A friend of mine has asked me to talk to him about spirituality and his search for a better way of living. We have agreed that I will provide some thoughts on this subject and he will teach me some music in return! This is an excellent arrangement! Our conversation involves a discussion of the nature and claims of religious faith. This has got me pondering all this and wanting to put my own thinking in order. Here’s my take on the basic theme: spirituality and religion – and how the Church fits in.
What is the nature of reality? Is reality simply what we can see, touch and measure or is there a greater, interior, largely invisible truth to be discovered? Spirituality is a word that describes this concern and the practice that results from actively pursuing an answer to that question. It seeks to experience and be changed by an authentic connection with a deeper reality. Spirituality describes a pretty large territory and range of activities and concerns. Religion offers a map for that territory, a particular line of enquiry or set of convictions and practices that are believed to open up the truth and allow that authentic connection. Those convictions usually centre on claims about the existence, nature and expectations of God. So religion is spirituality in a particular tradition of belief and practice.
The heart of both is the search for the real. The search builds on the persistent intuition that there is more to life than is evident in the noise of everyday life. This intuition, this nagging voice, is, perhaps, even more quietly insistent amidst the distractions, the paraphernalia, the bland assumptions, the pointless hustle, the garish and sensational experiences and spectacles that seem to characterise modern western life. Spirituality invites us to put all that aside, to look afresh, to be quiet, to listen, to get in touch with the real. It invites us not to change ourselves (impossibly hard work), but to be changed by contact with reality, by drawing from a deeper well. This is what prayer and meditation is all about. And I find it both compelling and very difficult – because I like (or am addicted to) a lot of the noise.
Religions all tell us that the world is not what it appears to be. Christ tells us that this is, contrary to normal assumption, a world in which the poor are blessed, the last shall be first, where tragedy strikes, but where life finally defeats death and joy is our birthright. It is a world in which we can be happy even amidst difficulty. Is this right? We are invited to consider this not as an intellectual claim, but to open our minds, our eyes and our ears and find out.
The challenge for religion is to remember that its purpose is to seek the truth rather than maintain a set of dogmas. The truth can never be contained in a formula and all religions are a signpost, not the reality. This does not mean that a faith should not hold particular convictions or have some boundaries, but that they must be held in the knowledge that neither God nor reality can be confined. This is an acute problem for organised religion because it is an institution and institutions, by their nature, become more concerned for their own protection and preservation than the purpose and values that created them. The formula and habitual practice become what matters. That is why they must be continually renewed and that is difficult for most religious bodies.
But here’s the other side of it: spirituality is about connection, not isolation. We are richer by far if we explore this path in company, with the help of wise and knowledgeable people and in an environment that creates at least a little discipline and discourages us from going off down some loony by-way. That is why the Church, for all its faults, is a good thing and why I still call it home.
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