Saturday, July 12, 2014

Boring Rocks and Amazing Spiritual Encounters

The blindingly frustrating, yet brilliant thing about Jesus is that, while he gives us hints on how to live our lives, he is largely inexplicit on details -- even when it comes to something as important as what his church should be like.

I was reminded of this by a blog link, "Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." recently sent by a friend.

As I argued earlier in this blog, I see Jesus' fundamental rule being to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. When you look to Jesus' life and words to eke out more details, often you'll find ambiguous parables and metaphors.

One of these is a foundation for Christian churches and leads the blog by +Lillian Daniel that my friend sent me. It's Jesus' pun, namely that Peter (whose name Greek name was very close to the word for 'rock') was the rock upon which he would build his church.

Aside from being one of the most consequential puns in history, whatever did--and does--it mean? What were the details of Jesus' vision of his church--beyond Peter's saying he believed Jesus was the son of the living God? (In the preceding verses, Peter had given this reply when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and this prompted Jesus' quoted pun at Matthew 16:18.)

In her blog entry, Ms. Daniel, a minister in the United Church of Christ, says she favors the company of church-goers and takes issue with people who are "spiritual but not religious." For her, churches offer a more challenging, rich place to work out spiritual experience than does "having deep thoughts all by oneself."
"What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself." 
I pretty much agree with Ms. Daniel. Where church is done right, spirituality is challenging and people find inspiration and help in living out their faith in the world. They are the better for it, and so are the people around them--just as debaters at the Oxford Union hone and inform their citizenship and understanding of politics more sharply than do folks who grumble alone at the 6 o'clock news.

Daniel does get a bit snarky in her caricature of spiritual but not religious people:
"Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating."
I would raise my hand to this, guilty as charged. These days I spend a lot more time in solitary contemplation of my spiritual navel than I do in church. And were I to go back to church, I think my preference would be for the Society of Friends, where the spiritual working out is done within the silence of your own head, although your head is part of a congregation.

Ms. Daniel characterises the spiritual-but-not-religious as boring and uniform -- dazzled by pretty sunsets but missing God as encountered by and through others, past and present. This is the reward for her brave church people, whose companionship she prefers, especially in difficult times.
"Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church."
I would say two things to Ms. Daniel: First, far too frequently, what goes on in religious institutions is not "church done right" and has little or nothing to do with working out one's spiritual stuff or even kindly putting up with one another. And second, by instantly tuning out the "spiritual but not religious" she may be missing a profound opportunity to develop her own faith, as well as to demonstrate the love and finding-God-with others that should be at the core of her Christian faith--the very experience she treasures in church. [And I won't mention the possibility that this might be the way to start opening bridges between the churched and spiritual-but-not-religious.]

 As I've written before, the list of reasons people have abandoned -- or chosen not to explore -- religions is probably as long as the list of people who've done so. As Ms. Daniel says, some find ancient religious practice dull. But others are discouraged by hypocrisy when they encounter church folks who fail to respect their neighbors, much less love their enemies. Some walk away deeply hurt by churches preoccupied with the judgment and condemnation of other people's sins. Others despair at churches that focus on the rewards of heaven while ignoring urgent human needs here and now. Some churches are little more than social clubs -- no less, but no more spiritually salubrious than the W.I., the PTA, or the Rotary Club. I don't mean this as an insult. Social interaction is a good and healthy thing.

I've found that even within denominations, churches vary enormously. Some really are places where you're encouraged to do the brave working out of spirituality -- to thrash out your own translation of Jesus' metaphors into the daily living of your life. Sadly, most churches, as I've experienced them, would really prefer that you check your brain at the door. Please don't challenge the minister or other members of the congregation. Please don't make a fuss. Please don't be different. Please don't be yourself. Please don't get personal or too honest as you work out your spiritual stuff. Let's stick to the script and keep this superficial, like we've always done it.

It's not just my perception. Anglican priests at the last deanery synod I attended said leaders of the diocese are focused on:

  • getting more people into church
  • maintaining old church buildings
  • worrying about the ageing of their congregations
  • getting folks to give enough money to keep the church going

This just doesn't seem like what Jesus had in mind for his church, and hardly the "true and lively word." In fact, unlike Jesus and his work, unlike a beautiful sunset, and unlike a selfish hour spent in the small world of my own brain, it's... well... boring. As for the commonplace rush of spiritual impetus inspired by nature, I'd say it's a great place to start. Maybe if she just fanned that little flame a bit...

So now I imagine myself plunked down on an airplane seat next to Ms. Daniel in her clerical collar. She finds spiritual-but-not-religious people boring and knows the odds are good that I will fall in this category. I see her collar and presume that she's caught up with the mind-numbing details of running a typical, park-your-brain-and-shut-up church. We both take out our books. We don't speak to one another, expand our spirituality, or extend our love beyond our own little tribe.

And thus it is that we both miss out on the opportunity to listen kindly, patiently, and deeply. We don't
Random gift of kindness from a stranger
on the train from Carlisle
. After we chat-
ted about the beautiful starry ceiling in
Carlisle cathedral, a lovely lady crocheted
 this copy for me.
hear about the other's extraordinary experiences of creation--sunsets or otherwise. We don't hear about their profound, humbling human encounters -- how they lucked into a random act of kindness, or witnessed amazing love and gentleness in the care of a dying friend. We don't hear that story about how, when everyone else gave up, those foster kids are turning their lives around. Our spirituality bears no fruit.

As happens in 99.9% of human encounters, we fail to find holy ground in the very place we are--outside of church ... away from an inspiring sunset ...  in the presence of a stranger. Our lazy assumptions about the other's spirituality stop us from reaching what might be the real rock that Jesus meant was the cornerstone of his church: two people encountering one another in faith and love, suspending pretence and prejudice, asking important questions, and accepting the vulnerability of honest answers. If that's the Rock Jesus had in mind, "church" and "spirituality" could be found in human encounters everywhere and anywhere. Maybe not what church leaders, my friend, or Ms. Daniel have in mind, but it rocks my boat.


  1. Very eloquent and obviously heartfelt. As a secular humanist of longstanding, I agree with you entirely.