Pastor’s Friday Comments (06.14.19)

James Hollis is a Jungian analyst and an author who approaches life from a secular point of view. Nevertheless, many of his insights have practical application to the existence of any person, regardless of one’s outlook. I have been reading his book Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey to great personal benefit.

As you might expect, however, as a Christian I was only able to hang with him until he got to his critique of organized religion. I anticipated his personal approach to fall into the broad “spiritual but not religious” category, but I found his criticisms of organized religion (which I think are directed mostly at American Christianity) to be focused on the most negative examples to the exclusion of the benefits we receive from practicing our faith in a doctrinal and communal way.

In his chapter “Construct a Mature Spirituality,” these are his outlooks on two extremes:

What passes for popular religion in America, and many developed countries, is a rather pathetic encounter with the complexity of being human in an essentially unknowable universe. The largest religious groupings show up in two forms. One branch infantilizes its flock by making them feel guilty, reminding them how they failed to measure up to impossible standards of moral perfection…. Shame on those who exploit this human vulnerability!

On the other hand, there are those slick, coifed types who tell people what they want to hear: that you can have your wishes granted by right conduct, right thinking, right practice…. Shame on those who exploit this human vulnerability!

First of all, I’m right there with Hollis in his condemnation of these religious exploitations and I agree that these represent at least a large part of American Christianity, though we might quibble over how large a percentage they are. But instead of offering at least an acknowledgment that there is value in organized religion, he dismissively moves on to an encouragement for each individual to cultivate one’s own “mature spirituality.” His premise seems to be that in the face of the unknowable mystery of “the human project” all attempts at religious (as opposed to spiritual) practice are futile.

That’s where we part ways, and I think our different points of view come from our perspective on the human condition. Cultivating one’s own spirituality would depend quite heavily on both the desire and the ability of each individual to come to grips with the meaning of life, the fundamental challenges of our existence, developing an ethical and moral stance, and devising a set of practices for connecting with “the Other,” however one might conceive of that ultimate truth. Not only is that putting a lot on each person; in my observation, it isn’t happening in the lives of many people I know — religious, non-religious, or otherwise.

So, I would suggest filling in the gap between the egregious practices of religious charlatans that Hollis rightly condemns and his overly hopeful encouragement of individual spirituality with religious practice with integrity.

Integrity in religion involves life lived in community. Left on our own, we are likely to construct a spirituality that makes us happy, that fills our needs, and that fits with our particular and personal view of the universe. Religion practiced in community is more likely to take into account the greater good, to emphasize shared experience and responsibility over individual benefit, and to hold us accountable to more than our own desires.

Integrity in religion judges the received truth of one’s religious tradition while recognizing that there is value in what others have experienced, articulated, and passed down.

Integrity in religion ensures that one’s understanding of the Divine is not simply a projection of one’s own wishful thinking about the nature of God.

Integrity in religion fully recognizes that there are mysteries in the universe and that some things are ultimately unknowable, but that there are in fact fundamental truths that are worth affirming. For Christians those include the assertion that there is a good God who created the universe and all that is in it; that this God is personal and chooses to relate to human beings; and, most importantly for us, that this God is fully revealed in the historical Jesus who is the Christ. I know that is going too far for anyone who is opposed to religion in any formal structure, but I believe that they represent the best possible way of looking at and living in the world. Whether you arrive at these conclusions through individual meditation or practice in a group, I believe that they are a valid and satisfying way, to use Hollis’s phrase, to “construct a mature spirituality.”

I imagine that to have his ideas critiqued by a small-church pastor would neither surprise nor disturb a writer of Hollis’s stature and scholarly depth. But the wholesale acceptance of the premise of the ability of each individual to construct one’s own spirituality ignores the tremendous benefit that you and I have found in our participation in congregational life and in our learning and growing through the Christian faith.

You are likely to have friends and family members who readily embrace this idea of being spiritual without being religious. In as non-judgmental a way as possible, you might help them to explore precisely what they mean by that, as well as the extent to which they think that this has led them to a better life. Rather than being as dismissive of these people as Hollis is of organized religion, we would do well to engage in the kind of dialogue that would make us all better people.