As someone who tries to avoid defining myself by who I am not, I am sometimes surprised by my knee-jerk dis-identification with religion. Usually this occurs when I hear of yet another appalling act being done in the name of religion – terrorist acts committed, people of other faiths or no faith murdered, women oppressed, gays and lesbians persecuted, the indigenous members of a society colonized the poor patronized, and much more. You are familiar with the litany. All religions appear on this roster of horrifying behaviors, even though many of us are tempted to believe that the really serious problems are associated with faiths other than our own. But I also find myself wanting to distance myself from religion when I meet religious people who are abysmally poor examples of the human species. Too often religion seems to produce or support dogmatic rigidity, prejudice and small mindedness, intolerance, and chronic – even if religiously disguised – levels of anger and hatred. Too often religion seems to contribute to our problems, not be part of the solution.
But while the dark side of religion is quite widely recognized, less recognized is the fact that spirituality – which is generally viewed more positively than religion – also has a shadow side to it. Sadly, it has become clear to me that spirituality does not always add value to life – at least not to this life, and not in terms of making people more deeply human and whole. Honesty forces me to conclude that the spiritual path can lead to an escape from a robust commitment to reality, the repression or dissociation of sexuality, disconnection from the emotions, alienation from the body, and increasing distance from one’s unconscious depths. Too easily, spiritual practices lead to increasing identification with those of one’s own religious tribe and an ever-weakening sense of solidarity with all humankind. Too easily, spirituality involves a narcissistic me-and-God relationship that insulates us from, rather than sensitizes us to, the problems of our world. Too easily, it is associated with a focus on beliefs rather than being. Too easily, it directs us away from life rather than toward a genuinely deeper, fuller and more vital life. And although these problems are not restricted to religious spiritualities, it seems to me that it is the religious forms of spirituality that are often most vulnerable to these dangers.
I have started with the bad news. The good news is that spirituality has unique potential to help us become whole. Soulful spirituality is the name I give to those ways of living and being that facilitate our becoming fully human and deeply alive. St. Irenaeus said that the glory of God is humans who are fully alive. If he was right about this (and I think he was) it seems clear that a very large percentage of those who truly glorify God will never be found in churches and do not self-identify as Christians. It is a tragedy that many who follow Jesus have forgotten that he said that he came to earth to bring us abundant life. The really good news for those of us who seek to follow him is that being Christian and seeking to be fully alive and deeply human are not incompatible! Don’t settle with simply being a good Christian. Your calling is much more!