Message 87, Finding Spiritual Truths from World Religions: What is Spirituality?  3-4-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved


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Nearly sixteen years ago, on May 3rd 1996, I had what many call a born again experience.  Confused about who I was as a person, feeling shame at the knowledge of my hidden gay feelings, and having recently begun attending church, I gave my life to Jesus Christ.  Or so I thought.  As a direct result of that experience, I left my job in the business world, attended seminary, became an associate Pastor and eventually discovered the Gathering – bringing me to my work today.

While I no longer consider myself born again, nor a believer in Jesus as the Savior Christ, I know that moment back in 1996 was a pivot point.   I became a new person – one who is focused on spiritual matters, who enjoys Pastoral work and who no longer sees the world and life in mostly self-centered ways.  I experienced what I still believe was a sublime and very spiritual awakening.  I felt a connection with something greater than myself.

It would be easy for me to now trivialize that moment and chalk it up to issues regarding psychological feelings of low self-worth and shame.  But it was far more than that.  I was changed as a person and who I am today is a direct result of that epiphany.

I remember my first Sunday at church after that moment.  I took communion as the organ played “Just as I Am”.   The Pastor taught that I was consuming the body and blood of Christ – sacrificed specifically for my sake.  I remember thinking about that and being overwhelmed with gratitude.  Tears streamed down my face.   I could not imagine a love so great that one would willingly die for my misdeeds.  In that moment – and others like it – I felt the immense and unconditional love of the Divine.  It was other-worldly, profound and very powerful.  I have never before or after felt such a feeling of being loved.  I was no longer a hideous man with terrible same sex attractions, I was no longer a hurting person afraid of the wider world, I was no longer the unwanted son to my dad, I was a beloved child of the Divine.  I was whole and complete and free.  The myth of a god dying for my sins affected me deeply.

While I no longer believe what I believed at the time – about a savior Christ – I don’t discount the reality of my experience.  Indeed, people who have spiritual experiences are usually changed.  Whether it be from a prayer at the Jewish wailing wall, a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a glimpse of Nirvana in meditation, watching a sunset over a mountain range or listening to a beautifully performed piece of music, the result is the same – a changed heart, soul and conscience.  The facts of the spiritual moment do not matter as much as the experience itself.  There are few times in our lives when we connect with something beyond ourselves – something beautiful, joyous and unexplainable.  But when we do, no longer are we alienated islands drifting alone in a vast universe.  Suddenly, we sense a mysterious union with forces outside of ourselves.  It is almost as if – in those rare spiritual moments – we touch the face of God, see heaven or attain Nirvana.

These transcendent moments are when indescribable thoughts about life, meaning, purpose, beauty and joy all merge together.  They are not easily described nor can they be written off as emotional or delusional episodes.  They are real.  They are spiritual.  From such other-worldy experiences, from the reading of religious texts or the practice of religious rituals, people are spiritually enlightened as they discover new understanding of life and purpose.  Spirituality provides wisdom in how to live and how to be a better person.  We connect with the great mystery, the ultimate Truth, and we yearn to live according to such perfection.

I want to embark with you over the next two months on a spiritual journey to find useful and unique qualities in world religions – ones that we can use in our lives.  From Buddhism to Christianity, we’ll look at one quality from each world faith that will help us grow not by head knowledge but by soul wisdom.  I hope to move beyond the facts of varied religious expressions and look to mystical but very useful spiritual qualities.  Before beginning that journey next Sunday when we look at Buddhist contentment, I want to explore today the simple question – what is spirituality?

Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Case for God” describes the cave paintings at Lascaux, France – the ones painted by the first humans living thirty thousand years ago.  The cave paintings are not easily accessible.  Most are miles underground and are reached only through very narrow passages.  What these paintings depict are beautiful scenes of ancient animals and humans.  Many seem to dance and even run across the walls when illuminated with flickering fire light.   Animals that do not mix with each other in nature are depicted together.  Humans are shown interacting with, hunting and worshipping the animals.  In one painted scene, a man lies before a charging bison with a pole nearby that has a bird’s head on it.  The man, despite the danger he is in, is sexually aroused.  In a carved scene from one of the walls, a very pregnant woman holds aloft a ram’s horn – pointing it toward a crescent moon.  Her other hand rests atop her large stomach.

