Sunday, November 13, 2011

In an Age of Science, Why Have a Religious or Spiritual Practice?

Last night, at the house of good friends who happen to be lapsed Catholics (and one is a devout atheist), the talk turned to religion and why go to church.  In a world where science explains so much, why bother?

It began as a simple question:  as educated people, how do we view the Bible?

Not a simple answer, of course.  My spouse talked about how he viewed the Bible in the tradition of wisdom literature.  I talked about my approach to the Bible as a poet, which means I don't take it literally.  I've had this argument with many people, as we talk about what the Gospels teach us.  Those books weren't written to be a historical record of the life of Jesus.  So therefore, do I believe in the Christmas story that I find there (or, to be accurate, the 2 or 3 stories I find there?).  No.

So, why read the Bible?  I tried to explain that I read the Bible so that I can find strength for the task of resisting the values that our larger culture of Empire would like me to have.

My atheist friend had lost patience at that point.  She reverted to the argument that she often does when we have these conversations.  She claims that she doesn't need religion to lead a moral life.  She doesn't kill people--but not because some church tells her not to do so.

I brought up my argument that living an ethical life is far trickier than not killing people.  We talked about how hard it is to live a life that is truly integrated, how hard it is to make sure that we're really living in accordance with our values.

Today, I'm thinking of all the other reasons why a spiritual life, why a disciplined practice (ideally daily), is so important.  Today I'm thinking of everything I forgot to say.

I did talk about the moral message of the Bible as not caught up in sexual politics or in the murder/not murder question that most people think of when they think of the morality of the Bible.  I talked about economic justice, the fact that there are about 12 Bible passages that address sex and over 2000 Bible passages that address economic inequality.  And that social justice element is important to me.

But a relationship with the Creator does so much more.  I like to think that I'm more appreciative of the beauty of the world around me because of my religious practices.  I try to remember to say, "Great show, God!"  or "Wow!  Cool creation!"

I also try to foster gratitude in similar ways.

I never had a chance to talk about this, but my atheist friend has talked about her fear of poverty.  I just don't share her fear.  I would prefer not to be poor, but my Scriptures teach me that God hangs out with the poor more than with the rich.  I think that too much money is spiritually dangerous.  It teaches us to rely on ourselves, not God.

My spouse also talked a bit about the comfort factor of our religious faith, but it's not comfort in the traditional way, the when we die we go to Heaven where we see our loved ones and our favorite dog kind of comfort.  It's the comfort of knowing that the world isn't quite right, but God has a plan, and the restoration of Creation has begun.  We didn't go into that aspect too much.  It requires a lot of background and a lot of explanation for people like our friends who haven't really been to church since 1963 or so.

This morning, as I caught up on an old On Being show and this morning's episode, I thought of how much a contemplative practice can be a comfort.  Oh, to be able to quiet the mind at will!  I haven't met many people who can do that outside of some kind of spiritual practice--except, for maybe long distance runners, which I might argue are practicing a spiritual discipline during the longer runs.

Having just got back from Mepkin Abbey, I could have talked about the monks and about the importance of praying for the world.  But the hour was growing late, and I didn't want to go down that road.  Once upon a time, I'd have sneered at the idea that prayer was important.  I'd have told people to get out there and feed the poor.  Now, I think that praying for the oppressed can be just as important--perhaps even more.

My friend whom I meet at Mepkin Abbey every year says that she would go to church even if she no longer believed because it helps her feel a vital connection to her ancestors.  My friend is African-American and Episcopalian, so she's got an interesting perspective.  She says that her experience of church is akin to Asian ancestor worship, where she can actually feel the spirits of her ancestors in church the way that she doesn't anywhere else.

I feel that connection too, although I'm not sure that I feel actual spirits.  But that discipline connects me to past generations, both those related to me by blood and not.  I love knowing that I'm singing some of the same hymns that my grandparents did.  I love saying the creeds that centuries of Christians have recited, even though I understand them differently than a medieval Christian would.

I could go on and on about the reasons why my faith is important to me.  It's impossible for me to answer concisely, and I always feel frustration later that I've left out so much.  I also feel frustration that I'm unable to really explain it in a way that makes sense to non-believers. 

Maybe I should take a lesson from my more mystical brothers and sisters.  Some elements of life can't be explained neatly.  I'm comfortable living in the mystery, even if I can't explain why I am to anyone's satisfaction.

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