“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.