CROSSING OCEANS AND BOUNDARIES: POPE FRANCIS IN AMERICA

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Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S. showed that his popularity spans many boundaries. Catholics and non-Catholics alike, were intrigued by his visit and had great interest in what Francis had to say. Taking a wider scope, Pope Francis’ ability to span religious boundaries, illustrates how elements can be adapted and appreciated from a faith tradition one may not ‘belong’ to. In the case of Pope Francis, and similarly the Dali Lama, it is acceptable for followers or admirers to transgress these boundaries. People from all walks of life listen and strive to follow the teachings of Pope Francis and the Dali Lama, though many are not Catholic or Buddhist. Yet those that identify as spiritual but not religious and so-called New Agers are often criticized for their eclecticism. It is curious that crossing boundaries is acceptable when it is to admire or even follow a sanctioned leader, but becomes something to question when adopting and adapting beliefs and practices to create a personal spirituality.

Francis doesn’t just happen to transgress boundaries because his followers have a diverse set of belief systems; he makes a conscious effort to do so. It is in his best interest to do so as people of different backgrounds mingle and share their lives together. According to the Pew Research Center, one of four married Catholics have a non-Catholic spouse. As his followers are living mixed lives, he makes an effort for their religion to mix in the world as well.

The Pope’s visit can also help us reflect on other boundaries in American culture, such as church and state. Our freedom of religion is confused as separation of church and state. Francis makes us question such separation. His address to congress, though spiritually motivated was very political and fitting for the venue. He reminds us that the role of religion and government is very much the same: to help people live responsibly in the world. Religion and government could work well together. But boundaries would have to lessen and there would have to be a dedication to balance and moderation to keep extremists at bay. Francis has gained followers and admirers from many spiritual backgrounds. He makes us challenge and transgress boundaries in the interest of a peaceful global village where we can recognize that people are more similar than they are different.

HYBRID SPIRITUALITIES:CURRENT TREND OR INEVITABLE RESULT?

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New Age traditions are often criticized for being heterogeneous. Some call it the pick-and-mix religion, taking elements from various religions out of their original context, and creating new meaning with them. Under these circumstances many fear that the essence of these religions will be lost if not retained in their ‘pure’ form. I find this a relevant concern due the effectiveness of religion in conveying history and culture. It is also a relevant concern due to the amount of mixing that already occurs. In our global world, it would be only natural for such mixing to increase.

People and ideas are able to move fluidly around the world. They are also affecting and taking root far from where they originate, creating multicultural environments across the globe. In today’s global world, the creation of heterogeneous spiritual systems is inevitable. People have never been so connected. They are getting to know and appreciate each other’s cultures and traditions. It is becoming more and more common for people to marry across cultural divides. Their homes become a center for blending traditions. Their children inherit two cultures, and they must create a world view that accommodates both sets of traditions. Under these circumstances it is impossible to keep religious traditions ‘pure’ of any influence. In fact it would be unnatural to do so.

However as inevitable as mixing is in our current global age, it must be understood that there has always been co-mingling between cultures that has influenced religions. A ‘pure’ religion or culture is almost non-existent. The boundaries are not that neat. To be sure, this mixing historically occurred on a much more localized basis, but never the less exchange and evolution happened.

There seems to be a good deal of fear concerning encroaching religions or cultures, with regard to keeping one’s own traditions intact. Is such mixing a bad thing? It has the potential to distort common conceptions surrounding a religion. And if the religious institution allows such perversions to affect their core beliefs and traditions, or elects to change in response to such perversions; the religion may be at risk of losing its essence. But there may be benefits to this mixing as well. It would provide more awareness and understanding for various traditions and create more dynamic conversations around spirituality, ethics and social justice issues.

As we move toward more hybrid spiritualties due to exposure to different cultures and religions and the resultant benefits of cooperation and understanding, it is increasingly important to remember the source of elements in our spiritual practice. As various elements intermingle and become integrated into our lives, we need to keep the original texts and other cultural treasures close at hand. This will help keep the context fresh in our mind. In doing so one can add authenticity to their spiritual practice. It will prevent distortion and exploitation of religious traditions, keeping the sources of religious elements ‘pure’. Or at least maintain modern conceptions of purity in these traditions.

THE SPIRITUALITY OF EATING

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Undoubtedly there is a relationship between religion and eating. The most familiar aspect of this relationship is the rules that many religions have surrounding what the faithful should eat. The line of questioning then turns to why certain foods are taboo. For example why do Muslims and Jewish people abstain from pork, or Hindus abstain from beef. And what about Christians’ fish Fridays? (If you are interested in rules on food provided by various religions, Marvin Harris has an interesting take on the subject). But rather than focus on the spiritual and practical reasons for such rules, I want to focus on the act of eating as a spiritual act. This includes ritual eating and supposedly mundane, everyday eating. Religion provides information on how we fit into the world and instruction as to how we should behave in the world. Eating helps facilitate our relationship with the world. “Eating defines a primal relationship between self and world, the receiving of sustenance and nurture” (Eisenstein, 124-125). It is no wonder eating and religion often go hand in hand when their functions align so closely.

