On Wednesday just before the Senate voted to acquit the President, Republican Senator Mitt Romney stood before his colleagues, the American people, indeed the whole world. In a measured voice, he explained that the oath he had taken to serve as an impartial Senate juror, the oath he had made before God, to God, was one he was obliged to keep. He could not and would not play party politics. He could not, would not, pretend that the House had not proven the President’s guilt. He could not, would not vote to acquit the President.
“I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.” Romney said. Then he paused, bowed his head, pressed his lips together, and at last regained his composure. “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”
Whether we realize this or not, what you and I and the rest of the world saw on Wednesday was not simply a man giving witness to his relationship with his God. What we also saw was a man whose sense of belonging to his religious tradition goes far beyond the casual or conditional.
This morning we are exploring what we mean when we say our faith community is Spiritual and Religious.
In recent weeks, we’ve explored other claims, which we know as our Five Smooth Stones. We maintain that Love Wins, that This World/Life Matters, that because our grey matter matters we Bring Our Brains. Next week we will conclude our series by considering the last of our five tenets: that just as God wants each person to be Free to Be themselves, so do we.
To say we are Spiritual and Religious is to say something big not only to one another but to the world beyond these doors. It’s an assertion, Spiritual and Religious is. It’s an invitation. And in an age given to writing off religion, Christianity especially, to say we are Spiritual and Religious is also a risk.
We are Spiritual and Religious. I can’t say this without thinking of Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Fr. Richard insists that the most important word in his organization’s name is neither Action nor Contemplation. It’s the word “and.”
We are not merely a spiritual community. We are not simply a religious entity. At Community Spirit, with great intention and a sense of divine calling we bring these two dimensions together in life-giving, world-changing, and ever-faithful ways.
We are a community created to support each person’s unique experience of and relationship to the Holy and created to open ourselves as one to the Spirit as we journey together as a congregation. What we offer is spiritual.
What we offer is also religious. We are a community that both honors and seeks the grounding of scripture and tradition, bringing these into meaningful conversation with the times, Christendom, and those of other faiths and no faith.
I just said a lot rather quickly. Let’s take a breath and then continue.
Spiritual and Religious. Borrowing from the title of one of UCC minister Lillian Daniel’s more recent books: Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.
The reverse is true, as well. Religious But Not Spiritual Is Not Enough.
I grew up in the United Church of Christ and honestly could not understand why everyone in the world wasn’t a UCCer. We had everything going for us—a God we were certain loved the world, a Jesus who asked us to join him in bringing heaven’s realities alive here on earth, a worshipping community that was joyous and diverse, minds that were free (even expected) to question and think outside the box, as well as scriptures and traditions that both anchored and challenged us.
We had it going on. We had everything a child of God could possibly want or need. Or so I thought until I began to notice that we lacked one thing. A felt sense of the Holy Spirit being in our midst—actively guiding, enlivening, inspiring us as a gathered body. A Spirit who was similarly available on the personal level, eager to befriend and dance with us.
Back then, there really was no word “spirituality.” At least not that I remember. Even as recently as the early 2000s, I remember a search committee from a very sophisticated California church asking me what I was talking about when I spoke of spirituality.
I responded at length but don’t think I made even an inch of headway. Back then, and even now in some settings, UCC churches were havens for free thinking and social justice but also prone to what Sue Artt and others call “functional atheism.” That is, unable or unwilling to actively seek God’s wisdom and guiding presence.
When we say as a church that we are a spiritual community, what we mean is this: we believe God has created us to relate to God intimately, experientially, uniquely.
As a church, we exist to invite and support the deepening of these distinct individual connections. We do this as a collective, as well, consciously inviting the Spirit’s presence and guidance as we make our way forward as a congregation.
We are a community actively seeking the Spirit. We are also a religious community. Which is to say that God is known to us not only through direct, distinct experience but also through scripture and tradition and the great gifts rising up from them: liturgy and the sacraments, art, music, theological reflection, and public witness.
To say we are a religious community is to say that ours is a body with thousands of years of sacred stories and God-given traditions that are trustworthy and relevant, tested and proven in ways that the insights of the latest spiritual best seller or guru talk are not.
