I had a spiritual experience Wednesday evening, but I was nowhere near a church or a religious service.
I was looking through beautiful trees at sunset near my house and as I saw the sun break through the clouds and shine brightly through the branches, I was filled with the awe and joy which I experience so often when I’m close to Nature and the God of Nature.
I felt close to the Creator. I felt the joy of being connected to the Divine. I felt God’s presence in a powerful way. But there was nothing religious about the experience.
One of the saddest and most awful realizations of my adult life has been that religion and spirituality so rarely intersect in a direct way. I grew up immersed in religion and occasionally having spiritual experiences, but I’ve seen modern culture doing its best to separate these two things — and that hurts everyone who’s genuinely searching for the Truth.
It’s become popular today for a lot of people to say, “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
I understand why that attitude developed. Many people have grown frustrated with the modern church — for many reasons — and I share many of those frustrations.
On the other hand, the modern church has increasingly become a victim of Enlightenment thinking which led a lot of religious people to believe that their faith had to be rational. Even if a faith doesn’t seem rational to outsiders, the demands of rationalism insist on internal consistency of a sort. As descendants of Enlightenment thinkers, religious people came to believe they must have a rigid systematic theology — one which can allow them to point to the system and say, “We have found the truth.”
A lot of people find great value and comfort within the structure and community of religious organizations, but a lot of other people are frustrated by the experiential limits. They find themselves experiencing God in a direct way and being told — explicitly or implicitly — that their experience isn’t valid, because it doesn’t fit within the systematic theology laid out by the smart thinkers of that faith.
You can participate in a religion — and many people do — without ever having any experience of the Divine. In the Evangelical Christian world, for instance, you’re told to believe an interpretation of scripture and repeat a prayer in a spirit of belief. Those who most sincerely pursue their faith within such a church structure would say there’s more to it than that, but for most people who come to a church and become members, that is as far as the experience goes.
On the other hand, a spiritual life is a lived experience of something which profoundly transcends the world which we understand. By definition, a spiritual experience is subjective and must always be considered incomplete, because we don’t know what else we might experience in the future.
You can experience something spiritual without necessarily being religious, because you might not understand what you’ve experienced or you might not have interpreted it yet.
Human religion tends to start with the genuine spiritual experience of somebody (or group of people) at some point, but then the subsequent followers codify everything and create a systematic theology which is an attempt to be a “theory of all truth.”
Before you know it, many people who practice that religion are holding to a form of it, but are no longer experiencing the substance which started at its root.
A lot of people push toward religion (and push back against spiritual experiences) because they want to hold onto a set of rules which they were taught, whereas a spiritual experience of the Divine might make them question the value of the practices and beliefs which they were given.
On the other hand, other people seek continuous spiritual experiences — through Nature or directly seeking God in other ways — but never settle on anything which they believe it means and never accept anything definite about a system of doctrines.
In an ideal world, spiritual experiences and religions should overlap 100 percent, but we humans are so likely to bring our own thoughts, culture and assumptions into the matter and pretend those things must be God.
I once heard someone say that for most people, God is just themselves with a deeper voice. And I fear that is true.
Most people I know who are immersed in churches — and remember that almost all of my contact with religious people is in Christian churches — are part of a community and a culture and a set of rules. Most of them rarely (if ever) have a direct experience of God. And if they did have such an experience, many people around them would be suspicious of it — and eager to “fact check” the experience against whatever they already happen to believe is true.
Separating spirituality from religion makes each weaker and less able to help people who are seeking Truth and seeking to know God. But in our culture, most religious people are terribly concerned about making sure nobody experiences something which might contract their existing beliefs — and most people seeking spiritual experiences strongly reject the structure and community which religion at its best can provide.
My faith is based on my own experience of who God is. That would make many people who I grew up with nervous, because that means I can’t stay within the narrow and confined definitions of God which allows them to be comfortable.
But my spiritual experiences lead me to need religious community. I don’t need someone to tell me what to believe or to try to shape my politics. I just need community with others who are seeking Truth and mutual love.
In a world where we’re more alienated than ever from each other, we crave an experience of God. But we also crave the comfort of seeking the Divine in the community of other seekers.
Spiritual people need the community that comes from religion at its best. Religious people need the freedom and spontaneous experience that comes from seeking direct and subjective spiritual experiences. It shouldn’t be one or the other, but the sad truth is that we’re separated the two.
I need God. I also need spiritual community. Maybe you need the same thing, too.