Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spiritual but not Religious? Is Virtue Enough?

My brother Devin says he goes to the Church of Devin! There must be a lot of people like him. For the many intelligent and sincere people like my brother and including Abraham Lincoln, joining a church is a major compromise of one's integrity and spirituality. But then who will claim to be the equal of Abraham Lincoln (or, ok, my brother)?

(Admittedly: it astonishes me how many people -- otherwise seemingly intelligent, at least in other departments of their lives -- who go to church because their parents did, or for no other reason than habit or to simply not rock the boat. I've spoken to adults who search out a church for the simple reason that they now have children and figure they'd better get them off to some church, even if they don't go themselves! But here I'm not concerned about such meager motivations for church affiliation. For such people I suppose it beats hanging out in a bar or doing nothing at all.)

But, I ask you: are there perhaps some among the growing numbers of "spiritual but not religious" whose claim to be spiritual (while yet unaffiliated ) is but a subterfuge for their indifference, or even hypocrisy? What is a claim if untested by the cold light of day? What are mere beliefs if there's no walk to the talk?

For all the compromises and shortcomings to be found among those serving in any given church or faith, are we humans, as individuals, not replete with compromises and shortcomings in respect to our own personally held ideals and self-image? How often do we err in thought, speech or action? Is not the world itself and most human undertakings a compromise with the ideals that inspired them?  "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!"

Maybe you still think your mother, your partner or your children are perfect, but the rest of us have learned the hard way that most of our loved ones, including ourselves, fall well short of perfection. We've learn to be accepting, including self-accepting; we've learned to compromise in adult kind of ways, holding to harmony as the higher principle than being right or getting what I want.

Indeed, for those of more sensitive awareness and higher moral aspirations, we may come to realize that it is in the cold light of compromise that avoiding anger and disharmony is both tested and the very razor's edge of our opportunity to learn and grow as spiritual beings. It's rarely about what we think a situation is about. It's about harmony, calmness, kindness, compassion etc. etc. It's about letting go of desires, false expectations, judgement and on and on. It's about being able and willing to accept criticism calmly; be willing to look at ourselves; make corrections or amends where necessary and letting go of what others may think about us, right or wrong. It can also be a lesson in how to stand up for a principle or even oneself with calm dignity, without having to strike back or be defensive.

Public service generally and politics specifically teaches its votaries, at least the ones with integrity, this difficult lesson. Accusations of "selling out" must be faced whenever a compromise for the sake of harmony and modest progress is made.

We all know that it would be better if religion were more spiritual; if religions encouraged their members to seek to know and love God through personal prayer and meditation; to serve God in their fellows with a lot less ego and a great deal more humility, seeking to make this world just a little bit better a place to live in. It would be better if religion empowered individuals to establish a personal relationship with God rather than stand between the individual and God. But, well, I could go on, for religion has its faults like the rest of us, just like school, work, or politics.

Thus I say to those who claim higher ground in being "spiritual but not religious" to reflect on whether their position is simply an easier one for the ego; perhaps even a judgmental one; perhaps even somewhat disingenuous: an excuse not to engage and duck the test to see if you, too, can uphold your claim to spirituality when working shoulder to shoulder with others in the religious trenches. If religion isn't spiritual enough for you, why not jump in and help improve it? The greatest spiritual growth is achieved through relationships. Yes, ultimately our relationship to God, but when was the last time God descended to ask your advice? If we are, as the Bible tells us, "made in (His) image," then maybe God could be right in front of you? Maybe we can see what our spirituality really is if we step up and out and serve others in the name of God and truth! What if our aloof friends make fun of us for capitulating? How will we do, then?

No faith, no dogma, no ritual, no religion will be perfect until you are perfect. By that time, it won't matter. The greatest saints and prophets have always upheld and encouraged others by their example to participate in and commit to whatever outer form of spirituality (aka religion) suits their temperament.

Religion, in theory, has much to offer humanity. Religion ought to be showing humanity the high road of ethics, integrity and love for God and love for God in all. That orthodox faiths leave much to be desired is so obvious that it hurts. How many of those who scorn them are willing to contemplate human history and culture devoid of the uplifting influence of religion. (Yes, much suffering has been inflicted by religionists but that's only one side, only one view. It's easier to critique what was done wrong in the past than to imagine "what if.")

