On Religion and Spirituality

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Defining terms

The response to religion

Hostility towards religion

Trinity and Spirituality

Christianity not a Religion

Other comforts to the Spirit

It was one of the worst days of my life. We have moved far away for work, we have just bought a house thinking that we are settling down in this city, and suddenly I lost my work. I was devastated and fearful; not knowing how we are going to get through this and what is in store for us. Then the words of Isaiah 6:1 came to me, “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Suddenly the doctrine of God’s sovereign control over history filled me with comfort in the midst of my grief. My spirit was lifted up as I pondered God’s control of our future. It was a moment when a doctrine of religion touched my spirit in a deep way.

One of my pet peeves has been the statement “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” This shows misunderstanding of the nature of religion and faith. It is my hope that this paper will clear up misunderstandings and enable us to see “religion” in a clearer light. As a chaplain, it is my interest to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Chaplains deal with a person’s spirit, and not necessarily with religious issues, as we walk with a person facing transitions in life (grief, death, sickness, decisions, etc.). Pastoral care is concerned with the condition of the spirit. I hope this gets clearer as we move towards our reflection.

Defining terms

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5)

In this passage, a part of the psalmist is talking to another part of himself. The part that is downcast (soul) can also be referred to as the spirit. When a person looks sad, we say his spirit is low. When a person looks happy, we say his spirit is high. The spirit has different resources for coping with his situation. The part that is asking the questions can be referred to as the mind. As the spirit experiences his situation as chaotic, the mind transcends the situation and grasps at its resource (wisdom from his religious tradition, meaningful experiences and relationships, sense of acceptance, etc.) in facing the situation. The psalmist is going through some hard times and his mind is reflecting on his resource for getting through this situation. What the psalmist used as a resource is a doctrine of his religious tradition. These resources can also be called spiritual reality. When times get tough, people grab on to spiritual reality.

Here is a fuller treatment of religion. Religion is the sum of traditions- teachings and practices, passed down through generations in a community, as it reflects on its place in the universe. Religion is a product of community as it wrestles with God’s revelation and/or its wisdom. The psalmist learned, by doctrinal teaching and/or experience, that God is his Savior. It is definitely better when a religious doctrine becomes a resource for a person’s spirit, and we who communicate doctrines have no control over that. In preaching and pastoral care/counseling, the purpose is to bring to mind religious doctrine as it deals with people who are facing life’s sometimes happy and sometimes sad situations. Whether people find the doctrine comforting is beyond the preacher’s control.

This brings us to a discussion of the heart. The heart is the center of the person’s spirit. Decisions about how a person handles himself (practice) and what a person believes (faith) comes from the heart. Imagine what the psalmist is going through in his mind, the inner conversation probably went like this:

Mind: It’s so chaotic, it is hopeless. My spirit is down.

Mind: God will save me. I have experienced it and that is what I thought and I believe it. My spirit is lifted up. (conversation goes on and on)

Where will the psalmist’s spirit settle down (up or down)? It is by where his heart leans towards. He may become overwhelmed with what he sees and continue into despair. On the other hand, his heart may lean in faith towards the religious doctrine. Some may say he is leaning on his relationship with God, not on religious doctrine. However, the relationship is part of the religious doctrine. The Jewish worldview, which is the basis of the Jewish religion, says that God has chosen their people to have a relationship with. Through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God promised that he will bless them and the world will be blessed through them. God is in the midst of their story, saving them from slavery (Exodus), giving them land, made them into a nation, and provides for them everyday. The acts of God are celebrated in their festivals (Passover, Sukkoth, etc.). It is the Jewish individual’s decision, which comes from the heart, to appropriate that story for himself, as he sees God’s blessings through trials and/or as he faces times of struggle (fears, worries, etc.)

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Response to Religion

Listen to this indictment from God, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Psalm 29:13)

What is happening here? Some individual Jews did not appropriate the story for themselves. Their hearts are settled in unbelief. They showed this by leaning their heart towards other gods, instead of trusting God in their lives. In those times, it is common to believe that “divine” power rests in idols (statues of other gods). This is implied in our modern day superstitions, for example, rubbing a rabbit’s foot brings good luck. Some individual Jews just gave up on their religious tradition but others maintained worship without heart.

Why did they still worship God? There is some comfort gained from religious practice itself, maybe through the fulfillment of habitual obligations, or the calming effects of ritual. The worship time is also community time, time to be with friends who may be a comfort to them. The Prophets, and astute observers, rail against this empty religion, a religion disconnected from the God behind it, with practices that has lost its meaning. Ritual performance (circumcision, sacrifices), unaccompanied by faith, is an abomination to God. Because their hearts are not leaning towards God, they did not believe that his way is best for them, which resulted in violating his laws. They bowed down to other gods, who they thought will give them what they want when they feel God is not reliable, and oppressed their neighbors, because wealth became more important than their relationships with God and their neighbors.

This brings us to the issue of religions mixing with each other. Could there be idols in a secular society, a society that is more reticent to believe in the supernatural or any teachings from the past? Ancient and some people today believe that divine power rests on objects (statues, more subtly rabbit’s foot) or even people who possess charisma. I define the divine as a presence that evokes devotion. Religion does not have to reach out to a personal divine power.

