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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Religion vs. Spirituality

The life of the individual only has meaning insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred that is to say, it is the supreme value to which all other values are subordinate.
–Albert Einstein

The following story has been sitting in my e-mail box for some time waiting for me to get around to sharing it. I was raised christian but never went to church. As such I have never felt a very strong pull towards organized religion but that does not go to say I am not spiritual and that I don't believe in God. I spent about 2 years trying to "suspend my disbelief" at very aspects of the christian church as I searched for one that I felt a part of. I tried non denominational, lutheran, and catholic among others and never found one that embodied what I believe to be true. I tried to change my beliefs so that I could fit into a church (how silly is that) and just couldn't bring myself to do it. Spiritually speaking I am not so sure any of the organized religions out there have it completely right. I prefer to think that they all have some element of truth and a lot of story telling to fill in the gaps. Religion has always been tied to politics and most major doctrine of the church were man made not god made and are therefore fallible as is man.

Today's Inspirational Story

I Shopped for a Church...and Found Spirituality Instead

I have begun to form answers to questions that pelted me like big, fat raindrops when I first left the Catholic church.
By Nancy Colasurdo

The Rev. August Gold, equipped with a headset microphone, walks back and forth in front of her Sunday congregation as she speaks, waving red-tipped nails as she expresses a particularly passionate piece of her message. She is talking about The Goose Girl--a barely known fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm--and incorporating quotes from Caroline Myss, the Tao Te Ching and Buddha. Her cadence is captivating to her rapt audience. She is all light and wisdom.

"Stop blaming!" she implores, her eyes zeroing in on various congregants as she works the room. "Stuff happens." She laughs heartily at her own humor, spurring guffaws from her audience. She is clearly in her element, this compelling senior minister and spiritual director at the Sacred Center for Spiritual Living, a New Thought Church located in New York City. How fortunate I feel to have found this uplifting haven by happenstance, drawn in first by my personal affinity for the messenger and then riveted in a broader sense by the center's "right thinking" philosophy.

* * *

I decided three years ago it was time to divorce Catholicism. The priest scandal was the last straw. I had already departed from church doctrine on premarital sex, birth control, homosexuality, priests marrying, and abortion, among other things. With the scandal and its subsequent cover-ups, I finally got the courage to stand up and say, "No more. It's not for me." I vowed to do some church "shopping." I concentrated on visiting churches, rather than get bogged down reading mind-numbing comparisons and explanations of religions. What ensued was a full-blown spiritual journey that has been at once educational, jarring, inspiring and affirming.

I wanted a faith that is culturally diverse, guilt-free and non-judgmental. But did it exist? I gravitated to the idea of a Christian church, mainly because it was what I knew, but kept my mind open. I definitely didn't want to frequent a place run by flakes or spiritual snobs.

First up was Judson Memorial Church, a fixture in Greenwich Village since 1890 and known for tackling issues of conscience. I enjoyed the relaxed, congenial atmosphere and went back several times, partaking especially in the socializing before the service. Next I tried Marble Collegiate Church, the base from which Dr. Norman Vincent Peale launched far-reaching innovations in practical Christianity for 52 years. The grandeur of the church and the formality of the service felt familiar to this former Catholic, but as I sat there I had an overwhelming feeling that the structure no longer fit me.

In the meantime, in my work as a life coach I was helping several clients who had set ambitious, nurturing spiritual goals. One of them recommended I read the book Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen. As I read it, I suddenly found the Eastern approach illuminating; I had spent almost 40 years with tunnel vision around Catholicism and hadn't learned much at all about other spiritual paths. Tentatively, I began to question Christianity.

Two incidents around that time punctuated my questioning. First, I applied for a job that required me to fill out a form containing a few optional questions. One of them asked that I check a box identifying my religious affiliation. "Christian" was the top choice. I read it and hesitated. What would have been automatic to me suddenly wasn't so obvious. I didn't check the box. Soon after, I turned down the opportunity to be godmother to my sister's child because it would have required me to join the local Catholic church. My conscience wouldn't let me do it. My cousin asked, "You wouldn't do it for her?" as she pointed to my infant niece. I decided in the long run that my niece will benefit from my presence as someone who stands up for what she believes.

Somewhere in this swirl, the journey had shifted from shopping for a church to shopping for spirituality. I can best trace it to what was happening at the used bookstore in my town, which had begun featuring Wednesday evening salons around spiritual themes. The staff brought in facilitators - sometimes local clergy - to lead discussions on such topics as mysticism, The DaVinci Code, dreams, meditation, and The Passion of the Christ. As a result, I began asking myself questions I never had the forethought or audacity to ask before: Who is divine to me? Is Christianity based on a belief (in Jesus' resurrection) that I just couldn't accept? Where does the Bible fit into my beliefs? Will I go to hell for all of this questioning?

Woven through my questioning was The Artist's Way, which I have read as both a student and a teacher. In the winter of 2003, I enrolled in a 12-week course based on the book--designed to unblock and unleash creativity via a spiritual path--and taught by its author, Julia Cameron. The class was held in a spacious, airy room on the Upper East Side through the Sacred Center for Spiritual Living; it took place on Sunday afternoons. Each week, as I attended my class, I began to notice people leaving a worship service as I was arriving. One day I decided to check it out.