While anthropologists, art historians and other experts struggle to interpret the paintings, it is clear that these were not random drawings.  They served a function.  They were visual representations of how that neolithic culture could understand their harsh world.  Animals were given prominence in that society as they were the means to survive.  They were the worshipped saviors of that culture.

The prostrate man was likely a shaman or priest performing an act of worship  – the bird’s head on a pole symbolically allowed him to fly in spirit with the bison, his arousal indicating union with the natural world.  The pregnant female carving was likely a piece of fertility art.  The ram’s horn represented male virility and the crescent moon was symbolic of a woman’s monthly cycle.  These pieces of art were ways by which ancient humans made sense of the unexplainable – why life exists, to what purpose does creation serve and how we, as humans, should respond to the great forces of the universe.

The Lascaux paintings and carvings, seen by many as the first great works of art, were clearly spiritual in nature.  They point to the innate hunger by humankind to make sense of the universe.  As Karen Armstrong says, humans should be described as “homo religious” – spirituality is so ingrained in our being.

Many of the Lascaux scenes, as I said, would not normally occur – animals mixing with dissimilar species or humans enacting the rituals that I just described.  They offer, however, a window into the spiritual thoughts of these early humans.  The art works were thus not literal representations of actual life but symbolic and mythological ways to explain the unexplainable – What purpose do we serve?  What lies beyond the physical realm and inhabits the unknown dimension of creation, death and eternity?  In their mystical way, the paintings tell us that early humans believed what we believe – all creation is interconnected through a mystical and all encompassing common link – that of the great mysterious force which controls the universe.  The Lascaux art were Scripture for ancient humans.

Karen Armstrong points out in her book that humans have always used myth – in visual, spoken or written form – to explain the unknowable.  And that is one essence of spirituality.  Myth, symbolism and spiritual art create meaning and purpose for us.  The Lascaux people did not believe the scenes they painted were real.  Rather, they were symbolic ways to worship, understand and find comfort.

For us, spirituality involves seeking after ultimate Truth – just as all humans do.  It involves searching for an explanation to the great “Mysterium”, as some call it.  In the contemporary battle between science and myth, between logos and mythos, our culture has mostly broken into extremes.  On one side are the religious fundamentalists and on the other side are the rationalists.  Do we literally believe the religious stories of our time – the Bible, Q’uran, Torah and Veda?  Or has science made them irrelevant?

I propose that, as I have said several times, truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Science explains much of the known universe.  It provides the knowledge by which we live, prosper and survive.  But myth, superstition and spirituality are not poor step-sisters to science in their ability to also explain the universe.  We need both reason and myth.

Can reason and dispassionate observation explain the intricacies of love?   No.  But, does the Biblical story – a Jesus parable – of the prodigal son offer a glimpse of what love is?  I firmly believe it does.  Such love is the stuff of mystery which only spiritual examination can explain.  I experienced feelings of unconditional love when I had my epiphany.  I have felt it towards my daughters – perhaps the only two people for whom I would willingly die.  Most of us have that form of love in one way or another.  How do we explain that?  Where does such a feeling come from?  Ideals like unconditional love are mysteries not solvable by science or reason.  We use spiritual myths, rituals, prayer, and other practices to find insight into such goodness.

And that is a hallmark of spirituality.  Not only does it seek to explain the unexplainable, it is a journey toward ultimate Truth.  We never arrive at that point and a spiritual person understands he or she never will.  Indeed, to arrive at a spiritual conclusion, as many religions do, is to cease being spiritual.  If the great Mysterium – or God – is unknowable, how can we describe it – as some do?  We might describe glimpses of its nature and we might continue to discover its nuances – like forgiveness, love, gratitude, peace, gentleness, etc, but those are incomplete descriptions.

