From Religious Traditions to Religious Spirituality
Some of the recent, popular books in the study of religion include, Why God Won’t Go Away?, God is Back, and A New Religious America. What these books suggest is that secularism as a social phenomenon is on the decline. Perhaps human beings are growing out of their adolescent rebellion against God. On the other hand, what religious people will have to witness is the fast rise of a new type of ‘spirituality’ – a non-aligned spirituality. For instance, a recent cross-cultural study indicates that 40 per cent of American respondents and 20 per cent of German respondents describe themselves as ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’ In other words, the current development seems to point out that, after all, secularism was not a rebellion against God and the matters of the spiritual, but against institutional religions. As a member of a structured religion myself, I find this phenomenon in the Western world very interesting and challenging.
This social situation has polarized two major pathways of seeking God and the things of ultimate concern. And sometimes these two pathways are even seen to be separate: religion and spirituality. There is a trend in the contemporary study of religion that claims that the individualistic, experience-oriented spirituality is even superior to communal, structured religion.
Reading the Gospels very closely, I sometimes ask myself, “Is Jesus rebelling against the institutional religion of his own time?” Yes, Jesus constantly challenges the religion he was born into, but he does so while being within the structures of that religion. And this is even more interesting. Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads the Scriptures (Lk 4:16), and thus he observes the core requirements of the Sabbath. He was called a Rabbi and he taught in the temple (Mt 26:55; Mk 12:35; Jn 5:14; Jn 7:14; Jn 10:23). Jesus celebrates the feasts of his religion (Mt 26:1-19; Jn 7:37). He pays the temple tax (Mt 17:27). For sure, Jesus wouldn’t identify himself as being “spiritual-but-not-religious.”
On the other hand, Jesus did not blindly follow, or irrationally justify, the practices of his religion and society. In fact, he challenged them, as he does in the gospel text of today. In other words, Jesus calls us to practice a “religious spirituality”. He shows an example of being spiritual within a particular religious tradition. Since we humans are social by nature, it is meaningful for us to seek God as a community. When we are part of a group of people who sincerely seek God, that group becomes an encouragement on our own search for God. The community helps us acknowledge and discern our experiences of God. However, when we are part of a community we also inherit the history, the traditions, and the mores of that community. Jesus invites us to constantly examine if these religious traditions really serve the original purpose: that is, to mediate the experience of God! When the experience of God is at the center of our religious practices, then this is religious spirituality.
In the gospel passage of today, Jesus tells us not to “put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions” (Mk 7:8). Sometimes it is not easy to know which is the commandment of God and which are human traditions. In institutional religions, often the commandment of God itself gets interpreted in terms of human traditions. For instance, in the Christian heritage it is not easy to differentiate the revelation of God from the traditions of human civilizations – Hebrew, Greek and Roman. The effort of some Christians to purify their ‘faith’ from whatever is Roman might just be futile, and they might be victims of human traditions of their own contemporary philosophies and cultures. Even the non-aligned-spirituality that I referred to in the beginning might well be a product of the contemporary culture of Western individualism. So what is the way forward? What is the way of living our religious spirituality? How do we live the mind of Christ?
I think, we could pick up three criteria from the Liturgy of the Word today. These three ideas could help us focus on religious spirituality rather than mere traditions.
The Hebrew Scriptures often speak about keeping the Law and practicing it as two distinct events, the latter is seen as an outcome of the first. In the first reading of today this is implied. Deuteronomy 4:6 says, “Keep them, put them into practice, and other peoples will admire your wisdom and prudence.” Elsewhere, the same book is more explicit: “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let the words I enjoin on you today stay in your heart” (Dt 6:4-6).
In this spirit of the Scriptures, when Jesus says, what is important is what is in a person’s heart (Mk 7:21), I would like to think that he is reminding us that religion is a matter of the heart. That good action is the outcome of the contemplation of God and His values in our heart. Yes, true religion pays attention to the heart.
Another word that appears in the Word of God today is ‘truth’. The responsorial psalm that we just sung is a didactic psalm that teaches in a prayerful way the commandments of God. Psalm 15 begins with a question (which was omitted in the lectionary): “Lord, who will dwell on your holy mountain?” And the psalm goes on to give the answer: “Whoever lives blamelessly, who acts uprightly, who speaks the truth from the heart” (Ps 15:2). The Liturgy of the Word reminds us of the second aspect of true religion: integrity or truth. Truth in thought, word and deed, this is integrity. And religious spirituality is expressed in personal integrity.
And finally, the 2nd reading of today, from the Letter of St James offers us the third aspect of true religion. It says, “Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world” (Jam 1:27). If integrity is the outcome of the contemplation of God and His will in our hearts, then compassion towards our neighbor becomes the concrete expression of integrity. Compassion is an overflow of contemplation and integrity.
Contemplation, Integrity and Compassion form the core of religious spirituality. They are the values that can make religion relevant even in the context of secularism today. They are at the heart of the life and message of Jesus. May these values be also in the heart and life of the followers of Jesus!
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.