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Hostility towards Religion

In modern times, there is hostility towards the supernatural and the wisdom of the ancients. Notice the hostility towards the idea of intelligent design. Despite the common sense that when we see a system functioning with purpose and order (e.g. the human body) there is intelligent design behind it, some scientists cling tenaciously to the idea that the universe and the systems in place came about by random chance. The idea of natural selection itself (species adapt to its environment) presupposes a drive in nature to survive. That drive then is behind the evolution of species, and that drive must have purpose, and purpose implies intelligence. The natural phenomenon, how nature came about, seem to be better explained by the idea of intelligent design, but institutions punish those who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.

The wall put up against intelligence design is a wall to push away the idea of a personal God. It’s a wall to protect the atheistic worldview, a religion that puts its faith on the human ability to figure out his world without input from the supernatural, from being challenged. The practice of this religion could be legal action, as it imbibes the concept of separation of church and state (not in constitution), to push the idea of God away. This emotional clinging to the idea of non-existence of God, even a deistic conception where God just left the universe to run, reminds me of the medieval church’s reticence to accept the idea that the earth is round, and insisting that the earth is flat. The battle is not between educated and non-educated people. There are educated and non-educated believers and non-believers. The battle is in the heavenly realms where forces hostile to God are lodging an attack against his reality.

The hostility towards religion goes hand in hand with hostility towards tradition or the wisdom of the ancients. I heard somebody say that certain sexual mores (sex reserved for marriage between one man and one woman) are old-fashioned, and therefore they do not follow it. Behind that statement is the assumption that ‘old” wisdom could be discarded. This is plain rebellion of the foolish who reject wisdom.

Can man be good without God? It is possible, but then the human being must adopt a worldview to overcome forces within himself that could destroy him and/or others. Enlightened self-interest presupposes the connection of all nature, including man. Since we are connected with others, our kindness towards others is kindness towards ourselves. Why is it good to be kind to the whole system? Because survival of the system is the highest value (worldviews/religions assigns value) and kindness contributes to the survival of the system. This sounds like Monism and it is the worldview of Eastern religions, and the worldview behind enlightened self-interest. The point is, humans cannot escape the quest for a place in the universe and assigning value to something, and the worldview that is a product of his quest influences his actions.

Despite the rise of secular, supernatural rejecting thought, we see the rise of the New Age movement, Paganism, and even the revival of orthodox thinking. This shows that human beings could not find meaning and comfort in a world devoid of spiritual reality. He must turn to the supernatural, and the wisdom and traditions discarded by arrogant modern chauvinists (those who assume that what is modern is better than what is old). The foolish may say that the world is devoid of the spiritual, and attempts to find something beyond naturalistic reality is wishful thinking from people who can't cope with reality. That certainty that purports to know everything must be challenged. In the end, some don't know the divine because they just never experienced the divine.

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Trinity and Spirituality

I believe that the human spirit has a conception of the divine, a force that orders his world and evokes devotion. I will call this divine power. This is even true of the naturalist as will be explained below. They may not call it God, but it affects their spirits. People apprehend the divine power as separate from them, inside them, or in people they know (ancestors, community).

I was driving one dark morning, and suddenly I thought about my life, how I got where I was. Immediately after that, I felt the presence of a power that filled me with a sense of loving security. I attributed to this presence the satisfaction I feel about my present life. I felt that it is the same presence I have encountered as the words of Isaiah 6:1 came to me in my moment of despair (see the beginning paragraph). I felt a sense of love and loyalty to this presence, remembering how he has brought me where I am. Some people may find loyalty for impersonal principles (courage, wisdom, love, etc.) and devote their life to finding them (working to become epitomes of those). Whether personal or impersonal, the divine presence may be experienced as transcendent, far away from us, but nevertheless provokes our devotion.

Love songs, songs of devotion for another person, inundate us. Here is a line from the song “My Heart Goes On” by Celine Dion. “And you're here in my heart, And my heart will go on and on” In this song, the heart really refers to the spirit (the spirit is the inner person and the heart is its center), what makes a person go on through life, despite the hardships she faces. The lover acknowledges her beloved as the one who helps her go on, the one who lifts her spirits. This is the language of devotion. It seems that a man could experience the presence of another in a way that provokes devotion. This phenomenon is not limited to love stories, but what may be behind ancestor worship. People experience care and learn wisdom from their families, and that wisdom and care is passed on from generation to generation. It is then fitting that ancestors evoke devotion, being seen as a source of wisdom and care even beyond death. A person's community can evoke devotion. The idea of avatars (Hinduism), humans believed to possess divine power, came from the idea that humans can possess the divine power, and those humans evoke devotion.

I used to know this man who gets excited when he talks about the advances in technology. He believes that technology will eventually save human beings from their hardships. He is an atheist. Behind this excitement (Praise?) about technology lies faith in human reason, an energy that brings about progress. “Reason”, which is inside human beings and not something supernatural, will triumph and “salvation” will come to humanity. Marxism puts its faith in a historical force, the class struggle, and this force is within nature. A person's history, culture and race can evoke devotion, and this is called natinalism.

