What is Spirituality?
“It is,” as Rabbi Kaplan puts it, “the progressive unlearning of the strange ideas about God you’ve been taught…”
Consider the prayer I was taught, for example, when I was but two or three years old. It seems benign enough, but the question is: “Is it?”
I think not.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!”
“Lovely prayer,” you say.
“Lousy theology,” I say.
Does God have to be ‘asked’ before he’ll keep your soul? What happens to your soul if you don’t ask? For that matter, what is a soul?
Furthermore, what is meant by, “…if I should die…I pray the Lord my soul to take?” Is it possible God might not take my soul? If so, is there something I might do to better my odds?
I could go on, but perhaps you get my point. Beneath or behind lots of cute and clever cliché’ we were taught hides what is often a venomous theology.
It’s even in hymns we sing.
Consider this beloved hymn from my own tradition. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
“Wretch?” Is that all we are?
“You’re making too much of this?” you say.
Am I? When you think about it – and many religious people do not - it is amazing the bad theology we pick up and must then unlearn, as the rabbi suggests.
Here’s more that needs go, but is heard often in the season of Lent:
“Repent of your sins, trust Jesus, or you’ll die and go to hell! “God helps those who help themselves.”
One of my favorites…
“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
When did God become responsible for all the stuff I deal with in my daily life? Further, what kind of God delights in seeing how much crap I can handle before I crack?
The rabbi is right. Spirituality is the progressive unlearning of nonsense.
How does one progressively unlearn? Or, stated positively, how do I become spiritual? No matter what my tradition may be?
1. The first thing is to recognize spirituality, not as something you become, but as the person you are. Spirituality is not a status conferred on you like receiving a diploma upon graduation from school. To be human is to be spiritual. What made Jesus unique was not his divinity but his humanity. Divinity is humanity fully clothed.
The same is true for you and me. You do not become more divine. You become more human. The more human you become, the more divinity shines. This is what people saw in Jesus. The Buddha and Lao-Tzu and many others, too.
Notions of “original sin,” for example, still widely taught in my own tradition, are just not so. The damage this Augustinian notion has inflicted on untold millions throughout Christian history is unfortunate indeed. In all fairness, however, people “do better when they know better,” as Maya Angelou so often reminds us.
2. The second thing is to make it your practice to replace the religious stuff that no longer works for you with what does.
In other words, spirituality is not just about unlearning bad things but learning better things, too. It is, therefore, an intentional, consciousness-raising exercise of inner transformation. This transformation takes place in every aspect of your life, too, just as the spiritual teacher was suggesting when he instructed, “Love God will all your heart, mind, and soul” (Matt. 22:37).
I no longer pray, for example, as in the traditional sense. Instead, I meditate. In fact, I practice unbroken meditation. I’m hardly there yet. But I am learning how to remain in an unbroken state of oneness with my environment. Achieving this is challenging. But it is rewarding, too. Saint Paul may have been pointing toward this dimension of life and living, when he said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
3. Spirituality is a lifelong journey of returning. In his wonderful book, which is also a daily devotional, The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo writes: “We carry a center that is always returning.”
Spirituality is the continual returning unto yourself…unto God, whoever or whatever God is for you. If you don’t like the name “God” call this Mystery…Mystery. What does it matter?
For those of you who follow me on twitter - #DrSteveMcSwain - or regularly read my posts here at the Huffington Post or BeliefNet.com, you will know how frequently I remind people to stop looking for God in a temple, mosque, synagogue or church…or, even a book of religion. Instead, look for God in the most natural place of all – inside yourself.
It was Saint Paul who called this the real “temple of God” anyway (1 Cor. 6:19-20). What he is saying is that there is no separation between God and you. Which is the point the Catholic priest, Meister Eckhart, was making, when he said, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.”
What makes Jesus so appealing and accessible to me has been the process of unlearning many of the things I was taught to believe about him.
For example, I was taught that Jesus was a heavenly Superman from the planet Krypton Christians renamed “heaven.” As my divine savior he was sent to invade planet earth to rescue doomed humanity and he successfully accomplished this by paying a ransom to God for my screw-ups in life. That ransom was his death on a cross.
Even as a child, I can remember thinking, “You know, I’ve done some pretty bad things, but never anything so bad that their atonement and my redemption required the death of an innocent person. What sense does any of that make?
There are many things Christians must unlearn in order for spirituality to flourish. My own suspicion is, scores of people have left the church for precisely this reason: to unlearn much of the nonsense they were told they had to believe…things they know are just not so (ie., creationism versus evolution). If the Church ever gets serious again about actually reaching people, instead of driving them away, it will have to let go of many things, unlearn much of its outworn theological teachings, and create new wine skins in which to ferment their theological explanations.
As for now, Lent is a wonderful Christian season of returning to center but not necessarily to a centralized place of worship, as in the Church. If it includes that for you, as it does for me, fine. But remember, returning to center is returning to one’s own soul. It is there, and only there, you meet yourself…you meet with God.
“What is needed to return to the center?” you ask.
To ask the question is to have returned already.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, counsel to non-profits, faith-based organizations and congregations, and a spiritual teacher. Read more from Dr. McSwain on his blog Your Best Life Ever.