Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spiritual or Religious?

Window of rose

I have not yet brought up any spiritual or religious discourse on the blog. I have discussed art, politics, pop culture. But, religion is such a sensitive matter to most people that I have avoided it. Generally, the readers of this blog are somewhat liberal and have such a diverse, unique, and non-traditional opinion of spirituality that it would offend some, many, perhaps all if I were to broach the subject. Most of this audience are either artists, fellow bloggers, gay people, or close personal friends. Several are devout in their personal beliefs while others have been so criticized by mainstream established organized religion that they have rejected it completely. Religion has been a subject best left untouched here to save myself the headache of reading emails from irritated subscribers.

However, I have recently been prompted to confront my own personal views on spirituality. A dear friend reminded me how much comfort and consolation his religious beliefs bring him. He asked where I stood on the matter.

For the remainder of this blog post you will see me use the term “spiritual” rather than “religious” quite a bit. While many people use those terms almost interchangeably, I see them as being vastly different concepts. I have found many of my acquaintances, if not all, possess a strong core of personal values. Many of them believe there is a deeper meaning to life than merely living day to day. They believe there is a purpose to life that exceeds what we see with the naked eye. Most people I have met believe in a higher power (God, Divine Spirit, collective consciousness, Oversoul). I consider this to be the demonstration of a spiritual awareness or spiritual life. Religion, on the other hand, is an established, contrived collection of rules, practices, rituals and conventions that organize, separate, divide and categorize people into groups that loosely agree on the same views of spirituality. Where spirituality is the music of the heart, religion is the written notation that cannot be improvised on. Spirituality is the subject, religion is the painted canvas that is a mere interpreted reflection of the actual thing. Spirituality reinforces our humanity. Religion has sewn divisiveness and hatred for ages. Spirituality has inspired us while religion has spawned wars, bloodshed, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and terrorism. Okay, that’s as much as I can do with analogy and metaphor to explain myself. Moving on.

Like many in the southern United States I was taught to believe in one of the many super-conservative Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian sects. It has shaped my understanding of God, the afterlife, and the human soul. It has also taught me an exaggerated concept of sin, justice, social conformity and moral absolutism. It taught me to be self-loathing. While many Christian traditions teach the concept of “grace”, the notion that God forgives us our human fallibility, my particular upbringing required that I embrace the notion of an unattainable personal holiness.

Discovering that I was a gay person as a teenager complicated my spiritual life and religious beliefs considerably. Yet, I continued into my thirties trying as hard as I could to follow through on what I had been taught to believe. That conflict between my personal orientation and psychological conditioning through religion pushed me to the limit of my tolerance for emotional stress and anxiety. It led me to psychologists, counseling, SSRI prescription drugs and a constant pursuit of study in comparative religions and spiritual traditions. It led me away from the one thing I needed most, a nurturing, intimate relationship that would satisfy my need for personal acceptance.

Eventually I had to make a choice for my own personal happiness. I could either reject the Fundamentalist teachings I was raised with, or I could accept the fact that I was a “sinner” and pursue a potential fulfilling relationship. But, I could not do both. The two ideas were mutually exclusive according to the teachings of my religious upbringing. It was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. I am always amazed by the gay people who are able to reconcile the disparity of being gay and being Christian. On the one hand it’s a compromise that allows them a modicum of spiritual comfort, on the other its religious hypocrisy (which is supposedly an additional sin compounded onto the first).

So, I have drifted into my own somewhat “New-Agey” variety of Christianity. I don’t attend church because I don’t feel welcome or comfortable among people who think that I am an “abomination.” I’m not certain who to trust as an authority for spiritual information. We don’t trust witch doctors to be our physicians. We look to more educated people to care for our sick bodies rather than superstitious shamans. Why should we not be even more cautious when searching for information that might jeopardize the condition of our souls?

To answer the original question, “Where do I stand?”, I say this: I believe in God. I believe that I have experienced prayers answered. I do not believe anyone who uses God as an excuse to teach hatred or violence truly understands or knows the nature of God. Anyone who practices hatred or violence toward his fellow man does not understand the true nature of God. I do not believe that one must be religious in order to be spiritual. And, I certainly do not believe that a loving and nurturing relationship between two people, whether they be male or female, is something that God will punish. This is where I currently stand in my “spiritual” life.

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