Yesterday I reflected a bit on “spiritual” and “religious,” ideas that have spurred several books recently from well known church thinkers. Ideas that seem to point to where “we” are as people of faith – are we spiritual not religious – believe in God in some form but not in the institution of the church? Or religious but not spiritual – believe in the rules of the church but not in the mystery of an unknownable God (well, that might be minimizing the statement, but it points to the essence of the criteria)? Or spiritual and religious – living in the tension of mystery and ambiguity while finding some footing in the teachings and practice of faith community? My reflection was spurred by Joan Chittister’s thoughts on this topic, nuanced by the idea that women have been invisible in much of the church’s teachings on God, religion, and living a life of faith.
This morning, while reading chapter four of “Called to Question” I am captivated by this opening journal entry from Chittister:
We can’t hear mystery, we can’t abide the beneficence of the unknown. We “define” the nature of God, the substance of the Holy Spirit, the persons of Jesus. We dogmatize the unknown and we excommunicate people who dare to wonder. I find it very hard to anymore to abide the dogmatizers though I sometimes admire their sincerity of “faith.” Or is “faith: simply another term for the compulsion to know, and the willingness not to think.
Chittister continues this reflection in chapter four with a look at sin, being sinful, and the messy church teachings that also say that God is all loving, forgiving, and every present. Her struggle is in the idea that sin will be our demise, one wrong sin and we are lost in hell forever. God sits, waiting for us to make a mistake, waiting to catch us in sin, waiting to punish us. Yikes, what kind of a God is this? And how does one reconcile this predatory God with a loving God, a God of compassion? Such thinking is what drove me away from church. I could not reconcile my experience of God, as ever present, consoling compassion, with a God who was waiting to thrust me, or anyone, into the fires of hell.
Figuring out sin, and finding language to talk about it, is crucial to our well being. No doubt there is grave sin, simple sin, all kinds of sin in this world. And each of us sin. Each of use cause brokenness, and contribute to brokenness, in ways known and unknown. Each of us could do a better job of being compassionate and loving.
The key is, as Chittister’s says at the end of the chapter, our willingness to be part of the journey. God is ever present, with us every step of the way, in every mess and situation, and joy – God is present. God, being God, desires for all of life, for every situation, to be – or to be restored too – fullness of health and well-being. To be in a creative order – sky and land and water – teeming with life and ordered for wholeness and well-being. And so when life slips into chaos, as it does, as we do, God is there, turning and returning our brokenness into new life. We are invited to join God in this creative process. We will, of course fail from time to time, but the invitation remains.
But life is not about getting God, life is about growing in God. “God called me from the womb,” Isaiah says, “and from the body of my mother. God named my name…In God I live and move and have my being…There is, I think, a “call: deep in the human heart, a magnet that takes us first to our true selves and from there into a consciousness of the God who is the call…
The spiritual life is much more simple than we might make it. It is simply the ability to abide in the ambiguity of God, trusting that this mysterious God is present with us always.
In spite of the reality that I am rarely convinced by the definitions the church has created to describe God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, I have come to trust the truth of God’s abiding presence because I have found roots in the teachings of the church, in religion. Yeah, I know, this too is an ambiguous statement. I find roots in the teachings of the church even as I am rarely convinced by those teachings. Maybe I am just picking and choosing which teachings to follow – but I don’t think so. I think I am convinced by a line of honest, time tested, teachings – just not by the teachings that push for a narrow God who is male only and lies in wait for us to fail so HE can punish us.
Rather, the confession of many people of faith, who have journeyed through challenges and fear, and loss and despair, and the anxiety and tension over the possibility that there is no God – without that testimony, and the assurance that God is there nonetheless – sustains my faith through the rugged terrain of life. I am anchored in being both religious and spiritual because I have found roots in the teachings that sustain the ambiguity.
I am not a systematic theologian. I am just a priest trying to work out why I am both religious and spiritual. And I wonder, where are you in this? Where are you in the messy teachings of the church and the ambiguity of the spiritual life?