The confessed spiritual seeker, the agnostic, the atheist, and those that claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ often site atrocities committed in the name of the divine under various religious organizations as proof that religion is cruel and violent at heart. Others claim that it is not religion itself, but rouge followers that make it a thing of violence. They site teachings of peace, kindness, and unconditional love as support. For me, the competing evidence proves organized religion can go both ways.
Religion is still being used as a weapon, often using mutual exclusivity as justification for the mistreatment of others. The notion of mutual exclusivity, the belief that only one religion is correct, is the fuel for people’s hate. Nothing good comes out of it. When only one religion, one sect, one denomination is correct and the rest are doomed to be condemned in the next life, there isn’t much hope for how people treat each other in this life.
Let’s use the Christian tradition as an example. As a Christian, say you were to encounter a non-believer, someone that you fully believed would go to hell. There are two possible scenarios:
1) You would treat them as a heathen sinner that needed to be saved. Being the good Christian you are, you would try to save them and in the process condemning their way of life due to your own unique view of the world. But this culturally specific view is instead interpreted as divine truth rather than something that is subjective.
2) You treat that person like the demon you believe them to be. You work to create their living hell.
Mutual exclusivity is defended as the one way to preserve religious tradition. For fear that without it, all religions would become one muddled spiritual puddle with no real substance. While I am confident that respect for different traditions and beliefs (pluralism) would not lead to the loss of the world religions, I must ask which is worse: A muddled system of spiritual beliefs from many sources? Or making life a living hell for those that don’t think the way we do? If a religion must be preserved by condemning others, is it worth preserving?
All of the world religions hold some inclination toward helping those less fortunate. Spiritual schools of thought and secular morality structures such as humanism also aim to better the lives of those who endure hardships. Christian teachings encourage followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and set prisoners free. This requires reaching out to people who probably have a different life than oneself and leading them to a life of faith and goodness. That sounds great in theory, but I know it is easier said than done, especially for many Christians today.
There is a fear in the Christian community that if one reaches out to those in the shadows to pull them into the light, that those in the light will instead be pulled into the shadows. So, is it good and wise for Christians to leave the safety of the flock to help the lowly in an act that might be trying to their faith? Or do they stay well within the boundaries of the Christian community to protect and grow their faith? In The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel, the pastor of what I would consider a modern ‘mega-church’, encourages Christians to pull others into the light. This could be through subtle means such as simply setting a good example through one’s words and actions, sharing one’s spiritual journey, inviting someone to church, or directly confronting sinful or misguided elements of someone’s life (210). And yet he not only warns of mingling with non-Christians, but tells followers to let go those in their lives that do not further their spiritual efforts, “If you’re surrounded by naysayers or other [dangers] to your progress, ditch them” (137). I heard similar sentiments while researching a Christian group at my alma matter. Followers were encouraged to cut out people that did not bring them into a closer relationship with God.
So how do both concepts exist side by side? Sinners aren’t likely to walk through the front door of a church. Some reaching out will be necessary. Are followers to stay with the flock while beliefs and spiritual disciplines are being established, only venturing out to help others once they have unwavering, rock-solid foundations? Can lay people, everyday believers improve the level of their own spirituality and that of those around them, and perhaps those that need it most? Can we help ourselves and others?
Can you speak from experience about a time where you or someone you know pulled another into the light? Can you think of the opposite scenario where you or someone you know was pulled into the shadows in an attempt to help? How do you perceive these two principles existing together? If not, which prevails?
