January 24, 2017

The Role of the Church in a Modern Spirituality.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a church service. I don’t often attend church, but there are a few in my area that I pop into from time to time.

It was the Sunday before the inauguration and the sermon, as you might imagine, was about loving our enemies and welcoming the stranger in our midst—a timely message to be sure. It was a good sermon, but there was one note missing and its absence was conspicuous.

The missing note was “how to”—how do we love our enemies and how do we welcome the stranger in our midst?

I have spent the last five years writing a book, Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West, and ironically, I failed to mention the role of the church in this modern spirituality that I describe. I am speaking of church in the generic form, not specifically of Christian churches. I am referring to the temple, synagogue, mosque, and even the meditation group.

When I realized that I overlooked the role of the church in a modern spirituality, just as the preacher forgot to mention the “how to” in his sermon, I felt compelled to explore this question: Why do people go to church, synagogue, temple, or to the mosque? When they show up at a meditation group, what are they looking for?

Roughly 166 million American adults (69 percent) attend church at least once a month. So, obviously, there is more than one answer to that question. But for many people—not all, but a lot—the honest answer is, “I don’t know. It’s just what you’re supposed to do, right? It feels like something is missing, like life is pointless or meaningless. And our culture tells us that God is the source of meaning and you find God at the temple, synagogue, mosque, or the church. So here we are. That’s where you find God, right?”

I don’t know. I don’t go to church very often. Only you can answer that question.  Do you? Do you find God in church or at the temple? Do you find meaning in your place of worship?

I suspect the answer is no. In my opinion, it’s not the point of a church. We don’t find God in a building. We find God within ourselves, which is why Paul asked the people of Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is the Temple?” Back in ancient Israel the temple was the house of God. So Paul was basically asking, “Do you not know that God lives in the body, not the building?”

If we show up expecting to find God, we will be disappointed. That is, unless we are in our bodies, unless we are present while we are at church. If the people in the pews or on the yoga mat, meditation cushion, or prayer rug embody the presence of God then, yes, you will see God in your places of worship. But, obviously, God does not live in the building.

I say that like it is an obvious fact, but many people expect to find God in church. And unfortunately, many pastors, priests, rabbis, and spiritual teachers try to live up to this unrealistic expectation, which turns the whole thing into a spectacle rather than a practice. It turns the service into a form of entertainment: exhilarating music, emotional calls to prayer, lofty rhetoric.

Church, in my opinion, is meant to equip us with the tools we need to make the journey to our inner most core—where we discover the ground of meaning. It is intended to encourage and support us along the path. And finally, it invites us to gift ourselves back to the community, to share our life with those around us. The point of religion is to transform our lives—to enable us to embrace our humanity, to be whole and useful members of the human race. In this respect, religion in America is, by and large, failing us.

In order for religion to be transformative, it must invite us into the transcendent. American religion often neglects this responsibility because it is eaten up with fundamentalist thinking, particularly down here in the South where I live. Fundamentalism reads scripture like it is a newspaper or a history book. And so the transcendent is stuck in the past. This obliterates the possibility of transformation in the here-and-now.

Fundamentalism says that the transcendent realm is off limits to everyone except the embodiment of transcendence that sits on the altar of their faith.

Christian fundamentalism, for example, says, “Well yeah, Jesus and God were one, but you ain’t Jesus, my dear boy. You’re damaged goods. You had best pray that God might have mercy on you.”

The best fundamentalism can do is offer moral guidance and encourage us to love our neighbor—and that really is at its best. It cannot get us to love our enemies because it doesn’t have access to the power required to do so. And it cannot answer the deeper problem of meaninglessness because it alienates us from the ground of meaning.

For religion to be transformative it cannot be read in the past tense. It has to be intimately and immediately concerned with the reality of our day-today lives. If it is going to transform us, it must be read as mythology, not history.

Mythology invites us to internalize. It invites us to involve ourselves in the story. In fact, when we read scripture as myth it stops being a story and becomes our journey. As I wrote in Finding God in the Body, “At the heart of every myth is a central figure—a hero that invites us to participate in our journey. Initially, our participation is subliminal and vicarious. We get caught up in their trials and tribulations, but eventually realize we are caught up in their journey because their journey is a metaphor for our journey. Their stories are presented to us as our way, our truth, and our life. When we realize that their path to freedom is our path to freedom, our vicarious identification with their journey dissolves into the immediacy of our own adventure.”

