Monday, September 19, 2016

The Discipline of Staying Connected

"Belonging Together"
- in the wilderness -

While listening to some of the latest barrage of presidential election political news,  I was struck with the stark realization about how divided we all seem to be nowadays. Everyone seems to be “at war” with everyone else in this nation and in the world. There are divisions between Muslims and Christians and divisions within the many different religious groups. Citizens are at war with immigrants, rich people battle with poor people. The “Culture Wars” rage everywhere in America as people no longer “disagree” with one another but rather seek to “destroy” those who may be in different camps. I wonder sometimes if the fabric of our common humanity is becoming so tattered and torn that we are on a slippery slope to mutual destruction.

It’s interesting to me that, even in the midst of all this division and “tearing apart” there also seems to be a lot of emphasis on “spiritualty” in today’s culture. While a growing number of  people do not identify themselves as “religious,”  a large majority of people say that they are “spiritual.”

While the word “spirituality” is very prevalent and abundantly used nowadays,  I often wonder what people mean when they use this word and identify themselves as "religious" or as “spiritual?” My guess is that, for many people their “spirituality” is some deep inner space – private, individualistic, 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. 

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.”

Religious people can be very isolated and judgmental. They sometimes use their “religiosity” as a “righteous wedge” to drive between themselves and those who do not believe as they do or who follow a different path to the truth.  They want little or nothing to do with others outside their small circle of belonging 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 religious people who go to church and feel very connected to those who sit beside them and are very hospitable to differing beliefs and different paths to truth.  They commit their lives to serve the needs of others and are intimately connected to the world of nature –this is a perfect example of “religion” that is “spiritual.”

And, when it comes to those folks who have abandoned religion on behalf of “spirituality,” I sometimes wonder if they are as “spiritual” as they sometimes profess themselves to be? They may often avoid contact with others in a church, temple or mosque choosing instead to sit alone in a quiet place to meditate but they often see their spiritual path as a journey inward, a path of self discovery, sometimes as a means for reducing personal stress. Many do not see not see nor do they desire much outside connection and spend little time caring for the needs of anyone but themselves.

It seems to me that the enduring mark of all authentic spirituality is a practice of the discipline of connection. Any religious or spiritual beliefs, observances, customs or practices all have one primary goal: to help people to get or to stay connected – connected to a transcendence that is beyond their own isolated selves, connected to others, connected to a world of nature, connected to a cosmos in which everything and everyone all belong together.

Interestingly enough, I also know folks who clearly label themselves as “agnostics” or even as “atheists,” and while they do not believe in God (at least not in a traditional sense) many of these folks care deeply about the planet earth and lead relatively unselfish lives of compassion toward others. Every day they practice “staying connected” to the bigger picture. So it seems to me that there may be plenty of atheists who are also “spiritual” people.

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. An authentic spirituality may indeed be our only hope for the future of humanity.

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