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Friday, September 05, 2008

Mistaking Worship for Spirituality?

Over the Christmas holidays, I have the occasion to visit my father's church for the Christmas Eve service. It's been a ritual for me now for several years. I'm not Christian, but he is, and that's what he does on Christmas Eve, so "when in Rome," I do as my father does. I visit then as it seems as good a time as any to visit, and I did grow up celebrating Christmas every year, even though I never really bought into all the mythology.

I think I've noticed it before, but last year (2007) I found the experience particularly depressing. It's a Baptist denomination, and my father's second wife is the musical director there. Upon reflection, I think I may have figured out just exactly what it is about the experience that I find so depressing.

It seemed to me that the people there were there because they were looking for spirituality. I suppose in reality, people go to church for a variety of reasons, so I guess I'm projecting here what I would think that people who go to church would be after. Yet I found extraordinarily little spirituality there, and in fact, it seemed to me that what that church was offering was actually the antithesis of spirituality-- worship, which seems to me to be quite a different thing. A Sociology class I once took defined "ritualism" as "abandoning the ends, and embracing the means." It strikes me that "spiritualism" is the ends, and "worship" is seen as the means in churches like my dads. It seems to me simply that churches like this one have a serious conflict of interest going on where "spirituality" is concerned.

There is an old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you will feed him for the rest of his life." To me, a proper "church" should be teaching people to be more spiritual, not feeding them a spiritual "fish" every Sunday. In fact though, it seems to me that they really don't even do that. But the danger is, if people really did in fact become more spiritual, they may have less need of the church and churches are overdependent on attendance to risk any of that. In fact, the more successful church may be one that actually reduces spirituality, even if inadvertently, because its attendees would be ever that more dependent on the weekly experience if they are convinced that spirituality is to be found in there somewhere, eventually.

At one point in the Christmas Eve service, the congregation was given candles to light and the pastor referred to the "light of Jesus." The service consisted of some singing, a little talk by the pastor, and this candle lighting ceremony as it does every year. The pastor's talk centered mostly on the "gift" given to "us" by Jesus. Apparently, without this "gift," our lives would be empty (my first thought was "what do you mean WE, Kemosabe?"). It seemed to me that it should be odd that a representative of a church would suggest that and undermine any other source of spirituality one might muster-- yet is explained by the aforementioned conflict of interest. During the candle ceremony, another Chinese proverb came to mind, "better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness." It seemed to me that essentially, "worship" in this church was overtly motivated by a hope for reward-- and perhaps at times a fear of punishment. Neither of these sentiments seem to me to be what I would deem "spiritual," and are instead in my opinion, base emotions that I would think should not be encouraged as appropriate reasons to believe by an institution that represents itself as "spiritual."

So then I gave some thought as to what I think of personally when I think what "spirituality" actually is. Actually, I'm inclined to use a different term-- a "sense of spirit." I see it as not unlike a "sense of humor," in that some people seem to be born with it, others never seem to get it, and the rest are somewhere in between and can learn to develop it. For me, it is the awe and wonder of the universe we are in, most often invoked in my case when I learn more of the scientific knowledge that we are learning about it. That, and the feeling I get when either creating something, such as music or art, or appreciating something that someone else has created, such as a great work of art, music or architecture. There is a wondrous feeling in creating things, and all the more so if some of those things come out really great (which may happen now and then with some luck or practice)-- and there is a wondrous feeling in exploring and understanding what nature has created, whether or not there is a universal "consciousness" behind it all. Given that, I must say I've found Carl Sagan or Richard Fenyman, or just about any artist to be much more "spiritual" than say, C. S. Lewis, or certainly, Rick Warren. Perhaps I've been lucky in that as I have always enjoyed creating things, and maybe I am more "in tune" with "creation" than many people, and consequently that is why I have not ever really had a driving need to "find" something in a spiritual sense, as I gather many people have. I would think a true "spiritual" institution should not be a one-sided exposition where a free exchange of ideas is not encouraged. What risk would a "spiritual" institution actually have if it were to encourage this sort of spirituality and perhaps be a little less certain about its monopoly on "TRUTH"?

