry that often accompany religion can be a combination of poetry, art and the best things about humanity. The cultural traditions that religions embody are often priceless. Very often in our spiritual but not religious world, there is a lack of depth that these traditions offer. The “wisdom of ages” as Clark Strand puts it in an article for the Huffington Post:
The spiritual-but-not-religious are often out of their depth when it comes to the weightier moments of life. There’s no time-tested ritual, no ceremony everybody knows that allows their spiritual charges to just sink down into the experience and let the wisdom of the ages carry them body-and-soul to the other side of bliss or loss or whatever. Your average mindfulness instructor might figure it out with enough practice (after all, they’re usually smart people with one or two advanced degrees). But what about in the meantime? Well, let’s be charitable and say they’re most likely making it up as they go along.
Very often hidden within the symbolism and mystery of traditional religion is the very wisdom that we are looking for on our spiritual journeys. Things that cannot be described in a thesis or theological position paper. Things that are deep and spiritual and speak to us without words. They say things to us that we may not even be able to fully share with others in words. Which leads us to another beauty of religion – sharing that knowing with others who know as well. Religion can offer us community, a place to belong and fellows to journey with us. Companions who can affirm our moments of enlightenment and that help us to communicate these experiences with one another.
Of course there is the other side of this – the ugly side; or perhaps we should call it another approach. The fundamentalist side that makes religion into a weapon to hurt or a wall to divide rather than a language to communicate and a structure to share. To stress the point however, the difference is the approach. The mystical approach to Theology is, after all, the mystical approach to religion as well. What we believe about God will affect how we practice our faith, and how we practice our faith will affect what we believe about God. The mystical approach to religion then admits the same fundamental principle as does the mystical approach to Theology – that God is infinite mystery. Our practice (religion) then is participating in that Mystery. If what we derive from our religion is how wrong others are and how right we are, then we have no doubt missed the point all together. We should rather be as the Holy Prophet Isaiah when he sees the glory of the Lord: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am silenced! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.'” Awe, humility and profound joy – these are the fruits of true religion.