exploring our beliefs, living our values, changing our world

In Defense of Religon

Since coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church I have meditated often on reclaiming theological language, I have enjoyed getting to write sermons and blog posts about things like faith, hope, redemption, and salvation. These words have deep theological history and meaning but over the years have been overwhelmed by religious baggage. At the end of the day these ideas are still relevant but we have to be responsible about the way we use them. For me reclaiming a theological heritage that has been hijacked by one group is paramount in the study of theology. And though I would never take away their right to use these terms narrowly it doesn’t mean I have to give them up either.

During the late 90’s into the 2000’s the statement I’m not religious I’m spiritual became popular. The goal of this article is not an incitement of the people who make this statement but to ask the question what is religion? It is an important question because within the culture the terms religion and religious are often spat out like bad fish. So this post will ask, what is this religion we do not want to associate with? It is important to explore this because the current aversion to religion makes clear one basic truth religion is failing people. The second question we will discuss in the latter half of the article is, what is spirituality? Finally we will explore a different understanding of true religion.

I find it easier to understand the negative usage of the term through a series of basic images. The first that comes to mind is luxury. The preacher makes six figures and has even more hidden off shore. The church has an IMAX Theater and gift shop that sells little crosses that say things like Faith, Hope, and Love, with the name of the church printed on the stand. This church, feeding off of its congregants, looks beautiful, and makes us feel even better while we are inside, whether it positively effects and represents its community or not doesn’t matter, but it sure is sparkly.

The next Image is described by the word Mask. The preacher, the elders, the staff, they are not what they seem to be. They all have their own sins that stay hidden. The congregants are the same. They act one way in church and a different way at home or at work. They talk about helping the poor, but take few actions, they mention freedom but rest in control. This church is not about making the community better, but about making its members look better. In fact they all live somewhere else and drive in. They revel in the theology, “Do what I say not what I do.”

The last image I will use is described by the phrase, out of touch. This gospel was for another time. It doesn’t take into account the world in which we live. The congregants aren’t part of the neighborhood like they were when the church was founded, they rest behind gates both in their communities and the church itself keeping the neighborhood from finding its way in. The curriculum screams 1972, and the music no longer has depth. And if you don’t like it they will be happy to quote Hebrew 8 that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their god doesn’t like you, and chances are they don’t either, just keep walking.

I suspect there are many people who would not feel accepted in the places I just described. These places are unfeeling, disconnected, and unaccepting. They only care about their issues and they don’t want to change anything because they are afraid of change. These churches are all about what they look like, not what they do. They are luxurious, out of touch places where people where masks. And these practices have been the defining factor of religion for a few decades now. So prevalent in fact that people stopped using the word all together.

But what I find most important about these images is that they are caricatures not real. Don’t get me wrong there are some frustrating churches out there but most churches I walk into, even the out of touch ones with which we don’t agree, are full of people who struggle with life and do the best they can. The descriptions I have given, I do not believe. In fact, I would call them inappropriate and judgmental. If I were to explain them to a copy of myself seriously I would respond with the statement, “Who made you their god, and who gives you the right to judge them?” Though it is these images we use to describe religion as “everything that is wrong with faith.”

Now we have to look at the other side of the matter, spirituality. Merriam Webster defines the word spiritual simply as relating to a person’s spirit. That’s a nice definition and I like it, but will expand on it because I am a minister and that is what I do. Spirituality relates to our individuality, it is a part of who we are as a people. It is our communion with our spirit, and it relates to our core. We all have spiritual practices, many of them are personal, and they all help us understand our meaning and purpose. We do not seek to infringe on someone else’s spirituality with rules and regulations, they can be as orderly or chaotic as one like. Being spiritual is freeing, no one else can say how it should be done for you, but sometime we need others.

Spirituality is very personal, and we choose how much of our personal spirituality to share, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be spiritual together and when we are spiritual together we have to talk about guidelines and basic rules that help us treat each other with respect, which brings us to religion. Religion, when appropriate, becomes a vehicle for spirituality, it is a part of but not the whole. However, religion cannot exist without spiritual people. Religious practice then offers an opportunity to be spiritual together. When we light the chalice, sing together, share joys and concerns, and listen to a sermon, we are being spiritual and since we are doing it together we are being religious too.

Originally the two words were synonyms, but the movement to be spiritual but not religious changed that. I don’t think that was a negative change I think it better helps us understand who we are and our part in the community. It helps us bring a very personal thing into our relationships with others in a way that benefits everyone but protects who we are. Because of this multiple decade conversation I can say very clearly I am a religious person, but I could not be one if I was not first spiritual.

Religion doesn’t have to be close minded, hateful, and set in the old ways. Religion should be as vibrant as the people who practice it, and we as UUs are a very vibrant people, with many different traditions. But when religion becomes a negative force I question then whether it is truly religion anymore. The book of James describes true and faultless religion to be one that looks after orphans and widows. We expand this as UU’s but keep the core of the verse, religion should be about the things we do to make the world better not about making us look better. Once it stops being that it stops being true.

