MIKE KELLY. Spirituality and religion

“Spirituality is important to me but I don’t like organised religion.” The social, psychological and historical forces that underlie this juxtaposition cannot be traced here; but it is still possible to suggest that it fails to notice (or at least to give due weight to) several important facts. A sick body has to be healed,not abandoned.

First, without religious traditions we would have almost no knowledge of Jesus or even of Moses or Buddha or Mohammed or Zoroaster. Their teachings might at most have survived as vague and probably peripheral folk-memories.

Second – and here I can speak only of Christianity, since my knowledge of the history of other faiths is slight – our culture owes an immense debt to organised religion, which has inspired countless people to dedicate their lives to the unselfish service of others. It was Christians that scattered through Europe a network of hospitals and hospices, schools and universities, organisations to help the poor, the profession of nursing, the fight against slavery and even, through the organisation of religious orders, one of the earliest models which after the decline of Rome evolved into modern forms of democracy. Certainly some of these things existed in some ancient pagan cultures, but in a far more restricted and primitive form, and without any sense of development towards a better world. It is the Judeo-Christian tradition which injected a sense of progress into our culture;and though, since the nineteenth century, many hospitals, schools, universities and aid organisations have been founded on a secular base, they were building on paradigms which had arisen under Christian influences. Even movements that seemed essentially secular, such as the rise of trade unionism, and others that were avowedly anti-church, as both the French and Russian revolutions soon became in spite of the presence of clerical influences in their first inceptions, developed in the context of a Europe steeped in a religious culture which had taught that before God all people are equal and that the rich have a special obligation to the poor. The remote origin of those ideas may have been largely forgotten, and they may often have been more honoured in the breach than the observance, but it was not necessary to argue for them at a fundamental level only because the churches had kept them alive in the substratum of the social consciousness for centuries. The same consciousness still screamed its presence in the most anti-religious of all philosophies, that of Marx and Lenin – even though at the conscious level, the final centre in that creed was not God but History.

Third, the rejection of organised religion deprives the spiritual journey of something almost as fundamental in our lives as our personal individuality – namely, our need for community and its expression through ritual. In the secular world this need is still recognised. It is present in every sport, in customs such as shaking hands, in dressing for the occasion, in gathering in cinemas and concert halls even when we could see the show at home on television. It is also present when we unite to fight for some cause, when we elect presidents, and when we choose celebrities informally – media gurus, rock and sporting stars – whom we then charge with interpreting our society to itself. It is present too whenever we communicate to each other our joys and sorrows, or share our deep beliefs, or gather to eat or mourn or dance – activities often conducted in circles which echo religious rituals whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

Secular theories of this communal dimension of human life sometimes attribute it to a stable equilibrium of self-interested individuals sacrificing some freedoms to in a sort of inescapable compromise. This seems to me not to do it justice nor to account for our actual behaviour. Something more – a transcendental bond –constantly shows itself in small and in very large matters; above all, perhaps, when we feel that we should apologise to the aboriginal peoples whose countries our forefathers invaded, even though we had no personal guilt; and when we feel that humanity, with its wars and oppression, has somehow not measured up when we feel something like shame for the race.

The rejection of “organised religion” in favour of “spirituality” takes no account of all this. It seems to assume a kind of personal isolation that we do not really have. And if, in the single area of religion, we drop all organisation, then we are likely go in a thousand contrary directions, some good and some bad; and later, perhaps, to re-group into small like-minded cells destined to become new religions, possibly competing ones. We may even find that we have embraced something unpleasant without even noticing that we were leaving behind not only the organisation of religion but also a source of kindness, dignity, courtesy – and at last, joy.

Churches are subject to two almost competing demands: they must preserve the insights and cultural riches of the past, and they must be of today, forever replacing, adapting, restoring. Corruption must be expunged and failures repaired. But a sick body has to be healed, not abandoned; and a church, if it is to foster a free spiritual adventure, still needs a firm structural foundation as a body needs a skeleton. The answer to inadequacies is not rejection but reform. We need to work internally for change if we are conscientiously convinced of the need for it, and to wait in faith for God’s injection of renewed life.

For at some time it will come.

Mike Kelly is a retired teacher of high-school mathematics. In 1969 He obtaitned a PhD from UNSW in the History and Philosophy of Science.