* * *

That first Sunday, I watched with fascination as Rev. Gold delivered her message. I had never seen anyone command a room like that. I returned the following week. Truly, I had no idea what kind of service I was attending. I just knew it felt right in a place that rarely lets me down--my gut. In the weeks that followed, I listened to Iyanla Vanzant and Audrey Kitagawa of the United Nations give meaningful messages.

Once my Artist's Way class ended, though, my attendance at the Sacred Center began to drop off. It was only after the big questions I mentioned earlier-the ones that had emerged through those discussions at the bookstore--that I started to crave the feeling of rightness I had found at the Sacred Center. So it was nearly a year later, in the spring of 2004, that I returned full force.

Finally, I took the time to learn that I was in fact attending a New Thought church. I have since read up on it and, with the help of a wise friend who also attends the Sacred Center, am just beginning to understand why it speaks to me so. According to the Affiliated New Thought Network, "New a modern spiritual philosophy stressing the power of right thinking in a person's life, the idea that our thoughts and attitudes affect our experience and that God (or whatever other name a person might have for a Higher Power) is within the individual." Each Sunday, about 100 people come together for energizing song, guided meditation and a sermon-like message.

Perhaps most significantly, I have begun to form answers to questions that seemed to pelt me like big, fat raindrops when I first left the Catholic church. So here goes:

We are all divine. Christianity may be based on a belief I can't accept, but does any of us really know? I certainly no longer feel that worshipping or thinking like a Christian is positive or sensible for me. As for the Bible, it is filled with wisdom, but it was not written by the hierarchical God espoused in Judaism and Christianity. I will not go to hell for living a positive, purpose-filled life in which I take responsibility for my actions. In fact, the concepts of heaven and hell now seem contrived and man-made to me.

What I know unequivocally is that I feel deep peace when I attend the Sacred Center. New Thought doesn't ask me to discriminate, feel guilty, dwell on suffering, judge, worship a punishing God or be anyone I'm not. When Rev. Gold--or whoever else is delivering the message--stands at the front of the room and speaks, I settle in and enjoy the ride. I have begun to heighten my awareness of "right thinking" by reading books that augment my weekly experience. All of this has made me richer spiritually, more effective as a life coach, more likely to engage in healthy questioning, and essentially more evolved as a person.

I guess you could say that I set out merely window-shopping for a church and have emerged instead carrying a shopping bag filled with deeper spirituality. Assuredly, shopping for cashmere never felt this good.


NewYorkMoments said...

I threw away the notion of "religion" along time ago and live my life according to my own idea of spirituality. It's very freeing :-)

k o w said...

I'm with NYM. I had too many questions after 12 years of Catholic schooling that my priest couldn't answer. I like to think that if indeed there is a higher being of some sort me and him are getting along swimmingly. They may not like the idea of me being naked on my website but they'll have to deal with it.

Tom said...

Please, just take this as food for thought...

But who ever said the correct path would be the easiest? I think you may be shortchanging yourseleves in the long run of life by taking the easy way out now.

Shan'Chelle said...

NYM I agree it is very freeing.

KOW I find that I just don't have faith in the unknown...especially when there is factual evidence in existence that disproves it.

TOM I appreciate your comment. I knew when posting this that it was a sensitive subject and that there are a lot of people (my parents included) that would adamantly disagree with my take. I never claimed that the correct path should or would be easy, in fact I would expect it not to be. The problem for me is that I consider it to be very easy to have blind faith in christianity (or any organized religion really) even in the face of facts that disprove it. Additionally, I find that the hypocritical behaviors manifested by the followers of most organized religions (as well as the doctrine of the religion itself) is not something that I personally can accept. My real issue with religion (especially it seems in the modern day US). Even more insidious to me is how the US touts its beloved "freedom of religion" ideal while everyone who looks at the government with open eyes sees that there is really no such thing as seperation of church and state in this day and age. (hopping down from my soapbox)

Tom said...

I actually agree and understand your assessment. I think it takes a strong will and determination to break with an institution that you are born into. I get very frustrated with the religious right in this country for their self righteous right for life, spending incredible amount of effort to insert their laws into my life, while fully supporting what's happening in Iraq and capital punishment.

For most, blind faith is something we are born into. So it's not easy to step away from family and tradition. But once you make that first and important step, I'm just suggesting don't stop now. I hope you find what you’re looking for. :)

Shan'Chelle said...

Tom - I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the encouragement

MezzoDragon said...

I think that there is more "blind faith" involved in believing in total evolution. And just as Reletivity will always be a theory, so will evolution-because it cannot be proved, any more than creation. There are just so many perfect elements that would have had to come together at just the right time, over and over again. The very idea of there being some sort of "primordial ooze" to work with is a problem-where did the Ooze come from? Pure evolution has to start with plain elements, a fully formed amino acid is already SOMETHING... Maybe I'm taking the easy way out by believing in a higher power.

Shan'Chelle said...

You make a very good point MEZZO. Blind faith does exist on both sides. The problem with this world is that things aren't black and white, right or wrong, etc. That is the problem with either extreme. The answer in actuality probably does lie somewhere in the middle. There have to be forces outside of what we can explain at work, however, what those forces are I can't even begin to say for certain. That is my biggest hang up with "religion". I have a hard time with their requirement that I proclaim their word as the ultimate and only truth. As much as I hate the term "intelligent design" I think it is likely that this is the closest thing to being true that we can actually comprehend with the tiny percentage of our brain that we actually use. Maybe it would help if we gave it a nifty name....maybe something like creatoultion or evolation. I personally vote for evolation!