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Comments on: "In Defense of Religon" (1)

  1. Linda C Zebert said:

    Hello,

    Mr. McCreary I have a couple of friends that attend your church and I was curious to read your take on what you feel in being a minister. Actually, I have attended meetings there with my friend on subject matters requiring night visitation.

    First of all I want to let you know personally, I enjoyed your article. I am a Southern Baptist by faith registration. The one thing I seek voraciously is knowledge. The one thing I give to any and all unconditionally is non-judgement of their choice in religion. I do this because of the long fought war with my human nature, what I was taught growing up, what I know in my heart is right for me, and it has taken 58 years so far just to get to the point I live not for my own pleasure (well a little bit anyway) but because I believe in God, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
    I am in love with my Lord – I don’t just love Him.

    Now this belief came through watching my mother who was an outstanding woman. She lived an extremely hard life being the daughter of a logger who was an alcoholic and womanizer. He would leave her mother and siblings to ramble on and they had to maintain the work. She quit school after the 6th grade to do this and take care of her siblings so they could continue school (all younger) . Her philosophy was you work when things are at their darkest, you always take care of family, you always help others, never speak unkindly, most of all TEND TO YOUR OWN HOUSE and you find the strength to do this through a personal relationship with Christ. If I never knew of a Bible or a Jesus, I would have still wanted to believe the way she did because she proved what she believed.

    Believe me I have gone from mindless acceptance, ambivalence, piety, judgmental opinionated aggravation at ignorance, to the state of grace I presently dwell. I can handle most diversities except one.

    Liberal mentality. Now let me expound upon this before there is an uproar. By definition being liberal minded lends the premise of a person who is OPEN to a all having the RIGHT to be free thinkers. Hmmm… I do extensive research on this subject and I have yet to find anyone who proves this to me even my beloved friend. Liberals tout there abject hatred and for me their feeling of being superior intellects. This applies to all aspects of their wanting “world peace” to wanting all who disagree or think differently ill will, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE… A. CHRISTIAN, B. CONSERVATIVE, C. REPUBLICAN.

    I admire this article to the point I had to respond (long windily) I’m just saying when you have the chance to change someone’s mindset don’t feed the beast with more of the same. I hope to one day see liberals confirm their labels by not poking fun or refusing the rights of others to believe the way they choose.

    Yes, you do not have to tell me about my side of the fence. I am attacked by my own because I choose to allow the differences to be God’s judgment not mine. There are a number of my friends with gay children, my friends and family are a mixture of atheists, agnostics, wiccans, mother earth, psychics, and some just don’t give a darn about anything.
    When I profess my faith there is some uncomfortable moments for them not me. Why?

    Because I am so confident and confirmed in my faith I don’t have to be afraid for in my heart, mind and soul it is not I who see but the HOly Spirit of God. I know how much He loves each and every one of them. Somewhere along the line someone told these people God would not accept them into Heaven. Now why does a human person think they can limit an omnipotent being. Some do it because they don’t believe in a supreme being or a hell to be frightened of so they spew what…IGNORANCE. I get quiet so the spirit can address this controversial matter as calm as possible no matter the hurt to me at their comments.

    The churches and pastors Not all but most have sold out to the masses. They have let the opinions of their membership’s wallets to dictate how far they can take the message of God.
    I abhor this. More so due to them knowing better. AND YES, VIRGINIA THERE IS A SATAN.
    For whatever positive there is – a negative exists. He certainly does not discriminate

    You see in 58 years I have realized the depth of God’s love for us. Through this I am ashamed and shocked at what level of depravity He allows us to sink and yet crawls in it with us to pull us back to His love. Satan has so brilliantly convinced the masses otherwise and so many people are missing a chance to simply live within God’s spirit of love and NOT HIS JUDGMENT.

    Final thoughts, My belief as a follower of Christ, to present Him in the way my mother did. We can not completely do that for the sinful nature that presides within us as humans but when I stumble I hope it makes people not see me hypocritically but with a humble nature to get up and brush myself off, showing them He loves me still if not more.

    It is not my responsibility to scare anyone into believing in a God that sends you to hell for being bad. It is my responsibility as a follower to introduce the most wonderful friend they will ever have, Jesus Christ. To tell His story and give them a chance to accept the truth of His purpose in everlasting life and salvation, is what I am required by faith to do. But then it rests with the individual and God as to the decision they will make for or against. Encouragement will always be a given when needed, not forcing or threatening. This is my purpose and when a decision is made for Life. great, when it is not, overwhelming loss, but then there is prayer and hope for life belongs to God and He will persevere and love and love and love His child even if refused.

    Thank you for your time in reading this, and I hope you don’t mind if I keep a copy of your writing for my resources.

    Linda C. Zebert

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