To summarize, some people experience divine power as something apart from nature, a supernatural personal or impersonal principle. Others experience divine power in human relationships, even with ancestors and legendary people. Others experience the divine power within nature, as a historical energy or in human potential.

I believe these three experiences of the divine power fits with the doctrine of the trinity. The doctrine of the trinity asserts that there is one divine presence. This Divine presence has revealed himself in the history of the Jewish people as the word coming from outside nature, choosing a people for himself to have a relationship with him, and directing the course of history. This Divine presence then revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. In him resides divine power and in him, the divine presence who first made himself known to the Jewish people, fulfills his promises- the forgiveness of sins, the restoration of his people, and eternal life. Jesus is the divine word who gives us life to the fullest. The Divine presence has also revealed himself as the Spirit, working through the church to build a worldwide community dedicated to the divine, in the person of Jesus Christ. This spirit moves individuals to grow into Christlikeness in the same way the spirit gives birth to creation. These “persons” are the one Divine presence. This is the mystery of the trinity, hard to apprehend but nevertheless in line with biblical revelation.

Trinitarian monotheism proclaims this; Other divine powers outside nature are not god. The God of Israel is true God- creator and sovereign. There are no other human “manifestations” of God, except Jesus. Spirits that do not bring people under Christ and does not acknowledge the God of Israel as the one true God, are not of God. There is a particularity in the revelation of the triune God that makes Christianity unique and non-inclusive. It does not accommodate all spiritualities.

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Christianity not a Religion

I want to touch on a claim that has been a pet peeve of mine, that “Christianity is not a Religion”. I believe that this statement is some Christians’ attempt to be in line with the worldly culture’s hostility towards religion and ancient wisdom, and also a result of a misunderstanding. It may have come from an innocent motive, distinguishing Christianity from other religions, but it is inaccurate. Here are the distinctions some people make.

Christianity is a relationship, not a religion, as if only Christianity has a relational component to it. Devotion, by its very nature, is relational. There is a Krishna devotion among Hindus, and devotion is a way of “salvation” in Hinduism. Christians are devotees of Jesus Christ. If Hare Krishnas are followers of a religion, then Christianity is also a religion focused on devotion. There are more relational conceptions of Islam. The Sufis stress having a personal relationship with God, experiencing God’s closeness. This is the same preoccupation of the monastics and pietists; how can we be closer to God?

Religion is about working your way to God (through rituals and/or doing enough good works), Christianity is about God reaching down to humanity, and humanity responding by faith. However, there is a grace component in Buddhism. There are Buddhists who believe that it is only by the grace of Amida Buddha, who forego enlightenment to help people gain enlightenment, that a person can attain enlightenment. This brings up another point; Buddhists don’t see God as a personal judge who will either welcome some to heaven and banish some to hell. Therefore, it’s not appropriate to call all religion a way to get to God or heaven. In Islam, there are those who believe that the declaration of faith towards Allah as the only God and Muhammad as his prophet is what is necessary to gain heaven. They are like Christians who claim faith alone, apart from works, for salvation.

Although Christianity is a religion, it does have a unique aspect. Along with Judaism, and to some extent Islam because of its dependence on biblical revelation, its claims matter and are open to investigation. Christianity and Judaism are imbedded in history. It does not really matter for Hinduism if the god Rama was really on earth 400,000 years ago. However, it does matter a lot to Christianity if Jesus did not rise from the dead. It does matter a lot to Judaism whether King David, whose descendant is the center of the Messianic hope, actually lived. Those historical events are open to investigation. If they are not true, then Judeo-Christian faith has to be abandoned.

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Other Comforts to the Spirit

There was a song by Keith Green that says “How can they live without Jesus?”, the claim being that life is not worth living without Jesus. Although as a Christian I do believe that Jesus’ claim that it is through him that life to the fullest including eternal life is obtained, I have a problem with this statement. Billions of people have not known Jesus and it is presumptious to think that they did not feel their lives to be complete. Are we just going to doubt people's sense of well-being just because they are non-believers?

I believe in something called common grace. God is gracious to all people in the sense that he is the ultimate source of what they need for the comfort of their spirits. This is the basis for helping people, so we can be instruments of God’s common grace. Some of these comforts do not have anything to do with religious beliefs and practices (prayer, rituals). Some people find comfort being with their families. Some people find comfort in their own courage, their acceptance of reality and willingness to face it, their sense of peace. Some people soothe their spirits through music, entertainment, hobbies. My concern is that we may be using Jesus as another instrument of human fulfillment if we insist that comfort could not be found anywhere else. We may revert to comparing Jesus to everything else. I don't believe this is right. God is God whether he is comforting to us or not. We bow down to him because he is God, not to get something out of it. That may be a valid start but ultmately God must be God in our lives because he is God.

We have a great God who despite the sinfulness and unbelief of man soothes his spirit. My hope is that God’s Holy Spirit would lead mankind to worship God the father, the giver of all comforts, in the person of Jesus Christ. May people recognize the triune God as the true source of all comfort.

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