What is the purpose of spirituality and religion?
That may seem like a silly question, but one you start to really investigate it the silliness falls away pretty rapidly. Consider the picture at right, and that fact that the sign was posted not just at a church but in front of a church school. Their worldview seems to be one where the most valued citizen mindlessly complies with whatever an authority figure tells them to do. While that kind of system works out pretty well for the person in authority, it assumes that those in power are benign dictators who always have the best interests of the flock at heart. We don’t have to review history too long to realize that dictators are never benign, even if they present themselves that way in the beginning. Clearly, then, it would be ill-advised to assume that the purpose of spirituality or religion was to either control our thinking or do our thinking for us.
Maybe the purpose is sexual control. Religion talks a lot about things sexual of late, including who should be sleeping with whom and when, whether or not birth control should be part of a responsible sexual ethic, what kind of love is endorsed by God, what the purpose of the sex act itself might be, and a host of other topics. Many people view religion in this way, but the clergy sex scandals from just about every tradition would seem to suggest that religion’s ability to control unacceptable sexual urges in lacking in effectiveness. In fact, it has been suggested that religious organizations requiring celibacy actually attract people who find their sexual impulses unacceptable and hope that external rules will help keep them in check. Unfortunately, they don’t.
Maybe the purpose of religion is to help people avoid hell and get to heaven. The problem is that while fifty-nine percent of Americans still believe in hell, the most rapidly growing religious group in America are those who claim no religious affiliation – and the vast majority of those folks do not believe in hell. This means that if religion is supposed to draw us in to save us from hell, most of those currently outside religious circles don’t find that appeal one that speaks to their understanding and reality. What’s more, promises of heaven and threats of hell are essentially unverifiable and unlikely to influence many people in a post-modern world.
What if the purpose of religion and spirituality were to help one live and cope with life more fully? What if we adopted a rule that things that were life-giving were morally positive and things that were life denying were morally detrimental? No doubt we would still disagree on some issues because the world isn’t black and white, but we would be forced to admit that free thought was not life denying – to cite but one example. We couldn’t argue that allowing people to go without medical care and enough to eat was life-giving, could we? It would be very hard to argue that war is life-giving, wouldn’t it? Is it life-giving to sexually assault a child in your parish? What about a married pastor having sex with the Meth dealer and later claiming confusion? Could we justify the practice of ex-communication on the basis of it being life-giving? I don’t think so. In fact, we would have to call many of our current habits and practices into question. We would have to reassess our priorities and re-examine our rationale in much of life. Admittedly, it would be a lot of work – but the system we have right now isn’t working very well, is it?
What if we took Jesus at his word when he said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full?