Some say that what a church offers is a "sense of community." The comment in itself seems to be somewhat of an apologetic for otherwise discriminatory behavior. A proper spiritualist institution, in my opinion, should not be an enclave either designed to isolate the congregation from the "outside world," or to treat those who may have differing beliefs differently-- many churches do encourage followers to "tell about their conversion," or witness, but would they encourage someone who believes differently to tell about their conversion to, say Buddhism? I've found that there are people with good hearts from all creeds, religions and non-religions. It is the larger "community" of those people that I would want to include in any "community" group to which I would want to be associated. Some institutions apparently judge one first based on what they believe, and second on what's in their heart-- I on the other hand feel that what one believes is not nearly as important as what's in their heart. Many people have changed their religions, it is not particularly uncommon. I expect though, that a Buddhist with a good heart who converts to Christianity retains their "good heart," as does a Christian with good heart that converts to Buddhism. Some claim that a conversion to their religion may change one's heart, but I seriously wonder to what extent that is really true-- or where true, to what extent the particularity of the religion makes any difference. To say, "you're acceptable, as long as you believe X," is not the sort of measure I like to use (or see used) when valuing other people.

I guess a lot of people feel that something is "broken" in their lives, and would really like there to be some kind of super "Mr. Fixit" with a magic wand to help. Certainly, if the 1960s taught those of us who remember it anything, it is that a little chemistry can have pretty significant effects. Since then it's been learned that there are many chemical and hormonal imbalances that can occur during a persons lifetime that can cause all sorts of significant effects that are sometimes taken to be personal failings. It is not uncommon for individuals after significant physical events, such as traumatic accidents, surgeries or giving birth, to suffer bouts of imbalances that may cause them to get into fights with their families and then feel guilty about it afterward, to be sad for no apparently reason, to be extraordinarily happy for no apparent reason only to feel bad shortly thereafter, or to otherwise become what is often deemed as "moody." In many families, the ensuing conflicts can be taken personally simply because there is too little understanding of what is going on. I think that what most people probably need more than anything else is people who will a) understand, and b) not hold such things against them. A church is really not a place that comes to my mind when considering those particular qualities.

Undoubtedly, many churches are connected to charities that do a lot of good things in the world. I am certainly not opposed in the slightest to helping the poor, the hungry, the sick, victims of natural disasters or of oppressive political regimes, that's certainly something I think we all could stand to do more of. I question though, what religion has to do with any of that. What I'm most interested in when examining a charitable organization is understanding exactly where my money goes so that it is actually spent on the problems it claims to address-- and not on irrelevant or even counterproductive distractions like evangelizing or proselytizing or too much bureaucracy.

There may be churches that do not have these problems, and possibly some of my impressions here are mistaken. No doubt I've a myopic view of my dad's church since I've only been a handful of times. I grew up going to an Episcopal church a bit, but there was not a lot of pressure to do so as my parents really weren't all that into it themselves-- my mom grew up in a pretty religious family but her parents didn't believe in "organized" religion, and my dad was raised Catholic-- Episcopal for me was apparently seen as a compromise which didn't really address either of their concerns. I never really found the churches claims believable, and I don't think you can "decide" or "wish" what to believe, you either find things to be believable or you do not. It seems that many churches deem a person's difficulty to "believe" to be a failing, which is pretty convenient in instilling a continued need for someone to return every week and "shore up" this failing. Also, I've always found the singing in church rather annoying-- perhaps it gives people something to do when they could instead be discovering how to be more spiritual, but I don't happen to like to sing and I find the music to be far more tedious than inspiring-- another thing I find rather odd and depressing about the church experience. Some have apparently tried to "upgrade" their music with guitar, drums and bass, but I really don't think that's helped.

I find there are far more accepting, inclusive, and inspiring groups that offer a "sense of community." In fact, it is often the very fact that they are more accepting and inclusive that makes them more inspiring. As far as feeling spiritual, I find that looking up in the sky on a dark cloudless night when away from the big city, creating something, or learning something new, achieves that effect far better than any church I've as yet encountered.