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I’m spiritual, but not religious

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, November 10, A.D.2014 – Rev'd Elijah White
First please read Psalm 78:1-12; Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Matthew 25:1-13

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“I’m spiritual, but not religious” – how often have you heard or read that? Ever wondered what those words really mean? Let me approach what Churchill would call “the soft underbelly” of that attitude through the discipline of the readings appointed for this Sunday. One thing they have in common is that all three of them presuppose and refer to a Law, God’s Law, as a given, with standards of right and wrong, do and don’t do, that are known to the hearers but ex-ternal to them, not coming from them but given to them by and from an authority independent of, different and separate from them, to which – get this – to which they are accountable and answerable.

Thus Psalm 78 begins “Hear my Law, O my people” – my Law, not yours… then Joshua 24 verse 19 warns the faith-professing people who solemnly swore that they would keep God’s covenant, that “If you forsake the Lord He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good…’ then in Matthew 25 (lest we think that Joshua’s warning was just primitive Old-Testament stuff) Jesus presupposes His hearers’ understanding of the rules for guests invited – note, invited, not entitled – to a wedding feast, including the rule that those who disregard these rules will find that in verse 10 Jesus Himself declares “the door was shut” … “and the door was shut!” What a fearful sentence, a fearsome sentence in both senses of the word…

What’s this got to do with “being spiritual but not religious?” Quite a bit. Think for a moment: how do you define the word “spiritual?” ‘Having to do with the soul?’ But what does that mean? Often vaguely defined by what’s it’s not, ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘material’ or ‘materialistic?’ I knew a couple in Berkeley, the husband had played football at Stanford, he’d found or devised a form of Buddhism in which only the spiritual mattered, only the spirit was eternal, material physicality was temporary and transient and so didn’t matter – including whatever his mere non-spiritual body did with the utterly irrelevant bodies of various other women… His wife didn’t see it that way – she wasn’t spiritual enough.

Yes, ‘spiritual’ is a rather vague term – ‘religion,’ however, is quite specific. My big Oxford English Dictionary favors its root origin as religio, which my Cassell’s Latin dictionary translates ‘to bind, tie, fasten, secure’ as when St. Patrick’s great hymn begins “I bind unto myself today / The strong Name of the Trinity.” To believe, to believe in, to be in a religion involves being bound by certain doctrines, beliefs, teachings, ethics, morals, rules… which is the very last thing that any aspiring would-be-“free” spirit wants to hear or accept. I can’t speak for you, but I am a sinner, one definition of which in wish and action is “I want to do what I want when I want and I don’t want anyone telling me what to do or not do – I’ve got to be free, I am free!”

Which freedom, so defined, is at the heart of choosing to be spiritual rather than religious – and it is a choice. One great attraction of spirituality-without-religion is the cardinal sin of Pride with a capital P, ‘cardinal’ because it’s the primary root of all other sins, primary because one’s spirituality is always precisely and exactly that, one’s OWN individual personal feelings about, stemming from and rooted in… oneself, one’s Self – which suits me, sub-jective – whereas such ‘organized’ religions as Christianity and Judaism are ob-jective, given, givens, revealed faiths whose message and requirements come from outside human origin, agency or control, revealed by some external and (dare one say it, admit it?) a higher Power – higher than me? Rubbish!

Revealed religions all include specific ‘Thou shalts’ and [worse] ‘Thou shalt not-s’ that are the last thing my ego wants to hear – ‘religion’ takes away my precious freedom! But being ‘spiritual’ has no ethical or moral code from any ex-ternal source, such matters being left to one’s own in-ternal guiding light [feelings? desires? lusts?], whatever term one chooses to describe such subjective jurisdiction – check out the etymological roots of “autonomous.”

Which leads us right back to the perhaps-divinely-inspired truth of what was the effective operative key to man’s Fall from Eden, the paradisical life God wanted and still wants us to enjoy, the Serpent’s subtle seductive hiss-whisper that “Ye shall be as gods, knowing {better translated as ‘determining, deciding [for yourselves]} good and evil.”

Hubris, Pride, Superbia, call it what you will, the central permanent ongoing temptation of the Self is always and ever the exaltation – deification? – of itself, the Self… to be as, like unto gods? Our first forebears fell for it then and, I don’t know about you, but I fall for it all the time. I’d love to be as god, deciding for myself what was good and what was evil – wouldn’t you?

Freudian theory may be outdated but some of its terminology can be useful: in working to guide human decision-making, organized religion functions as the Superego attempting to exercise control over the Ego, but the Ego does not like that at all, preferring the freedom-autonomy of the Id, the libido, those basic human drives struggling to erupt from what some theorists call the reptilian core buried in our brain – think rape, murder – our most basic human drives by which we’re so embarrassed that we call them sub-human.

But what of the much-beloved theory tacked onto the end of The Diary of Anne Frank that “All people are good at heart?” We love that notion because it makes us feel good about ourselves, and we’ll gobble up anything that makes us feel good about ourselves, however contrary it is to the evidence of human history, every evening’s news headlines, and our own observations – a remarkable inability, refusal, to draw conclusions from irrefutable evidence.

This pleasant notion comes from claiming that what remains in our Western societies’ collective unconscious morals (which originated and are distantly rooted in 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian religion), claiming these remnants of ethical instinct to be innate, inborn, natural to all human beings, as if intrinsic and permanent rather than derivative and fading. We are capable of tender thoughts and occasional unselfish acts, but our Western moral and ethical heritage is now too watered-down, we have forgotten its origin in religion, we have lost interest in it and are now expending and living off its capital – which can have only one outcome: the ruin of every great fortune begins with confusing capital with interest-income.

Recall today’s appointed lessons: feeling spiritual, being spiritual, has room for none of the eternal-permanent-punishment penalty provisions of which Joshua and Jesus warn – a covenant with no enforcement mechanisms is worthless paper. Holy Scripture is consistently clear throughout, “Do right or go down” – whereas feeling spiritual by today’s or any given day’s societal standards is fleeting because cultural behavioral norms are inevitably impermanent, local, transient, merely here-and-now for now: just think how what is socially or legally acceptable has changed just in your brief lifetime…

Only organized religion claiming ex-ternal, supernatural, divine origin can (if accepted and believed, however imperfectly practiced by imperfect practitioners) effectively exercise authority over Pride’s in-ternal self-satisfying desires. Therefore religion has to go, so that the spiritual can reign and the Self be supreme. Objective religion must go so that the subjective spiritual can rule.

So you see, being religious can be very difficult, whereas being spiritual can be very easy -- because being religious means obeying someone else or Someone Else's standards, which are set givens, but being spiritual means obeying only one's own standards, which are easily changeable.

“I’m spiritual, but not religious…” Please, good Christian people, in evaluating any assertion follow the Ego, follow the Pride, ask Qui bono? Who benefits, who is being served by this ‘new’ theory, theology, ‘liberating’ discovery, latest modern thinking? Can you not hear behind it the Serpent’s beguiling, ongoing, so-seductive whisper, “Ye shall be as gods…?”

Whom flee, as ye would an adder fanged,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen, Amen.