Monday, January 18, 2010

spirituality vs. religion

In the title, the "vs." means "in comparison to" as opposed to "against" or "opposing." My thought today is to compare what the two different things mean to me and how they are applied in my life.

To me, spirituality and religion are often very separate entities from one another. For many years, I did not attend any kind of church. As you know from reading here, I was raised Irish Catholic, which I thought was a more rigid, stringent kind of Catholicism practiced in Rome. Yes, the pope was in charge of everyone, but I got the message early on that the Irish version of anything was bigger, badder and better than the other, more mundane ones. But I digress.

To me, religion is the shared stuff that people do in order (or in an effort) to have a shared spiritual experience. Religion is the church and the altar, the words of familiar prayers and the motions of the rituals. All have some base in history, whether in ancient rituals borrowed from other religions or from the practical realities of the day. Historians tend to agree that Jesus was probably born in the spring, but Christmas happens in December because the early Christians wanted to co-opt the familiar and popular solstice, or yule celebration and they knew that new converts would be more likely to stay if there were some familiar, if not identical, holidays to celebrate. Flowers and incense at funerals were instituted for more practical reasons than spiritual ones. After several days of the mourning of the departed's friends and family, and particularly in the warm middle-eastern clime, well, let's just say that folks were happy for the heady aromas of fresh flowers and burning incense.

In the Old Testament, many of the behavioral prohibitions and Kosher laws were likewise rooted in basic survival. Bowls were made of wood. When you kept meat in one and it turned rancid, bacteria absorbed into the wood and did bad things to the milk you put in that same bowl later. In the times when the OT was being written, there was no anti-bacterial soap, nor was there an understanding of why a lot of things happened. But people learned that if you did the meat/milk/same bowl thing, people got sick and sometimes died, so they made rules against it. Done. Same goes for prohibitions around shellfish. With no refrigeration and with no understanding of bacteria (think Red Tide) people often died if they tried to eat shellfish. So, in Leviticus, it was outlawed.

In early times, Jews were very concerned about survival as a race of people. Anything that did not lead directly to procreation was forbidden. And when you consider what the infant mortality rate must have been for a people wandering in the desert for 40 years, a couple would need to have lots of babies just to ensure that three or four lived to adulthood and would be able to care for their parents as they aged. Children born out of wedlock were "illegitimate" (a horrible term and concept if ever there was one) and not allowed to participate fully in society, so sex outside marriage was forbidden. Gay sex did not lead to babies, so it was forbidden. Not understanding the powers of testes to continually produce sperm and fearing a shortage, masturbation was forbidden.

Religion, thus, is often a strange assortment of rules that may or may not have practical meaning in today's world, but have strong cultural and historical importance to those who practice a particular faith.

In my Catholic world, the fasting period of Lent was to remind us of Jesus' suffering. Fish on Fridays was a construct by a long-ago pope to prop up the Italian fishing industry, but many Catholics today still have fish on Friday (or forgo meat) as a way to do some voluntary suffering to remind themselves of the suffering of their Savior. Purgatory was also a construct - there is no mention of it in the bible that I know of - to raise money. My aunt takes her belief in purgatory to a level that boggles my mind. She will offer up periods of suffering in her life (like a trip to the dentist, sans Novocaine!) for the souls in purgatory. If truth be told, I think she might be trying to pay ahead on my account. I don't get it. Some people just like to suffer for their religion.

I always figured god and religion were supposed to relieve suffering, not heap more on.

And for some, that suffering, and those religious practices are loaded with enormous meaning and spiritual experience. I can remember the feeling of joy in my heart that I would feel on Easter Sunday with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. What gratitude there was, what joy at being redeemed! My feeling about Christian holidays is muted now. I no longer believe in many of the things dictated by the dogma. I no longer have that faith.

The faith I have now is more nebulous, and while it is disconcerting at times, I like it better than the rigid set of rules and doctrine that many religions require. To me, those rigid rules don't allow for a lot of diversity in how the divine might present itself to us, and I cannot imagine a deity being confined to the rules set out by one faith or another. In bumper sticker language: god is too big to fit in one religion.

The religion I practice today seems to fit best with my rather fluid spirituality. It is not for everyone, but for me, for now, the Unitarian Universalists seem to fit the bill. They (we) have principles we affirm and strive to achieve, not rules we require people to adhere to. I don't know that I have ever heard of anyone being excommunicated from the UUs, although occasionally people are so disruptive that they are asked to leave the sanctuary. That is a rarity, though.

There are some rituals involved in the worship services at my church. A candle (or oil lamp) in a large chalice is lit at the beginning of each service, and extinguished when it is done. There are responsive readings and hymns and people stand and sit at various points. There is a period of silent meditation and there are prayers, but I have not noticed yet if there is a larger formula to how it all works.

When I prepare a service, I compile what is called a "hymn sandwich," meaning there is a standard recipe familiar to each congregation. First there is the welcoming words, the chalice lighting and a hymn, then a kids' story, then another hymn, then a reading, and a prayer and meditation and maybe one more hymn, then the offering and the sermon, then one more hymn to get everybody back on their feet, some closing words, the extinguishing of the chalice and we all go have coffee (and sometimes donuts) in the community room. There is a formula. It varies from church to church, but it is there. And woe to the one who mixes up a church's hymn sandwich!

Religion, I guess, seems more about man and less about god.

Spirituality seems to be more about god and less about man.

Religion is about values and rules and rituals and history and community and shared experience. Religion is about doing good works and supporting charities and being part of a community of souls who bring comfort to one another.

Spirituality, TO ME, is a more personal, contemplative kind of thing. I can go to church and be inspired, yes, but it seems that the majority of what I call "spiritual" time in my life is solitary. It is me alone with my thoughts and my higher power. Sometimes I am working, sometimes I am driving, sometimes I am reading, and sometimes I am still.

Church, or religion, TO ME, is about how all that is wrapped and packaged. It is about putting the truths I know into action. It is about acting out my spiritual path.

I think.

It is all still in process in my head.

I think I will revisit this one later on.

Tomorrow I think I will talk about The Lord's Prayer. I've been doing some interesting reading.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

AndyPants said...

I'm really enjoying these religious/spirituality posts