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6 Responses to MIKE KELLY. Spirituality and religion

  1. Wayne McMillan says:

    Hi Mike, Human beings need a healthy spirituality NOT moribund, hierarchical legalistic, archaic institutions. Traditional religions are being transformed not from the inside but from the outside by people leaving with their feet. Humanity is evolving spiritually and part of this process is chaos and change. In this heady, dangerous and painful process, old institutions must die and new ones take their place.
    Like rotting vegetables old institutions must be left to compost, so they can become new humus for further growth. Once the process of decay is fully in play, you can’t bring those institutions back to life, you have to leave them and move on.

  2. It is an interesting academic argument Mike but the congregation votes with its feet and I can describe the Anglican congregation in one word — geriatric. Australian Roman Catholics, at a rough guess, are descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants but even their youngest generations must be losing touch. The best comment came from another writer on this Blog who said that Galileo had to put up with the Vatican’s ignorance. Today’s generation does not.

  3. Mary Tehan says:

    I agree that spirituality doesn’t offer the depth of a religious dimension to life with all its questions and contemplations. But when the sacred leans towards one gender – the masculine – the animus – it becomes distorted … even in religious interpretation and it’s subsequent preferencing and referencing about faith, hope and love. Spirituality does not/ cannot attend to the sacred in such a distortion. The monarchical and patriarchal institution of the Vatican does not allow any life-giving co- creation that nurtures faith, hope and love and it’s outpouring of a spirituality that sustains and nourishes healthy spiritual life. There are people like myself who bleed over their lack of belonging in a co-creating parish that includes and responds to local communal needs in faith, hope and love. Reform can only come if death-dealing structures and systems are reformed. Let the women in to the decision- making and theological areas of the church … then both spirituality and religion can speak to each other in a more integrated and life-giving way.

  4. Trish Martin says:

    “Churches are subject to two almost competing demands:” yes Mike they are, but it’s not so much past cultural riches verses contemporary social changes. Rather the competition is concerned with religious idealism verses the reality called the Risen Lord. Where religion relies on its myths, tradition, medieval ecclesial beliefs, its own identity and power; it lacks the input of personal connection and responsibility to be of selfless service to the world which is commanded by the Universal Person of Christ. The Church hierarchy is in a living crisis through lack of imagination and the courage to let go of its self made identity and instead imagine a model that is gender inclusive, where vulnerability is a treasure, and where clergy are mature enough to embrace their own human nature rather than deny it (and living the lie of clericalism).

  5. Peter Sainsbury Peter Sainsbury says:

    Some of us reject both spirituality and religion. We feel no need for, nor see any evidence to confirm the existence of, some form of supernatural (for want of a better word) being or force.
    That is of course not to deny that some people who in all good faith, so to speak, profess allegiance to some religion or spiritual belief have not made significant contributions to human welfare. But that does not prove the existence of their claimed supernatural being or force.

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    The point of the assertion about spirituality vs religion is that spirituality is the body and religion dispensable trappings. As Jesus said, new wine, new wineskins.

    Tallying up the positives and negatives of the religious institutions is difficult. And beside the point – assign the good to the spirituality and the bad to the religion.

    The need for ritual and community, as noted, can be satisfied secularly. Which leads to the question: What’s it got to do with spirituality?

    The argument of this piece takes no account of the point of the spiritual/religious split.

    As to dividing into groupings, this is just an all purpose argument for monolithic organisation. It presumes unity is good. The consequences of people sacrificing ethics to unity have recently been revealed. It presumes that unity doesn’t bring the mix that division brings – which I think is untrue (administrative monoliths can be very divided and divisive).

    If Chrisitians are to have a nurturing presence into which to invite non-Christians it will be because of a communal life characterised by love and truth not adiministrative unity (though the appearance of this is surely easier to accomplish).

    Does this have implications for organisation? It surely does. Minimising of hierarchy, multiple lines of reporting and organising (division of powers), seeing that the church exists in the life of Christians (their spirituality) – not in hierarchies and vestments and authority structures (the religion).

    Christianity is committed to incarnation – primarily in Christ, and as a result in the lives of Christians. How does this pan out? In 1Cor.12 (that man of his time) Paul tells us – it means valuing the individuality of all (structures are to enables individuals, not impose straight jackets on them), it is the weakest who are to receive the most honour (not the strong, rich, capable). The heart of which leads us to 1Cor.13 – the love chapter; love is greater than faith and hope. It is surely greater than any organisational structure.

    Love is the spirit that should characterise Christians (and the denouncing of them is usually that they fall short of this standard); the rest (organisation, building, timetables) is not – in the terms of the split, it is religion.

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