One of the homework assignments in a few of my classes has been to write and present a Spiritual Autobiography. Hmmm. It feels self-absorbed and narcissistic, in many ways, to focus inwardly and then to talk about oneself in this context. To an audience of peers and professors.
Yet it’s an important question to pose for ourselves. We need to be familiar with this story. To know why we arrived at a Divinity School to study. And what we want as the outcome of this time in graduate school. What is our connection to the Sacred?
I think it’s a question that all people pose for themselves at one time or another. What does my faith mean to me? What do I believe? What makes meaning out of the world to me? What do I hold as Holy or Sacred or bigger than myself?
As students and facilitators, we discuss milestones. Events or people or experiences or texts that shaped our faiths. Or raised questions that we’re still trying to answer.
Many of us consider our personal views of the sacred or the divine. Identify the language and images we use around those ideas. For some of us, the language might be a Trinitarian Christian concept (God-Jesus-Holy Spirit). For others it might be monotheistic Allah or Yahweh. For others it is a Boddhisatva, or a Goddess, or a different deity.
For some folks, there isn’t a specific deity or name that defines what is sacred. Maybe there’s a “Creative Force.” Or for some of my classmates, connection with the Sacred is inseparable from being human.
Some of these ideas may sound like heresy, if you are uncomfortable with the reality that people around the world follow many different religions. If you believe, or your faith tells you to believe, that there is only “one true way.”
I don’t put the idea of “one true way” into quotations to belittle that concept … just to acknowledge that not all belief systems require that people follow their way of thinking, being and doing. Not all belief systems consign everyone else in the world to Hell if they don’t convert. I’ve never been comfortable or okay with the concept that my faith is the only faith, and that everyone else is outside the circle and isn’t going to be okay, isn’t going to heaven, isn’t going to evolve to the next phase of being … I cannot reconcile that. Never could. Still can’t. Maybe it’s not my job to work out that dichotomy. I’m just admitting that I don’t embrace it.
Interestingly, many people in this era consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious. And it’s a fair distinction.
Religion, as such, is the human-made institution that grows up around the seeds of a faith. For example, Christ and his first followers, for instance, were Jews. They were not Christians. And initially, Muhammed and his people weren’t Muslims with a capital “M.”
What evolved afterward, the codifying, the creation of a structure of authority and governance, administration and policies and laws and practices … those aren’t the original parts of any faith. Those are Religion with a capital “R.” They are systems developed and put into place by humans around the original messages brought to us by Prophets. At least, that’s my simplistic definition of it, but I think it’s a reasonable one.
I’ve learned, in the past few weeks, that saying that there’s one version of any Religion is also naïve. Is there one acknowledge and universal experience of Christianity? Christians would chuckle if you ask that. There are so many variations on what Christianity means and how it is experienced, starting with the major division between Catholic and Protestant. And you can go on from there.
The same is true of Judaism and Islam. Do you belong, for instance, to a temple that is Orthodox or reformed? Is the Judaism of a temple in Brookline, Massachusetts similar to the Judaism on a kibbutz in Israel? Unlikely.
Some contemporary scholars say that is it more accurate to acknowledge many Islam(s) rather than one Islam. Because again, these Religions, though springing from the seed of one origin, have developed within varied social, historical, ethnic, political, economic, and geographical contexts. Islam practiced in the neighborhoods of Chicago is different than Islam experienced in London or living in a nation such as Turkey. It has markedly different interpretation and practices in Afghanistan or Iran than in parts of India or Indonesia.
Some people following a specific Religion (with a capital “R”) will say there is only one true version, and all other schools that fall under that same umbrella or label are false. Not the real thing. But which version of any Religion is real? True? The only authentic one?
Those sorts of schisms and arguments are probably another reason why so many people in the world don’t want to be called Religious. For a lot of folks, technicalities lose sight of the whole point of faith. It sounds something like this. “Who cares about the semantics? Can’t we just pay attention to the original message? Can’t we get back to the bigger reason for why we worship and pray?”
Spirituality, on the other hand, seems to be a more universal impulse in humans to seek a connection with something greater than oneself. Something that some of us would call Sacred. Maybe some others would call it Nature or the Universe.
More people consider themselves to be Spiritual than to be Religious. Many people don’t want to be categorized, labeled or aligned with a particular tradition. It’s feels like a bad word or way of imposing limitations, for a lot of people.
And in a way, although I realize I am fundamentally Trinitarian (Christian), I am also connected to other practices. Yoga traditions, which can embody Christian references as well as others. Aspects of Buddhism that I have been taught. Native American beliefs that I find in poetry, art and stories. Teachings handed down from Asian origins by mentors who instruct us about spiritual practices as well as physical ones in martial arts classes such as kickboxing or karate classes. Jewish and Islamic offerings that I share during special holidays with my community. Other influences.
I don’t discount or turn away from the beauty and truths that I find in other places, other faiths. I incorporate them. I learn from them. I listen to them. Maybe I learn their practices, when those may help to offer balance or healing in my life.
Yet I am also learning not to make the mistake that all these Religions or practices are, underneath it all, the same. That’s a dangerous mistake. These are different faiths. The people who claim them also experience and view the world through a somewhat different lens.We live in a pluralistic world; that’s okay. In fact, that’s complex and amazing.
Yet we can inform and inspire each other. We can live peaceably. Build community. Share a world together.