Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
September 15, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Last week I shared with you a vision of Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ as a small, faithful group of people that offers to this community an alternative vision, a vision of Godís realm of peace and justice. Last week I said that I believe we need to become even more intentionally a peace and justice church in order both to be faithful to our own vision and to attract new people who share that vision to our church. Today I want to say that as committed as I am to that vision, I believe that it is an incomplete vision of what Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ can be in this community. It needs to be complimented with another vision, a vision related to the notion of spirituality, that odd and misunderstood notion that, as we will see in a minute, is so important to so many people today. Last week I preached peace and justice. Now I want to preach spirituality as the indispensable other side of the coin of the faithful church.
The common wisdom around here is that we live in the "least churched" part of the country. Fewer people belong to a church or attend church regularly in the Pacific Northwest than in any other part of the country. Those of us who continue to find spiritual meaning in the language and rituals of the Christian tradition and in the fellowship of a church family are a distinct minority these days. Most of our fellow citizens may see Sunday as a day off, a free day to do what they want, but they do not see it as a day for attending church. The Seattle Times is well aware of this phenomenon. Their current ad campaign for the Sunday paper pitches Sunday as a day of leisure, a day when, as they say, "traffic jams are optional." The campaign emphasizes other differences between Sunday and a weekday as well. Itís message is: Relax and read the paper. The ads never hint at the possibility that Sundays might include a morning devoted to worship and fellowship in a faith community.
At the same time, the experts tell us, there is a boom market in spirituality. Vast numbers of people will describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Book stores are crammed with books on every imaginable kind of spirituality. Different types of Asian spirituality are especially popular. Tich Nhat Hahn has sold millions of books on inner peace through meditation. Deepak Chopra was a big hit on public television with his Indian spirituality of the mind-body connection. In a more Western vein thereís the bull market in angels and angel paraphernalia. Within the more traditional Christian sphere, one of the most popular authors is Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian layperson who has discovered the wonders of Benedictine spirituality and regularly goes on retreat to a Benedictine monastery in North Dakota, then writes about the experience in books like Cloister Walk. Yes, our fellow citizens may not consider themselves religious, but many of them sure are into spirituality.
Now, all this variety, while not a bad thing in itself, suggests to me and to others that people donít really know what theyíre looking for or how to find it. As a result, they often end up with results that are unsatisfactory in one way or another. An author named Philip Gold writing in the Seattle Weekly a few years ago put it this way:
Modern American spirituality is a lot like Interstate 5. Everybody seems to be on it. Nearly everybodyís changing lanes. The road signs are large but not always helpful. Entry and exit can be tricky. If you drive long enough you end up in Canada--decent and pleasant, though not often inspiring. But if you drive long enough the other way you find yourself in--well, California.
These two phenomena--very low church attendance and a high level of interest in combined with confusion about spirituality--raise a number of important issues for those of us in the churches. What is the relationship between religion and spirituality? Whatís missing from the churches that people are looking for but not finding there? How can we help people avoid the extremes of the familiar but dull on the one hand and the bizarre on the other?
We canít even begin to address these questions, of course, until we know just what spirituality is. How do we know it when we see it? Good question. A good Bible dictionary I use doesnít even have a definition of spirituality. Websterís defines it as "sensitivity to religious values," suggesting a connection between spirituality and religion that we will explore further in a minute, or , alternatively, "the quality or state of being spiritual," suggesting nothing much at all.
We need to do better, and I think we can. Let me give you a definition that I think is particularly helpful. It comes from Father Stephen Sundborg, S.J., the President of Seattle University. I donít know if this definition is original to him, but heís the one I got it from. I once heard him define spirituality as "oneís lived relationship with mystery." Letís first take a closer look at Sundborgís definition and see what we find.
Spirituality according to this definition is our "lived relationship with mystery." The key concept in the definition is, of course, "mystery." What does that mean in this context? Well, a mystery is something unknown, something to be discovered, to be solved, although once it is fully discovered or solved it ceases to be mystery. In the largest sense, mystery is lifeís great unknown, the secret behind existence, the other and the beyond. Paul Tillich calls it the "depth dimension" in reality. It is the something more in everything that is. It is that which we seek but never find.