Society categorizes our actions to the extreme. Secularization would have us assume eating has no spiritual value outside of a religious context. But if we agree, “… life in the world is a sacred journey… [then] matters of the flesh are potential vehicles for spiritual transformation (Eisenstein, 117). Secularization reinforces that the earthly and divine are two very different things. But if our primary means of connecting with the divine is through its creation, the earth, then taking in and absorbing the sustenance of the earth can be a spiritual act. “… the primal reconnecting with the One comes from the experience of feeding” (Eisenstein, 143-144). Eating provides a connection with the divine and bridges the physical-spiritual gap that secularism has created.

In the religious realm we see this concept put into effect through ritual. For Christians, Eucharist allows the faithful to remember and reenact the Last Supper invoking God’s presence in worship and in their personal, spiritual lives. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the bread and wine new meaning as his body and blood, “… the bread and cup of the fellowship meal were henceforward to be the pledges of his real personal presence” (Cranfield, 256). Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus elaborates on how this act will bring one closer to the divine and how this physical act of eating could be part of a rich spiritual life. Here is an example from the Gospel of John, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 59:56-57, New Standard Version). For Christians the Eucharistic tradition from Jesus becomes a connection to God.

But Eisenstein takes a much broader approach in that the earth, as divine creation, is the means for such a connection. This gives all food the potential to bring one closer to God and be spiritually transformative. There are factors that affect this however, including mindset, the context of the meal and what you eat. The what factor involves a hefty moral debate. An adequate discussion on this topic deserves an article to itself. But it seems a little mindfulness as opposed to extensive ritual, may be all that is necessary to reconnect with the divine through eating.

Cranfield, C.E.B. “Thank,” in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by A. Richardson. London, UK: SCM Press Ltd. 1957, pp. 254-257.

Eisenstien, Charles. The Yoga of Eating: Transcending diets and dogma to nourish the natural self. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing Inc. 2003.

ASKING QUESTIONS YOU DON’T WANT THE ANSWERS TO: WHAT IS CHURCH FOR?

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A few weeks ago, I attended a bible study involving the area’s Episcopal churches. A priest was leading a discussion on the gospel of Mark, and asked about the implications for the Church today. I commented, “When was the last time the Church asked people what they were looking for in a church or what they hope to get out of church? It seems like an obvious answer: fellowship, become closer to God… But when was the last time the Church asked?” The priest piped up, “Why do you think the church doesn’t ask those questions?” Another participant replied, “Maybe because they don’t want to hear the answer.” Much of the group nodded thoughtfully. Another chimed in, “Or maybe what people want out of church, is not what church is for. We aren’t going to pass out coupons or give gold stars for showing up.” I found this perception of what people want from church interesting. I can’t think of many that want their church attendance to be tracked, even if incentives or rewards were involved. But this conversation got me thinking about the plethora of notions around what church is for and what people want to get out of church. And perhaps more importantly how does the Church and the faithful deal with such discrepancies.

At the church where this meeting took place they keep business cards by the door. On the front of the cards was the name of the church and the service times. The back of the card read, “If you are interested in spiritual things, join us.” This invitation is not limited to Episcopalians or Christians. This invitation would include people of other religions or people that don’t identify with any religion. This wide variety of people would have some rather conflicting ideas on what church is for. After the last comment I had to wonder, was this congregation and the Episcopal Church truly welcoming of these people and the varied perspectives that come with them? Or is this invitation simply an attempt to get more bodies in the pews on Sunday? I know churches everywhere, of all denominations, are struggling to fill pews and many are attempting to attract more people. But if the invitation is only a gimmick, and the church is not truly open to people ‘interested in spiritual things’, and cannot provide what newcomers are looking for, newcomers will quickly move on. There is a good deal of variety in American churches to fulfill expectations or preferences and meet a variety of needs, allowing the faithful to find their niche. However the decrease in church attendance across denominations suggests that fewer and fewer churches are able to provide what the faithful are seeking.

This brings us back to the questions the Church is afraid to ask: What is church for? What do people want out of church? But more importantly, are congregations willing to address and provide these things? If not, congregations can not be surprised or upset when the pews remain empty or when newcomers do not remain. I respect the choice to preserve tradition, but people must accept the consequences of that choice in changing times. They may also want to consider what dynamic perspectives and conversations they will lose out on when their focus remains inward on tradition. With change, some old things inevitably must go, but something new is always gained.