Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stay Connected

- At the Desert Retreat House -

According to the latest Pew survey, the landscape of faith and religious life in America is undergoing some serious changes. Year by year the number of people who identify themselves as being “religious” becomes less and less; and yet at the same time, a significant number of those folks who have abandoned or avoided “religion” also think of themselves as being “spiritual.”  So it’s not as if the nation is becoming largely atheist or agnostic but rather people today are looking to understand “God” beyond the restraints imposed by religious institutions; and so instead of spending time in church more and more people (especially younger folks) choose to find other ways to foster their “spirituality.”

While the word “spirituality” is very prevalent and abundantly used in today’s popular culture,  I often wonder what people mean when they use this word and identify themselves as “spiritual.?” My guess is that, for many people their “spirituality” is some deep inner space – private, intimate, comforting, comfortable and known only to themselves in the silence of the heart.  The problem is that I don’t actually think this is what “spirituality” actually means.

In his new book, Jesus and Buddha, Paul Knitter (a contemporary theologian who calls himself  a “Buddhist Christian”) offers this simple and yet wonderfully articulate definition:

Spirituality is what one does to stay connected.

For both Buddha and Jesus, if we are not connected,
if we are not in some way extended beyond our self-awareness,
we’re going to have a hard time putting our lives together.
Moving beyond our own limited, individual sense of self
was both for Buddha and Jesus essential to the process of what
Buddha called waking up and what Jesus termed conversion.

I find much wisdom in this understanding of the “spiritual” life. After all, a spiritual journey is supposed to lead us into “transcendence.” The purpose of the journey is to help connect us to the “bigger picture” beyond our own isolated self. Any “spiritual” practice that leads us inward into our own privatized space is by definition “not-spiritual.”

The understanding of spirituality as what one does to stay connected can also serve as a very helpful guideline to gauge the authenticity of anything that we may label as “spiritual.”

I know plenty of religious people who go to church feeling very connected to those who sit beside them and committing their lives to serve the needs of others –this is a perfect example of “religion” that is “spiritual.”

I also know just as many religious people who remain very isolated and judgmental. They want nothing to do with their fellows and see the needs of the outside world as an inconvenience and a  disturbance to their inner peace. I’d say that this is an example of religious folks who have probably “missed the boat” when it comes to being “spiritual”

On the other hand I also know plenty of non-religious people who think of themselves as “spiritual" who, according to the definition I am using, are not actually all that “spiritual.” Avoiding religion they choose instead to sit privately on a yoga mat and meditate but they do not see nor do they desire much outside connection and spend little time caring for the needs of anyone but themselves.

I also know others who clearly label themselves as “agnostics” or even as “atheists” who are in fact very “spiritual.” They care about the planet earth and lead relatively unselfish lives of compassion toward others. Every day they practice “staying connected” to the bigger picture.

I think of a line from a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke.  It is yet another wonderful articulation of what genuine “spirituality” is all about:

To see everything and ourselves in everything
healed and whole

Spirituality is what one does to stay connected.

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