I hear it said by many today, that spirituality is the important thing, religion not so much. I take this to mean that some people have come to prefer not belonging to a particular church, even though spirituality remains an important part of their life. Sometimes people tell me religion is an obstacle to God. If you ask me, being human is the biggest obstacle to encountering God, as well as to encountering each other and sometimes even oneself.
I don’t know how the cultural history of the of the word “religion” led to its popular meaning today of “blind and boring ritual that has nothing to do with God”, but you often hear the profession “I am spiritual, not religious.” The root, “religere,” meaning to bind, is a fitting way to describe what happens to the heart smitten by God or anything that comes to hold power over us. If my religion binds me to God or anything else, is it the binding itself that is too hard to bear? Even with greater than ever freedom, we moderns often suffer from a decreased capacity to bind, commit to, and especially to stay the course. We move, change jobs and partners more often than any generation in the past.
Perhaps it is so that many people who have had a gripping encounter with transcendence are disappointed when the church experience fails to deliver to them any sort of connection to God, to others, or even to oneself. Having had several transcendent encounters with the invisibles, ancestral and angelic, it never occurred to me to view church and spirituality as mutually exclusive or inclusive locations to meet up with unseen entities.
I have attended church in the hopes of encountering God. More often than not, the only encounter I have is with myself, my thoughts, feelings, hopes and worries wherever they happen to be that day. But there is an encounter in church that seems to require the confines of sensual structure; the building, the people, and our increased reception to what enters into us both physically and mentally because of the particularity of place, time and otherness.
People outside church may also be similarly engaged, but the people in church; those at Mass who are there for the ritual, believe they will encounter the risen Christ. They are there to absorb the essence of God – body, blood and spirit – into themselves in the hopes of transforming their imperfections, weaknesses, and human frailty.
The church then is a container of sorts, in the same way that marriage, family or friendship is. There is something happening in us when we are contained. A relationship is constellated between the members that shapes meaning and purpose for each of us, and a shared identity between us. Parts of others that enter inside us inhabit us like furniture inspiring us with ideas and emotion. Over the course of our lives these relationships are a part of what transforms us.
There’s really no guarantee that those who still choose to go to a particular church with a ritual practice are necessarily doing so for a deeper transcendent relationship with a higher power. They may very well be in a blind stupor, endlessly repeating meaningless ritual because they are comfortable sheep in need of a shepherd.
For those outside of traditional religious practice it may seem unnecessary, restrictive, blind and unoriginal to organize one’s practice institutionally among a flock or herd. Although I have left as many churches as I have joined, it is bittersweet to me that none of these practices have stuck. The religious urge remains, as Jung noted,
“You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.”