I often hear people say that personal expressions of spirituality are all to the good, but religion? Not so much.
Recently my friend and blogger Martha Woodroof, one of my favorite commentators on WMRA radio, expressed that sentiment eloquently as follows (and which I share with her permission):
I am a person of faith who is not religious. By this I mean that while I live in partnership with God, the great Whatever, I claim no knowledge of God's relatives, nature and modus operandi. I believe that everything about God beyond the simple fact of Its existence and availability is beyond my understanding and so beyond the scope of my words. I make no claim to wisdom of any kind about God, only to experience with God....
So . . . with all due respect, it seems to me desperately wasteful, arrogant and cowardly for us humans to argue so much about religion.... Missing from most of these battles is any recognition that if God is, God is also beyond our comprehension. ...
Arguing about God is, of course, much less troublesome and anxiety-provoking than taking on the demands and responsibilities of a partnership with the Almighty. Indeed, the challenges of any organized religion (or those other God-in-a-box concepts, atheism and agnosticism) begin to seem like effortless glides on greased grooves when compared to the challenges of living one's faith. Perhaps that's why there's been a great deal of public wrangling about the fine points of religion and very little useful public exploration of what it means to live and work together--in this world at this time--as persons of faith.
My response to her on the above focuses on what a “public exploration of what it means to live and work together--in this world at this time--as persons of faith,” might entail, as follows:
Martha, some kind of organized "religion" seems to me to be a necessary thing whenever people covenant together to explore and exercise their faith in difference-making and life-enhancing ways. In other words, one could think of “religion” being to a faith community much like skin is to any other living organism--not its primary essence, but something that serves as a defining boundary between that particular "body" or community of faith and those who choose not to espouse this faith or world view. But a group's skin can be seen as a living and flexible thing, not necessarily an arbitrary or rigid barrier.
I do see personal "faith" as she defines it being absolutely essential for the healthy spiritual life of an individual, of course, but if we want to help form, as I do, communities of compassion--spiritual kinfolks who look after each other's needs and reach out to the needs of others--we will of necessity have to define who we are and what our common vision and values are. That effort can certainly result in something that is stifling and limiting, but it can also represent an evolving consensus of a group that seeks to constantly stretch, learn and grow together. Certain skin cells die and are discarded while others grow in their place, but some kind of skin necessarily remains intact. So spirituality might be to religion what a wineskin is to the wine it contains, a metaphor Jesus himself once used.
In summary, there are faith communities that represent a kind of "bad religion" we both dislike, the kind that limit life, creativity and growth. Then there are those that are examples of "better religion" that promote and nurture the kinds of love and compassion so lacking in our warring and suffering world. In any case, better religion, as I idealize it in my own human Anabaptist/Mennonite/Christian tradition, never imposes itself on anyone, never inflicts harm on anyone and never seeks to dominate or coerce anyone.
The hoped for result, in the case of my own very imperfect denomination, would be to help its member churches learn better how to “... grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope may flow though us to the world.”