Groeschel, Craig. The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but living as if he doesn’t exist. 2010. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
One of the biggest complaints of former church-goers is the quality of the sermons. This component of worship is important. People place a great deal of importance on it. For many it is the central piece of the worship service. The faithful as well as the lost have always sought out spiritual people for their wisdom, and I believe will continue to do so for the perceivable future. The great and continuing need here warrants significant attention and work if we are to return the masses to a community based spiritual life rather than one largely lived out in solitude. I propose three main reforms to make sermons and other spiritual addresses successful again:
1. Relevance – Sermons need to be written with the times and audience in mind. There is no place for generic speak. If that same sermon could be given in another time or place, it is a missed opportunity to make the divine come alive for followers. I believe that scripture is timeless, but our discussion on the Word should be alive in the here and now. That is the sermon’s role, to make the timeless and eternal scripture find a place in the hearts of today’s people.
2. Authority – Words of wisdom should be driven to inform, enlighten and inspire. But it is important that the speaker doesn’t come off as an all-knowing authority. The sermon is a perspective, not another gospel truth. Too often the ‘good news’ of a sermon is shared as if that is the only ‘good news’. It is portrayed as final, absolute and unwavering. It is important for spiritual leaders to share their perspective as an example for the faith community, but there should be and emphasis on followers finding truths in their own hearts. It’s a yogic principle that all the answers and wisdom one seeks are already inside, just yet to be realized. Yet people look for answers and wisdom they seek in gurus. It is not the guru’s job to give them what they seek, but to ask the right questions to prompt the follower to discover it themselves. As opposed to the spiritual leader giving the answers, which requires no thought on behalf of the follower, the preacher’s task is to get people to engage in a conversation with themselves and the divine that simulates spiritual development. In that way, the sermon is difficult. It is not a lecture, but a conversation with one side spoken a loud to many, while the other is usually silent in each individuals’ hearts and minds.
3. Focus – While the sermon should ask questions of followers to help them find their own answers, it should not be a laundry list of questions or loosely related tidbits of thought. There should be a firm point, one takeaway for people to carry out into the Secular world we all live in. Every follower may manifest the message in a different way, but there should be not question as to what the message is. There are plenty of gray areas, but preachers need to be able to take a stance, even if it is a personal one to start a genuine conversation and to encourage followers to take a stance of their own.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of what a sermon should be, but I think it is a good and ambitious start. There is a lot contained in these three little principles, but they are certainly not the end. What aspects appear most wanting to you in sermons or spiritual addresses?
This week the following question was posed to me, “How is the Church important to the world?” My first thought was, “It isn’t. The Church isn’t important to the world.” Immediately I started back-peddling to myself. I was shocked by initial, cold reaction. Surely the Church, or rather institutional religion as a whole, is important. If not, then it should be… shouldn’t it? Perhaps not.
In eras gone by, organized religion took on many functions now widely taken over by government. That type of importance is no longer a factor. Now the important functions of organized religion are spiritual growth and guidance on moral issues followers face in the world. That being said, religion in and of itself is not the driving force behind these functions. Religious institutions may help facilitate these functions by reminding us of the history of human – divine relationship, hopefully providing inspiration encouraging the continuation of the tradition. But organized religion is not essential for the faithful to experience spiritual growth or lead their lives in a morally upright fashion. The core is God, the divine. That is the ultimate factor at work in people’s hearts and minds. That is what’s important.
The divine will always take precedence over religion. I believe organized religion can find its importance leading initiatives on issues like socio-economic disparity, gender equality, peaceful international relations, access to affordable quality healthcare, environmental protection, and access to healthy and sustainably grown food. There are plenty of single interest non-profit groups that work on these initiatives, but I believe there is a place for a holistic stance by organized religion to take these issues head-on.
People can develop their own personal spirituality. But putting those beliefs to work and organizing enough man-power to make a difference takes organization, position, and means; all of which the Church has. In this scenario, organized religion finds its highly appropriate niche in service to the divine. I encourage the Church to start doing God’s work rather than working to be on the same plane as God. Let the divine lead people in spiritual endeavors and the Church lead them in godly action. Inward looking eyes need to turn outward, ready to acknowledge their position in the wider world with due thought and effort as to what that position should be. The divine is already at work in people’s hearts, now organized religion need to make a place for people to do God’s work and benefit from it.