I’m very proud of my association with the United Church of Christ. As a Christian denomination, we tend to be a bit different from other denominations. We are rooted in the Christian tradition. We strive to be radically inclusive of people and their life experience. While we don’t always get that vision of radical inclusivity right, it is the vision we share. The local congregation to which I belong values that vision. The staff members and leadership of the congregation take it very seriously. Perhaps that’s why I found this past Sunday’s sermon so disconcerting.
The preacher is someone preparing for ordination. She is a member of the congregation and, having completed her seminary training, is working in a church of another denomination as she continues in the process towards ordination. In fairness, there were many positive aspects of her sermon. Her major point was that God’s presence sustains us in all moments of life, particularly providing strength in difficult times. That’s something most of us need to be reminded of very often. What was unfortunate was that this important message of God’s sustaining presence was wrapped with an introduction and conclusion that belittled the spiritual experience of others.
Her critique is something I’ve heard often from other Christian clergy. The basic critique goes like this: many people today describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. They freely talk about spiritual ecstasy when watching the sunset or walking along the beach. They make it a point to explain that the wonderful feelings they experience was something they never found in a religious setting. Because of their disappointing experience with organized religion, they disregard the great wealth of spirituality within the Christian tradition and prefer a self-styled spirituality based on good experiences. In this critique, there is never consideration of the role Christianity has played and continues to play in causing the development of what is critically labeled as a “self-styled spirituality.” Or, as one colleague told me a few years ago, “People interested in spirituality just want to feel good. They have no depth.”
First, as someone who has spent my life focused on spirituality both in terms of active, on-going engagement with spiritual practices and as an academic discipline, I consistently find that the social institution that provides the most significant roadblocks to spiritual growth and development is the Christian church. Indeed, there is a wealth of spiritual depth, mystical knowledge, and centuries of reflection on the spiritual dimension of human experience within the Christian tradition. But this knowledge is simply not available in local congregations. Instead, most Christian clergy are ignorant of this wealth. Sunday’s preacher even admitted that when she reads the work of spiritual writers and mystics in the Christian tradition, she doesn’t understand it.
Second, the most common starting place for people who begin to explore the spiritual dimension of life is to encounter something transcendent and transformative in nature. It can be a very positive and profound experience. Mystical writers of the Christian tradition, like Teresa of Avila, commented on this experience and the way that people seem to be lost in the sense of wonder they have. Simply, a sense of wonder and awe rooted in spiritual experience is a first step along a spiritual path. It’s a perfectly appropriate place to start.
As an ordained Christian minister, I need to be continually aware that the major obstacle to spiritual growth and development among people today is the church itself. Many people have been hurt by religious institutions through various forms of abuse. But many more have been bored beyond belief, finding hollow platitudes, arrogant judgments, and a general ignorance about life in general and spirituality in particular. It grieves me to find that someone in my own denomination reflected ignorance and bias about spirituality as a sub-text to what could have been an affirming sermon.
I urge my fellow Christians to take time to learn and understand the spiritual wealth of our tradition. Find ways to make that wealth accessible to others in your local churches. Allow room for silence, listening, and shared reflection. Provide opportunities for people to learn to pray, meditate, journal, explore art, and anything else that enables people to express those experiences that are beyond words. If you don’t know how, then learn. In every community, spiritual directors are available.
To those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, keep doing what you’re doing. But remember that the spiritual experiences you hold dear today are just a beginning. Continue to grow. Remember that spirituality isn’t about positive feelings but about transformation. Transformation can be difficult, challenging, and painful. But it is in this process that we become the whole, integrated people we were made to be.
And preachers in Christian churches: please understand that your role is to build up the community and encourage the growth of people. Being critical of others, particularly the beliefs and religious or spiritual experiences of others, does nothing but demonstrate arrogance and ignorance.
You may be interested in The Good Road, a book I wrote for personal and spiritual development on an inter-faithful perspective.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.