And when our adventure comes calling, we need practices that enable us to answer that call.

This is another great failing of Western religion. But this failing goes well beyond the realm of fundamentalism. Well-meaning pastors around the county are quick to share hopeful, uplifting messages of love and service, but fail to answer the all important question: How?! How do I love my enemy? When I am mad, exactly how do I return love? And what the hell does that look like? What does it look like to love a person that is a stranger to me? Maybe not even a stranger in name, but someone that is strange to me in their thinking?

For example, what does it mean for me to love someone that believes Barack Obama is a disgrace and that Donald Trump is a moral leader? It certainly doesn’t mean disengaging or even avoiding confrontation. It means entering those confrontations with the best of intentions, intellectual honesty, and respect. It means being present but never degrading. But where do we find the strength to do that, not once, but on a daily basis—because that is in fact what it means to not only walk the spiritual path but to be a citizen in a democratic society?

Religion must answer that question, but it must do so without giving us the answer. Jesus and the Buddha, both of them, walked the path for us—but not in place of us. They blazed a trail, but it is up to us to pick up the spiritual tools they gave us and walk that path for ourselves.

When we leave church, we should never leave empty handed. We should know how to pray, how to meditate. The spiritual teacher’s job is not to tell us what to believe. Their job is to show us how to believe. And this is where the majority of spiritual teachers—even the most well-meaning—fail us.

Church is not there to tell us about God. It is there to arrange the meeting. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare, meaning, “to bind together or to unite.” It is synonymous with the words “yoke” and “yoga”—an actionable path or way to wholeness. Jesus offered a yoke and the Buddha offered a yoga, but modern religion offers only a doctrine. And spiritual teachers have become more concerned with defending and advancing that doctrine than with passing on spiritual practices. As a result, we remain disembodied, alienated from the ground of our being—just sitting in church wondering why we are here.

In John chapter 17, Jesus prayed that we may be one with God, just as he was. But that prayer is not magically realized because it was uttered by Jesus. Without a yoke, that prayer goes unanswered. We have to look deep within the body—that is what contemplation is; contemplation is that which is done in the temple, in the body—and we have to enter the temple and abide in the presence of God. That requires practice.

Many spiritual teachers feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. Why? I suspect it’s because they don’t have practices to offer. Spirituality in the West has been divorced from practice for so long that we have raised generations of teachers that have nothing but words to teach. This was my primary motivation for writing Finding God in the Body. I wanted to put forward a mythos, an internalized worldview that not only invited people to search within themselves but gave them the practices they needed to make the journey.

Transformation requires action. To think otherwise is naïve. It takes practice.

We cannot overcome anger unless we practice love—that is unless we pray for those we resent on a daily basis. We have to pray that the people we despise most will be free of suffering, that they will find the causes and conditions of happiness—and we have to mean it. We cannot overcome stress and busyness unless we work with our busy minds—that is unless we practice meditation. We have to watch our minds and when they drift off in thought, we have to bring them back to the sensation of the breath, back to the present moment.

Yes, God lives within us, but unless we do the work required to move beyond our fear and anger, the light of God is obstructed. It cannot shine out through our actions into the world. We might feel enlivened on Sunday mornings, but we will be worn down by Wednesday.

Everybody agrees that we should love our enemies, but how? How do we love those that arouse anger? Only practice can answer that question. Self-examination, prayer, and meditation enable God to be born into the world through our actions, not just during opportune moments but in the midst of calamity.

Without practice, when our buttons are pressed, God is stillborn. God is just a theory, something we talk about.

Remember, church is for the man or woman struggling. Occasionally, the suffering person will be those who have been in the pews or on the cushion or the yoga mat for years, but most often it will be the new person because suffering is what brings us to the spiritual path. We have to be there for them, to show them another way. We have to offer them tools. We have to give them a yoke, a yoga, a path.

It’s not about what we can take away from church but about what we can bring to it. But we can’t bring something we don’t have. If we are going to be of service to others—you know, if we are going to offer practices—then we have to be practicing. And when we are practicing not just with our personal freedom and happiness in mind, but with the intention of preparing ourselves to be of service to others, it takes ego out of the equation. It takes us out of our self and brings us onto the bodhisattva path. In fact, it turns church into a practice. And that is the role of the church in a modern spirituality.




Author: Benjamin Riggs

Image: Flickr/Mike Boening Photography

Editor: Travis May

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