And that gets to the difference between religion and spirituality.  Religions have arrived at what their believers assert are absolute conclusions regarding the nature of the Divine.  Spirituality is, instead, a journey into discovering pieces of the Divine while knowing we will never understand its full essence.  Those who are spiritual are like persons who assemble puzzles – only this puzzle is infinite.  Indeed, we are each fumbling mystics searching into unknown realms for ephemeral puzzle pieces.  Great prophets like Jesus showed us such pieces.  That was the greatness of Jesus – not that he was God but that he pointed TO God.  He taught, described, and showed us glimpses of the great Mysterium – a force of immense love and justice.

And yet, today I call myself an A-theist.  I do not believe in a “theistic” being – a great “THE”.  That makes me NON-theistic.  I am, however, a strong believer in spirituality.  While the great Mysterium might be an actual Being like God, I have found no compelling proof telling me that.  And so I search.  I explore and study the ideals and ethics that offer glimpses of the Divine.  This is the spiritual path.  It is a way of question and discovery.  How can I be more loving of others and of self?  How can I live in gratitude?  How can I learn to forgive?  How can I be compassionate, giving, gentle and peaceful?  How can I discern what is just in the world and then work for it?  If I discover such things and then practice them, I believe I am in greater touch with Ultimate Truth – that which is perfect and totally good.

The Genesis Bible stories are not literal history about creation but instead efforts to explain our origins and our call to be grateful for the existence we share.  The Resurrection of Jesus is likewise not actual history but a story of renewal – one that tells us it is never too late to change for the better.  We dimly see the Divine because of these spiritual stories and myths.

Science and spirituality, therefore, are not in conflict.  Science informs us the HOW of things – facts regarding the way the universe works.  Spirituality describes the WHY of things – the meaning, purpose and insight regarding our universe.

I recently read in the New York Times how many Shiite Muslims in the Middle East believe that the civil war in Syria is the predicted start of the Apocalypse.  In Shiite ancient lore, a follower of the devil named Sufyani begins a war against Shia Muslims which will usher in a global apocalyptic war that results in the end of earth as we know it.

For any of you who are familiar with the Biblical book of Revelation, that scenario sounds very familiar.  Indeed, many Christian fundamentalists believe President Obama is the Anti-Christ since that figure is described in Revelation as swarthy in complexion who seeks to rule the world by preaching peace while amassing power through international cooperation.  Without getting into politics, these fundamentalists believe Revelation to be predicted history and current events are proving it correct.

What we should learn from these examples – and there have been hundreds of similar predictions throughout history – is not to take ancient myth literally.  This does NOT mean, however, that the stories have no value.  Indeed, they do.  I believe the original writers of such myths intended to reassure their readers that in a difficult world where they faced hatred and persecution, all is not lost.  This painful world does not have to stay as it is.  Caring and spiritual people working together can restore earth to an Eden-like paradise.  The myths were not written to be literal predictions but allegories that enlighten, comfort and give meaning to humankind.

And that is exactly how we should approach such myths and why they are valuable even to those who are not religious.  That is why I often state that the human purpose is to help build heaven on earth – to create the kind of paradise that we ought to have.  Almost all world religions envision a return to a perfect earth.  Nobody should accept a world of disease, hatred, injustice and poverty.  As people, our spiritual purpose is to work against those conditions and promote the universal conditions we all hope for – peace, love, compassion, and well-being.

We are fortunate to worship in a place like the Gathering.  It is why even I lean away from calling us an explicitly Christian church.  We value Christian teachings and often look to them for insight – mostly because they are familiar from our past and our culture.  But, we are a spiritual gathering of people who seek, explore and ask questions of all world religions and many other beliefs as well.  We refuse to believe that any person can know Ultimate Truth but that as humans, we still hunger for insight into that great Mysterium.  We are like those very ancient neolithic humans who looked out into a confusing world and asked that eternal question “Why am I here?”

And that, my friends, sums up what I believe spirituality to be.  It is a journey into the unknown and ethereal realms.  But it is not a wasted journey.  We will never arrive at a final answer but along the way we will see wondrous glimpses of Paradise in the making, and how we can be good and decent citizens in that blessed place.