Sunday, 6 May 2012

Free religion or free from religion?

I love the sentiment behind the hymn "A Church is a living fellowship". I will share the verses with you during this blog as well as some thoughts on church and religion...

“A church is a living fellowship more than a holy shrine, where people can share their hopes and fears, less of the yours and mine”

To me this is the purpose of church, of religious, of spiritual community...a living thriving fellowship of body, mind and spirit...this is the purpose of church and the purpose of religion of true religion...a community of individuals who are bound together by mutual care and love...who's intention is to carry that love out into the wider world...

Coming to a place of worship is not a privatised affair. I see it as communal spirituality, something that appears to be increasingly lacking in this day and age. Many people report a need for spiritual sustenance but are put off by what is described as organised religion, of any kind, which they see as detrimental to their own spirituality. A friend of mine recently posted on his “Facebook” wall. “Spiritual people inspire me; whereas religious people scare me.”  He is not unique in this outlook.

Of course I would say that there is nothing to fear in my Unitarian tradition; that ours is a free and enquiring religion; that we are free to explore and develop our own personal spirituality in community with others. Our recent publicity reads “Many beliefs, one faith”. We, as individual members, of free religious communities, do not think and believe in the same way about many things, but we are bound together in mutual love. The problem we have is articulating that to those who know nothing about our faith; those who ask the question “Unitarian, what’s that?”

This is a question I am faced with all the time. It came up again last week, during a conversation I had with other members of an interfaith friendship circle I participate in. The subject of the conversation was our faith traditions relationship with other faiths. Of course we all said that we were open, respectful and welcoming of other traditions; that our traditions, at their essence at least, were respectful of other faiths. The conversation then moved onto the question of religion itself. It seems religion is viewed differently from our varying perspectives. I tried to explain the Unitarian position, which from the looks of those present, must have sounded baffling. They really could not get a grasp on what I was maybe it was me, but I suspect it is a common problem...

I love the following story...

The word religion has become one of the dirtiest words in the English language. People do not want to be identified with it. They say it stultifies their natural human spirituality. When people hear the word religion they often equate it with irrational beliefs and oppressive and abusive hierarchical and authoritarian institutions of control.

So why bother with organized religion? Why would the spiritually minded want anything to do with religion of any description? Wouldn’t it be better to live free from religion than to be part of any religion free or otherwise?

Well I don't think so. Experience has taught me that community is vital to true spiritual development. we need free religion, not a life free from religion.

The word religion is formed from the Latin root “religere” which literally means “to bind together”. True religion is about binding people together through acts of loving kindness and service to and for others...

“Let’s stretch out the open hand of love,
Conquer the fists of hate,
Divided no more by voices of war,
Greeds of our mindless states”

To be truly religious is to console. To console is to literally stand beside another in their aloneness. It is to commiserate, to open hearts and share in the pain and suffering of our neighbour. It is to offer comfort, to share in our strength together. It’s not about conversion and or coercesion; it is simply about offering love and comfort, with no strings attached. Can this be achieved from the comfort of our living rooms, pontificating about what we see as true and untrue. No, surely this can only be achieved through engaging with others in the muck of life.

“Where bonded by trust we search for Truth
Beyond the chains of creeds,
And thoughts can aspire to shine with fire
From all our deepest needs.”

To be truly religious requires an openness to all that, the universe, everything. It reveals truth and meaning in everything and everywhere and it reveals the divine in all aspects of life. It does not reject. It leads to a reverence for the miracle that is life itself and for one another.

I see this as the purpose of religion, of free religion.It is no easy task. Forrest Church says that in order to achieve it  “We must embrace each day as the miracle it is and fashion our very lives into instruments of praise. This is religious work and it requires religious discipline. We perform that work together weekly in our Sunday liturgy. Once a week we pause and pinch ourselves. We can't take this life for granted. We must receive it as a precious gift, a pearl of great price.”

“We’ll take all our building bricks of Truth,
Make of them homes of Life,
A future to face the shame and disgrace
In all our past of strife.”

Now some might say that we can do this alone, but I am not sure that we can. By gazing alone, there is so much that we miss. Others can sense things that we alone cannot. We also need others to help us remember what is important, alone we may often forget to remember, to bind our memories together. As a friend and colleague Rev David Shaw once said “The dictionary reminds us that ‘remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’.

To be truly religious means to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is known as Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. We are bound together in the ship of life.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter”, when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

This oneness, this sense of communion can be experienced by everyone, no one is excluded, it transcends all human created differences. What name we give it matters little, whether it be Universal Mind, Great Spirit, God, The Divine. Whether we name it or not we can certainly know it, I am sure that everyone has felt that oneness at one time or another.

I know from personal experience and from really listening to others that there is a deep human need to be at one with ourselves, reconciled with our neighbours and at home with the universe. It seems to me that our feelings of friendship and empathy are but a faint reminder of this essential oneness. We can all feel that oneness and it is through this oneness that we can truly know ourselves, our true natures. Can we achieve this alone? Does privatised spirituality allow this? How can we be at one with all of life, if we cannot engage with one another spiritually? Surely what is required is a living fellowship. surely what is required is free religion, not a life free from religion.

To be religious is to let the sense of the eternal make a difference in our lives. It’s really all about being good neighbours. It’s about how we live with each other. As Thomas Jefferson said “It is in our lives not our words that our religion must be read”. You can be spiritual on your own, of course any one can, but to be truly religious requires us to come together.

So much of what passes for 21st century spirituality seems to still be about I, self, me; where as being truly religious seems to be more about we, about fellowship, about community, about unity.

 “A church is a place of human trust
More than of brick and stone;
Of love we will sing to make it ring
In every joyous tone.”

There is nothing frightening about being truly religious, no not at all...Why? Well because I have discovered that it is only by being truly religious that I have rebound myself to all that is and all that is yet to be...

Let’s not make it all about me, let’s make it all about we...

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