Faith, I remember learning in seminary, is a solid, sturdy four-legged chair. Experience alone is not enough. Neither is reason alone. And yet those two, as wonderful as they are, do not make for sufficiently stable seating.
No, to be situated comfortably and at length, we also need the leg of scripture and also the leg of tradition.
As we sit, the weight of our spiritual and religious bodies shifts, causing each of these four legs to draw upon and rely upon the capacities of the other three legs. Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. All four are necessary for a responsible, reliable faith and the claims that faith makes.
On the first day of a confirmation class year ago, one of my youth proudly announced, “I’m against all religions because they have brought and justified so much violence and death, so much oppression and fear. Religions are dangerous.”
The rest of the class nodded in agreement.
“I don’t disagree,” I began. “Horrible things have happened in the name of this religion or that. In fact, awful, ungodly things are still happening. But the problem isn’t religion. The problem is people. And people use religion to justify the opposite of what God wants.”
To say we are spiritual, especially in these times, has a certain cache. It makes us sound cool and relevant and, in large measure, nonthreatening. To say we are spiritual could be understood to mean little more than the fact that we too find God in sunsets and baby’s faces and the music of waterfalls.
To say we are religious, again in these times, is to risk being perceived as a gathering of the pious and the dangerous, the hypocritical and the narrow-minded. People trapped in a dusty, dead past. To say we are religious is to risk being associated with them, the ones who have used or who are using religion in damning, damaging ways.
John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ posted a picture this week of his great, great grandfather Charles Dorhauer who came to the United States from Germany. Charles served in the Civil War, fighting on the side of white terrorist insurrectionists. (Dorhauer’s words, not mine.)
Dorhauer went on to apologize for his great, great grandfather’s participation in depriving others of their God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “I am truly sorry for all that has been done in the Dorhauer clan to use our white privilege as a weapon against others.”
And then John promised that he would devote the rest of his life to rewriting what it means to be a Dorhauer. “These [vows] are genuine, authentic and committed to all with earnestness and passion.”
To say as a church that we are not only spiritual but also religious is to say to those around us “Yes, we confess that Christianity has caused harm and hurt, and that this is still happening. As Christians ourselves, as disciples of the Jesus who sets us free and calls us to set others free, we pledge to use whatever power, whatever influence, whatever creative capacity we possess to renounce past and present injustices and to do what must be done to correct them.”
A vivid example of this is taking place now as progressive and enlightened churches engage in calling out those American Christians and their denominations who helped elect a President whose behaviors and policies stand in stark contrast to the teachings at the heart of Christian scripture and tradition.
Churches like ours are no different in spirit than John Dorhauer who, upon seeing the wrong in his family, has committed himself to correct it.
We do this not because it’s politically correct, and certainly not because it’s easy—because it’s not, but because our relationship with the Living God, the God of our experience and inheritance, calls us to this sacred, necessary work.
In this way, we are no different from Jesus who challenged his faith to become, well, more faithful, more aligned with the God he experienced and whose will and ways were alive in Jewish scripture and tradition.
At a time when many have lost faith in Christianity—too often for good reason—our church exists to participate with the Holy Spirit and like-valued churches in the redemption of our tradition wherever it has committed or is now committing sins against humanity and creation.
We cannot deny the damage done and presently being done in Christ’s name. Neither can we shrug and walk away, as many have, washing our hands of this ancient faith.
Christianity will not be changed, transformed, made more Christ-like by the complaints and criticisms of those who never belonged or who have given up and left. Not that their viewpoints are not valid. They are.
But if we are to challenge the church, our best and most useful tools are the words of the prophets and the psalmists. Our best and most useful tools are the stories that rise up out of our tradition, including the example and teachings of Jesus, thousands of years old and yet still as potent and relevant as ever.
To say we are spiritual is to say that active connection with the Holy is both our birthright and our responsibility.
To say we are religious is to say that what lies at the heart of our tradition is living, available, and grounding—offering us lives, both individually and together, that are filled with meaning and perspective that spirituality alone cannot supply.
We are Spiritual and we are Religious. One informs the other, informs the other, informs the other. Like the braiding of a cord, like living stones built upon the great cornerstone of Christ, the “and” in what we are exploring today is what makes for our greater strength and usefulness we live into our living faith.
Heaven knows, the world has always needed this. Now perhaps more than ever.