By Carl McColman
We all know that so many people today prefer to remain spiritually independent, intentional about cultivating their interior life but unencumbered by affiliation to a faith community. In other words: “spiritual but not religious.”
We know that this annoys some religious people, while others seem to roll with it. Even though I remain engaged with Christianity-as-religion, I also try to understand and appreciate the perspectives of those who say “no thank you” to institutional religion.
Yesterday morning, this insight came to me, and if you identify yourself as spiritually independent, I’d love to hear from you to see if this resonates with your experience of spirituality and religion. I’m speaking specifically about Christianity, since that is the religion (and spiritual tradition) I know best. I’ll leave it to others to reflect on how other religions come across to the spiritually independent.
Here’s the thought that occurred to me:
You know what’s wrong with Christianity? It’s like learning that someone truly beautiful and wonderful has fallen in love with you — but all of your mutual friends keep busy telling you how you must act or behave or what you must do in order to be “worthy” of that love. All their advice, instructions, demands, etc. create such a din that it’s easy to forget that this was all about love to begin with.
I suppose it’s human nature. We want to give each other advice. We want to “help” each other out. Even those with the best of intentions often end of creating a worse mess because our attempts to shape each other’s actions end up coming across as controlling rather than liberating.
Christianity is a religion, and I believe at its heart, religion is simply a complex story about what it means to be human.
The story of Christianity is the story of a Divine Creator God who is Love, and who loves us, and essential that love is how God wants us to love one another — something we fail at spectacularly, pretty much all the time. So this God-of-Love has encouraged us to become, ourselves, embodiments of Love — in other words, to become saints, and prophets, and theologians, and mystics, and pastors, and preachers, and priests — all with the same end in mind: to love each other, serve each other, and help each other to respond more fully to the God-who-is-Love.
But ironically, even all these spiritual masters end up, often as not, making things worse rather than better.
Eventually, this Loving God becomes human to live and die as one of us, showing us the way to live and to love. This inspires an entirely new type of spiritual community, which of course leads to more saints, mystics, and so forth. Generation after generation, we keep telling each other the story, and countless people become inspired to embrace a fully mystical life, a life of union with this Divine Lover. But others just get caught up in the rules and the regulations.
As we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus, for so many people it feels like the “story” has become so caught up in the “rules” that its mystical heart has been all but lost.
I, for one, remain plugged in to Christianity as a community because for me it’s the way I keep working on the “love your neighbors” bit. But I also understand that “love your neighbors” has to extend beyond any visible institution. Meanwhile, I try to be sympathetic to those who have been hurt by the institution, or rejected by it, ignored by it, or even just bored to death by it. Sometimes, leaving a situation that is death-dealing rather than life-giving is itself a profoundly prophetic act.
I hope that those who feel called to engage with the adventure of mystical Christianity, whether functioning inside or outside of Christianity-as-a-religion, can find ways to understand that, in the eyes of Love, we all remain one. So let’s act like it.
Hmmm, did I myself just indulge in that tendency to tell other people what to do? I’m afraid so. Forgive me. Maybe it can’t be helped. So, facing the irony of this-is-what-Christians-do, allow me to try again: I hope that everyone whose eyes encounters these words, myself included, will simply take some time today and every day to embrace the Divine Love that is already present in all our hearts. Embrace that Love, and listen to Love’s call to you. Truly find the voice of Love, deep radical self-giving Love, and it will not lead you astray.