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Friday, September 2, 2016

Religion as spiritual exercise

For many, religion including its rules, rituals, and readings is the spiritual exercise. Par excellence!

Notions and functions of religion, however, are quite diverse, changing from time to time and place to place. We can distinguish at least four phases of religious development. There is evidence that in prehistoric times, religion was integrated completely in a society even though there was a sense of the difference between the secular and the sacred sphere's of life. The sacred with its stories of preternatural forces was celebrated at special moments to give meaning to the everyday life of birth, nourishment, sexual joining, and death.

In the development of agricultural and the great civilizations, religion became a guarantor of order, the ruler, law, and the state but also a devotion for households attempting to carry out the functions of making a living. We have the great Gods of state which often competed with Gods of other states towards the union of the One or chief God over all. And there were the household gods that held families together under the authority of masters some of which were able to enter the public realm of the state.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason led to the modern age in which religions are organized separate from the state. Some say this is the beginning of contemporary religions organized as voluntary associations supporting institutions run by professionals. Each of these religions has its own traditions, readings or scriptures, rituals and rules, and unique organizational structure. Some religions called conservative are more hierarchical and authoritarian, more exclusive in membership, more strict in rule keeping, and literal in scriptural interpretation. Or often within each religion there is a range between conservative and liberal members and communities.

These religions are tolerated by the modern secular state in so far as they do not threaten or undermine the common order, laws, and culture of the state which some consider the "civic religion" subject to the consensus of the governed. And this gives rise to the tensions we are now experiencing as we try to hold onto freedom of religion and speech while negotiating their inclusion in the developing culture of our social order.

It is this modern notion of the religions of which I speak here in terms of spiritual exercises which include spiritual reading, theological study, sermons, dialogues, music, dance, and other celebratory rituals especially in communities of meaning-seeking participants.

But we should note that we humans are in some places and times entering a nonreligious postmodern era where the institutions of private religion founder. More persons are adopting stances of skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism and identify themselves as without religion. This is promising when it increases inclusivity, search, tolerance, globalism. But it is also dangerous when it foregoes community through excessive individualism and neglects the operations of civic religion through excessive privatization. Religions then denigrate into cults that further true belief and domination.

While I personally do not accept supernatural entities, places, revelations, or ascribe to any doctrine of faith, I believe that the transition to a society without religions threatens to create soulless persons in a soulless social order. My own journey from Catholic Christianity, through Protestant Christianity, into Unitarian-Universalism is in no way a rejection of my Catholicism or Christianity. I still consider myself Catholic and Christian. But in my universalism, I also consider myself Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and all other religions that will have me. And in my unitarianism, I consider them all one in so far as they transcend themselves.

For the postmodern man like myself, religion is not to be dismissed or even diminished. Its language, its readings, its teachings, its rituals, and especially its community should be defended, celebrated, and nourished. But it must be integrated and transcended. Their spiritual exercises are soul building in so far as they foster in their participants progressive integration of personal, communal, and even cosmic spirit and ongoing transcendence of mind even beyond our religions and spiritual exercises.

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Note: it is hard for many of us postmoderns to answer a poll in which we describe whether or not we have a religion, believe in God, or regularly attend religious services, unless of course I have room to explain myself--which polls don't allow.

I can argue for being an atheist, a nontheist, a theist, a pantheist, a panentheist. I can argue with Dewey for being religious without having a religion. I can argue that I am against religion which is a source of clanism and violence. I can argue in defense of religion which I respect in our communities. I can see churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples as places of bigotry and exclusion. And I can see them through personal experience as tremendous sources and means of social justice.

But like all institutions or habits of behavior, I judge them in relation to their integrating and transcending possibilities. Do they foster the progressive liberation of the human spirit even, or especially, if it means leaving the domination of the denomination?


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