Mystery is something humans have longed for as long as we have any records of human life. Sometimes we call it God, or the Divine, or the Holy, or the gods, or any number of other names. Whatever a particular culture may call it, there is no culture known to us that has not developed a way of relating to mystery. All of the worldís great religions are ways of relating to mystery. They may use different words for it--God, Allah (which isnít really a different word, just a different language), Yahweh, Brahma, etc. Despite the differing language they are all talking about the ultimate mystery.
If, then, spirituality is our lived relationship with mystery, and if the worldís great religions, including Christianity, are in their essence ways of relating to ultimate mystery, then those religions are in their essence types of spirituality. Letís look specifically at our own faith, Christianity, to see how that works. Christianity is fundamentally a way of relating to God, the term we apply to the Holy, the Divine, the Ultimate Mystery. It gives a language for talking about that which ultimately cannot be known. The Christian tradition at its best knows that God transcends, and transcends ultimately, all of our feeble human attempts to say anything about God. Our tradition at its best knows that we cannot capture the infinite in any of our finite, human words and ideas. Yet it also knows that we have to try, we have to have a way of talking about ultimate mystery that our limited human minds can grasp. And so the Christian tradition gives us a vocabulary and a set of stories that enable us to live in relationship with the Ultimate, with the Holy. Those stories, the stories of Jesus, his life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection, are profoundly, foundationally, existentially true. (That doesnít mean that they are necessarily literally or factually true. For more on that notion, come to the Borg book discussion group beginning next week.) They are the way we as Christians live in relationship with mystery, with the Holy, with God.
Christian language, Christian stories, and Christian rituals and sacraments are therefore in their essence a type of spirituality. They create a world and a view of the world within which we can live in intimate relationship with God. When they are properly understood, they create a space within which we can seek God in our lives, and they help us to experience something of the presence of God in our lives. Marcus Borg puts it this way. Those of you who have read the study guide I prepared to the first chapter of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time will recognize this statement and will have some idea of how important I think it is. Borg says:
Being Christian...is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. Rather it is about a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament of the sacred.
Weíll study this statement in greater depth in the book discussion group. It will suffice for now to explain that Borg is saying that Christianity is not a set of mandatory beliefs, not a set of rules that have to be followed, but rather a way of living that can deepen our relationship with God, our usual term for what Father Sundborg calls mystery in his definition. Christianity is, in other words, a profound spirituality. When we try to make it anything else, we distort it and threaten to destroy it.
So why do so many people draw a sharp distinction between spirituality and religion? It is, I think, because for centuries the Christian Church has done its level best to drive spirituality out of the church, to change it from a way of living a relationship with God into a set of mandatory beliefs and rules. Look at the most popular forms of Christianity today. Conservative, evangelical Christianity says that you can be saved only if you hold a certain belief about Jesus Christ. The emphasis is not on living into a deeper relationship with the Holy, with ultimate mystery, but on forming and holding on to a certain belief, a certain theological proposition. Roman Catholicism, for which as many of you know I have in many ways great respect and admiration, in its more dominant conservative forms, emphasizes that salvation can come only from and from within the Catholic Church, that the faith is about believing what the Church teaches and acting the way the Church commands. Catholicism has great, powerful spiritual traditions within it; but its hierarchy these days are teaching not that great spirituality but obedience to the dictates to the church as the way to salvation. No wonder so many of our fellow citizens cannot conceive of Christianity as a valid type of spirituality!
And so, what does this mean for us here at Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ? If means, I think, that we have a great opportunity to offer people something they donít think they can find in a Christian church. We arenít conservative Evangelicals, although as Christians we do have a good deal that we share with them. We arenít Catholics, although there is much we can learn from Catholic spirituality. Rather, we offer people a freedom to explore their relationship with mystery that, I believe, most Christian churches do not. We offer the opportunity for people to rediscover the power, the wonder, the transforming, redeeming potential of Christianity understood not as a set of mandatory beliefs, not as a set of rules that have to be followed, but as a true spirituality, as our way of living our relationship with God, with the Holy, with Ultimate Mystery. So, with Psalmist let us say: Bless the Lord, O my soul. And let us understand that to mean not that we have to pray in a certain way, believe in a certain way, act in a certain way, but rather that we bless the Lord in living as we are able into a deeper and deeper relationship with God as we know God within the Christian tradition. If we understand it correctly, our faith, Christianity, can once again be a powerful spirituality, can be that for which so many people are looking. Thanks be to God. Amen.