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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Separation of Religion, Unity of Spirituality

Asking a Christian to think about politics without bringing their spiritual beliefs into it is a bit like asking a catfish to climb Mount Everest unassisted. It just can’t happen. At least, it should be that way.
It isn’t just true for Christians, either. A primary protest against western-style democracy in the Middle East is that it calls for a separation of church and state, and a good Muslim is obedient to God in all parts of their life. I’m not familiar with the sacred texts of Buddhism, but I would imagine that it teaches much the same. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone can find any spiritual text that says it is okay to forget your over-riding worldview every once in a while. I can assure you the Bible does not.
How can one look at any issue facing the world and forget that there is a God over all of it? Hunger, AIDS, illiteracy, war – all are problems that Christians are called upon to face. In a country where our voice nominally determines what actions are taken by the government, how can we be asked to forget that we are Christians and still BE Christians?
The fact is that we simply cannot, and years of acting like we could have done nothing but weaken our ability to defend our actions on a spiritual and moral basis. There is no shortage of times when liberals and Christians have been reduced to defending their position by saying, “it is the right thing to do.” This is a moral argument, my friends, and separating the argument from the theology and philosophy that spawn it is like building a castle on a foundation of toothpicks. It might look magnificent, but it won’t stand anyone pushing it.
The conundrum is this: how can a liberal actually call for the reversal of two hundred years of separation of church and state and still BE a liberal? As with so many problems I am examining these days, the problem lies in mixed definitions. As Daffy Duck famously said, “Aha! Pronoun trouble!”
There is absolutely no reason why a person cannot remain attached to his or her spiritual guidelines and teachings and still observe a separation of church and state. If you look closely, you’ll notice that “spirituality” and “church” are not the same thing. Neither is spirituality the same thing as religion.
Spirituality is the feeling of connection to something greater than your self. It is the knowledge that springs up from your soul that tells you that you are more than a mass of semi-autonomous cells. It is the feeling that allows you to see the homeless man in the park and think, “there but for the grace of God am I” without putting yourself above that man on some imaginary scale of worthiness. It is what Ayn Rand scornfully calls “altruism” and Andrew Carnegie humbly called “my sense of duty to my fellow man”.
Religion, on the other hand, is the specific manner in which that spirituality is carried out. Religion determines on which day we observe the Sabbath, what foods we eat, the manner of our dress, and such other aspects of culture that are unimportant to spirituality. A church is nothing more than a building raised by adherents of a specific religion to propagate their message – to teach their cultural beliefs as a derivative of their spiritual beliefs.
Christianity is a type of spirituality. So is Islam, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Sikhism, and many others. Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, and Calvinism are all religions within the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. Understanding this gets us back to the intention of the US Constitution in banning governmental support of religion, yet using throughout that document the language of spirituality. The founders did not want the federal government to embrace one form of spirituality over another. They did, however, see a benefit in creating an atmosphere where people of various faiths could advance their spiritual health without fear.
With this understanding, it doesn’t matter if our coinage has “In God We Trust” or not. It doesn’t matter if the Pledge of Allegiance contains “under God”. If you are secure within your spirituality, this message is fully implied. It is only if you are seeking to use it to proselytize for your religion that it is a threat. (In which case, I’d like to ask if you really think someone will look at a quarter and say, “Now it all makes sense. I repent and will don the sackcloth and ashes.”) A sense of spirituality sees the Ten Commandments as one part of a legal heritage, but it is not the symbol of the Commandments that makes them sacred and timeless – it is the spiritual content of the words.
That same content is also held in the spiritual writings of every religion I’ve ever heard of. Murder and theft are always against the law. Honoring elders and the Creator are always seen as things to be encouraged. I have to believe that a God powerful enough to create the universe is capable of revealing himself to people in various culturally appropriate ways. Our sense of spirituality should unite us and allow us to see pass the narrow confines of religion. It should be a cause of solidarity and brotherhood, not separation and strife.
It should carry far beyond our churches, shrines, mosques, and synagogues. It should touch everything in our lives, without fail and without end.

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