Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 2, 2001
Spirituality shallow without religion
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
The experience of browsing through any major bookstore today suggests that spirituality is a major focus of contemporary writing and reading.
My daily mail includes announcements of workshops on every conceivable type of religious and secular spirituality. Retreat houses are experiencing a revival. Spiritual renewal programs have multiplied. Spiritual directors and gurus of various persuasions, with or without some kind of accreditation, abound.
Spirituality has even become a serious concern of business executives, in the workplace, among athletes and in the entertainment world.
Much of this I rejoice in. However, when statements such as "I am a spiritual person (or on a spiritual journey), but I'm not very religious," accompany the search for a deepened sense of spirituality then I begin to be troubled.
This religious spirituality often freely avails itself of the accoutrements of religious symbols, sacramentals, vestments, etc. but one tends to sense an underlying and pervading shallowness or emptiness.
Many of the beliefs and practices in these constructed spiritualities are purely private, evade the full challenge of religious belief as God-centred as opposed to human centred, and are often quite naive about how we, individually and corporately, function.
I have been invited to many "retreats," even to be a presenter at such experiences, and left with the feeling that it was a nice get-together but God was either not invited or declined to attend.
A number of shortcomings come to mind.
First, lacking roots in a tested wisdom tradition or community of criticism, such spiritualities are not only prone to remaking all the mistakes of the past but also, more seriously, to extremism and fanaticism.
Those who lack the personal intensity to become extremists are likely to drift into spiritual lethargy in the absence of a community of support and encouragement. Community, although never perfect, is an indispensable context for a wise and sustained spirituality.
Second, personal spiritualities composed of a variety of unrelated practices must draw on equally unrelated beliefs to sustain and guide the practice.
Rigid dogmatism is not the answer. But the consistency of a thoughtful and critical systematic theology is a crucial structural support for the faith and morality that are integral to any spirituality. A general benevolence based on the golden rule is unlikely to ground either costly respect for the enemy or the active commitment to social justice.
Third, a disaffiliated spirituality, while it may respond well to someone's current felt needs, has no past and no future. It defines spirituality as a private pursuit for personal gain and is naively narcissistic. Although the person may be attempting to respond to a reality, he or she remains the sole arbiter of who God is and what God asks.
A 19th century Hindu mystic, Ramakrishnan, once told a story about an orphaned tiger cub. This tiger cub, whose mother had been killed by hunters, was found by a herd of goats and raised with their young to believe that he too was a goat.
One day the goats were out in the jungle, grazing in a clearing, when in stalked a great king tiger. His fierce roar terrified the goats who ran off into the surrounding jungle. Suddenly, the tiger cub, who thought he was a goat, found himself all alone in the presence of the king tiger.
At first, the tiger cub was afraid and could only bleat and sniff in the green grass. But then he discovered that, although he was afraid, yet he was not afraid - at least not like the others who had run off to hide. The king tiger looked at the cub and let out a great roar. But all the tiger cub could do was bleat and gambol in the grass.
The great tiger, realizing then that the cub imagined himself to be a goat, took him by the scruff of the neck and carried him to a pond. On the clear surface of the pond the cub would be able to see that he was like the great tiger. But all the cub did, when he saw their images mirrored side by side was to bleat, goatwise, in a questioning and frightened way.
The king tiger made one last effort to show the cub, who thought he was a goat, what he really was. He put before the cub a piece of meat. At first the cub recoiled from it in horror. But then, coming closer, he tasted it. Suddenly his blood was warmed by it. And the tiger cub, who thought he was a goat, lifted his head and set the jungle echoing with a mighty roar.
This story can readily be applied to the Christian's experience.
Out of the jungle of the night this burning tiger, the Word of God, comes to tell us who we are, to reveal to us what we were made for. He first forces us, we tiger cubs who think we are goats, to recognize our smallness, to see that we have been and are foolish and slow to believe. He thrusts before us our image.
But curiously - we see ourselves only with him. We learn to look upon ourselves by looking also at the image of him who had first to suffer and thus enter into glory. In the mirror of Scripture we see Christ and ourselves, and become a little less foolish and not quite so slow to believe.
It is only when he warms our blood with the food he brought to us, the Eucharist, that we really know who he is and who we truly are.
It is only then that we can escape the limitations of our supposed goathood, and with a roar acknowledge the truth. Jesus, the king tiger and revealer, must walk into our lives and show us precisely who we are by showing us who he is. We too find ourselves when we find Christ and his community, or are rather found by him and them.
The quest for God is too complex and too important to be reduced to a private enterprise.
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