Recently, I attended a talk by author Brian McLaren, a figure in the emergent Christianity movement. He was wondering why religion and spirituality can seem so distant from one another. Frankly, I am beginning to expect that religion and spirituality are destined to remain in conflict, when I think about the nature of the relationship between religion and authority.
I can't help but consider another recent religious encounter of mine. After I befriended an evangelical Christian classmate last semester in a political theory course through some friendly bickering about politics and religion, he insisted that I join him in a discussion group with his pastor. I may have to write a separate blog post or two about that evening later, but for now, what strikes me from the conversation is the pastor's declaration that "Christianity cannot be about morality". The pastor reasoned that since multiple religions not only allow, but encourage, their followers to lead what most people agree to be a moral life, that Christianity cannot primarily be meant to enforce morality.
Finally, I have been reading "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong, and as I told my girlfriend, the major lesson I have learned from Armstrong's book is that I must never again generalize about any religion. With that lesson in mind, I will say that Christianity is a diverse vehicle for many interests and ideas, not only about God, but about humanity. Because Christianity comes in so many forms, perhaps that alone makes it unlikely that spirituality could coexist peacefully with other values.
It is evident that religious teachings contain moral content - even if that content is difficult for its followers to decipher, or if it is difficult for people in the 21st century to decide how to apply the advice of prophets and poets from thousands of years ago. Yet, I tend to agree with my evangelical friend's pastor that in many ways, religion is not just about morality. Another important part of religion I wish to explore is religion's justifications and support for authority.
I do not have a hard time envisioning religion as a set of community standards and practices which can define the values and the identity of a community. Perhaps the process of trying to reach a better understanding of God/gods mirrors the process of individuals trying to reconcile their own interests with the interests of their communities.
When the religion of a community echoes the identity and the values of a culture, it is not surprising that the existence of people who do not embrace the dominant religion would feel threatening, and frighten a society. Perhaps, to those members of the dominant religion, the people rejecting the local religion are also rejecting the local culture, tradition, and identity. Perhaps, from their perspective, those unbelievers are literally destroying the social fabric itself, which provides their lives with meaning and purpose.
If you believe the Gospels, you will witness how the Jewish authorities of Jesus's day mistrusted Jesus and deeply felt that his actions were undermining and eroding the local culture. When Jesus overturned the tables at the synagogue, when Jesus spent time with tax collectors and women of unfavorable reputations, when Jesus associated himself with the despised officials of imperial Rome...when Jesus did all those things, he was acting against his culture and tradition, undermining not only the power of his culture, but the stability of its authorities.
If you believe the Qu'ran, you will witness how Muhammad (pbuh) was chased from Mecca to Medina. His insistence that there is only one God, instead of a multitude of gods, must have absolutely driven people mad with anger and resentment. Why would someone interfere so radically and wildly against society's most dear and sacred practices? Why would someone callously seek to destroy the elaborately devised system of religious tribute and tradition which had been so carefully maintained?
How can spirituality coexist peacefully with authority? Authority thrives when individuals do not question their relationships. Spirituality thrives when individuals question everything, in the name of greater awareness, understanding, and closeness to God or other forces. It is impossible to practice religious mysticism in a condition of blind and passive acceptance. Where is the mystery in the faith then? Where does the mystery go, when the Emperors and the kings and the Presidents tell you exactly what to believe?
No thanks. Because I refuse to accept the religious answers of a majority of my society, I will probably never win a political office, and many members of my culture will despise me and wonder how I could be a moral and loving person - but I will remain free to help create a new social fabric. I will remain free to help expand human cooperation, respect, and brotherhood, in any way that I choose - just as Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh) chose to do, at the risk of their possessions, their families, and their lives, so many years ago. As those prophets chose before me, I choose to exercise the authority of freedom and true spirituality.