I feel blessed to be part of a meditation and communities movement that is free from centuries of religious institutionalism. I am part of the Ananda worldwide spiritual work of kriya yoga meditation, hatha yoga, and intentional communities inspired by one of the twentieth century's most renowned spiritual teachers, Paramhansa Yogananda (and founded by a direct disciple of his, Swami Kriyananda). So if you consider yourself un-orthodox, there are probably some choices for you, too!

I don't have to have Ananda be perfect because I have gained far more spiritually and humanly (is there a difference?) from serving this work for decades than just living on my own in the world, preoccupied with my own desires and my family's needs. I could not have grown or have been inspired by just going to a Sunday Service each week. True, there are far too many with religious vocations who are egotistical, greedy and sometimes worse, but anyone who holds up the few who have failed as a judgment of the many who have tried, is either ignorant or hiding behind their judgment.There have been great saints and selfless devoted workers in the name of religion down through the centuries.

Now, let me admit of another facet of this diamond: "It may be a blessing to be born in a religion, but it is a curse to die in one!" (To die, spiritually, that is.) This saying, from India, also has its place. Many people "die" spiritually in the coffin of their religious beliefs and rituals. They die due to judging others; they die to compassion and kindness; they die to the need for personal inquiry and introspection; they die to the presence of God within. But until one has walked his talk amidst the clash of egos and shortcomings, who can say he has matured sufficiently to absent himself all together from the effort to serve with others spiritually?

The history of humanity reveals our need for others and our innate social nature. By cooperation with others, we can achieve greater safety, prosperity, health and creative engagement. How can this not be also true in the realm of spiritual growth: the human activity we call religion (organized spirituality)? If God is One, and we are children of the One Light, we cannot know God who is All by turning our backs on others and refusing to share and serve that Light.

Common sense and self-honesty would serve the "spiritual but not religious" well; add a dash of humility, too. We can think we are spiritual because we have a vegan diet or see all faiths as the same (disdaining all of them, no doubt, at the same time) while we recycle our compost but haven't lifted a sincere prayer for another person in decades, if ever. Feeding the poor is not a substitute for seeking to know and love God. This is the error too many Western churches have made. Mother Teresa saw her savior, Jesus Christ, in the "poorest of the poor." She wasn't trying to solve the issue of poverty.

In Paramhansa Yogananda's life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, he shares these somewhat "tough" truths in a message to those (both churches and individuals) who think that serving humanity is a substitute for seeking, knowing and loving God first and foremost. Speaking of the woman saint in India, Ananda Moyi Ma, he wrote that she "offers her sole allegiance to the Lord. Not by the hairsplitting distinctions of scholars but by the sure logic of faith, the childlike saint has solved the only problem in human life -- establishment of unity with God. Man has forgotten this stark simplicity, now befogged by a million issues. Refusing a monotheistic love to God, the nations disguise their infidelity by punctilious respect before the outward shrines of charity. These humanitarian gestures are virtuous, because for a moment they divert man's attention from himself, but they do not free him from his single responsibility in life, referred to by Jesus as the first commandment. This uplifting obligation to love God is assumed with man's first breath of an air freely bestowed by his only Benefactor."

A vague belief in God, or being a good person, liking warm puppies, concern about global warming or helping elderly people across the street may be virtuous but it is not spiritual in the sense of one's level of consciousness. Absence of ego, love for God, and upliftment into transcendent states of joy, unconditional love, abiding calmness, and the absence of anger, and the presence of natural moderation and simplicity in one's habits, these are just some of the hallmarks of spiritual consciousness.

The world today needs divine power and inspiration born of the attunement of individuals of courage and commitment channeled into action, into prayer, meditation and devotion. Having a latte on Sunday morning may be pleasant enough, but it will not satisfy our soul's need to "know, love and serve God" (quoting my childhood exposure to the "Baltimore catechism").

And if this fails you, check out the "Church of Devin." I suspect he can use a few followers. :-)

Blessings to all,

Nayaswami Hriman