The Spiritual Journey in 21st Century America
One of my earliest memories was proudly receiving a reward for Sunday School attendance.
It was a tiny book, well suited for a child’s small hand, and it began with a poem, “God
is Love.” The intervening years have erased the words of the poem but the rhythm
remains…and the message: GOD IS LOVE. It has been my truest measure of all life’s
ensuing religious (and pseudo-religious) messages.
Today, that small congregation has dwindled to a handful of weary souls. Meanwhile, here
in another city, attendance grows in the church adjoining our office. They have added a
complex of buildings to their original structure. Still, worshippers must attend in shifts,
in order to be accom- modated. A friend has recently left a struggling congregation to
join another successful church with a burgeoning congregation large enough to require a
litany of specialized pastors. A few churches are achieving spectacular success while others
are dying on the vine. Why?
The annual study made by the Barna Research Group, Ltd., indicates a “spiritual
stagnation” has settled over America. This independent marketing research firm has
tracked our attitudes, beliefs and values for almost a quarter of a century. Their latest
findings validate other research in cultural trends, currently in progress.
In his book, Religious Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know (HarperSanFrancisco,
2007), Stephen Prothero traces the history of religion in America from its colonial roots
to its current crop of hybrid blossoms--showy but often sterile. Ours is not the
faith of our fathers, even less the faith of our great-great grandfathers. Perhaps that
is not a bad thing.
We claim to be a religious nation; we believe we are believers. Statistics
prove otherwise. In tallying such factors as profession of faith, attendance at worship
services, scripture reading and study, prayer and meditation, and willingness to volunteer,
evidence of genuine commitment is steadily declining.
Most notably, each generation becomes more thoroughly steeped in religious ignorance.
In colonial New England, small children were thoroughly indoctrinated in the faith. These
days, tolerance trumps faith, as the socially required virtue. That’s the
price of an open, democratic society where religions blossom at every corner.
Ask yourself: What distinguishes my own church from my neighbor’s? Chances are,
your answer will be sketchy, at best. You may discover you know little of the tenets or
the rich history of your own denomination. Your neighbor’s would likely be shrouded
in mystery. Still, our nation was founded on the principle of religious freedom. We may
be ignorant, but most of us strive toward a tolerant ignorance. That’s the
Certain things are considered intolerable, though, depending on your situation, geographic,
religious and/or political. Where I come from, charity is more than donating to the poor.
It’s respecting and protecting the rights, privacy and privileges of others, and
being charitable in our opinions. Admittedly, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” might
not be as altruistic as it sounds. It could be just a pre-emptive defense of one’s
When anyone from my neck of the woods reads a commentary against tolerance,
itself, we are too shocked to focus on the issue of abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia,
or whatever set them off. At those locations, in contrast with this one, piety is outraged
when others fail to share their opinions and conform to their standards. They want to
live in a “righteous” nation. They advocate self control, peer pressure,
legal restrictions and they view our live-and-let-live attitude as downright shameful.
Clearly, honest, good people have strong convictions on both sides of every issue. That’s
another very American reality, absolutely guaranteed by our constitution. Religion
is not the only freedom that has drawn diverse peoples to our shores and in diversity lies
controversy. So, here we are, all of us with definite viewpoints, most of us convinced
we are correct ... and a few of us determined to realign those other viewpoints to
match our own.
Faced with this knot of conflicting convictions, how do we remain true
to our faith, to our heritage, to ourselves? The first step, for
me, is to clarify and understand what I truly believe. Not what somebody
else thinks is so. Not what someone told me a child. Not what “they”
say. Not even what the “experts du jour” assert. To remain true
to myself, I must start where I am.
Where I am is not where I will be in a year, or two, or ten. Life is dynamic and
we grow – unless we are stunted, like the tiny seedling I just found, caught under
a piece of netting. It could not grow, could not even straighten up, until I removed the
obstruction. It struggles now to unfold its leaves. Circumstance or poor choices can hamper
some folks in attaining their full spiritual stature. We’ve all made poor choices.
I hope to remember that little seedling next time I’m tempted to criticize someone
for not being all they “should” be. Myself included.
We come into the earth with a purpose. The problems we face are intrinsic to our
purpose here on earth. We can’t wish them away. We must face up to them and choose
our response. The best choice would reflect our highest truth. Still, even if it’s
not the best response…..even if it’s a wrong response, the opportunity is
built right in, to learn -- and to do better next time. How amazing is that?
Despite our differences, we’re all one. We all were at the starting
gate together, at Creation, but personal inclinations and free will sent each of us scurrying
(or dawdling) along a highly individual path on our journey back to the Creator. In this
long, arduous marathon we gather as we go…. experiences, attitudes, opinions, convictions.
All of these influence our choice of direction at every fork in the road. As a result,
we are widely scattered and each must view Truth from where he stands. Diversity! How could
it be otherwise?
Considering the circuitous paths chosen by many, it should not be surprising that there
are a host of devout believers in concepts we have long since abandoned. If I am tempted
to shudder at a primitive, overly simplistic belief system, I must remember that I could
have outgrown that level of spiritual understanding only after experiencing it for myself.
Conversely, those who now share that faith will probably consider my ideas as incomprehensible
nonsense -- possibly even evil.
Only when they are ready, will they come. There is nothing to be gained in trying
to force-feed my version of Truth to someone who has not yet entered the terrain I have
endured. They will resist, and rightly so. Truth shows itself only to those who are ready
(spiritually evolved enough) to receive it. The Bible puts it another way: “He who
has ears let him hear.”
There exists a deceptive plateau that bogs ‘most everybody down, sooner or
later. Here, the message is: “You’ve reached the summit. Ultimate truth is
here; you need search no farther. And, incidentally, anybody who doesn’t join us
here is doomed!” In some parts of the world that last sentence would translate to: “…Death
to all who do not join us here!” Devotion to such a belief traps many here for the
rest of their lives. Still, this is a necessary step in spiritual growth.
There is no one-size-fits-all religion. Each has something to offer, just as each
member of the congregation has something special to offer. A good fit makes it mutually
beneficial…. but eternal life does not depend on selecting the right “–ism.” There
are countless religious groups to choose from, and each exists to satisfy the needs of
its congregants and as an expression of who and where they are, on the spiritual path.
When a particular church no longer supports the needs of its congregation, it fades away.
In the old movie, “Oh, God!” there is one incredible line. The reluctant
hero balks at being selected by God. “Why me?” he protests, “I
don’t belong to any church!” God (an unlikely George Burns, trademark
cigar clamped between his teeth), responds, “Neither do I.” Amen!!!
I see the long view, as I shine the light of my personal truth past the dark corners
of now. It’s foolish (and weak) to wish for a challenge-free world. That
would deprive us of the opportunity to meet those challenges and, hopefully, prevail. Yes,
we live in a divided world and we must wrestle with tough opposition and tougher decisions
every day. We will make mistakes…. but we’re allowed to make mistakes and
learn from them. We will disagree – fervently – with others who are equally
convinced they’re right. That’s okay.
It’s so much easier to relax and accept what is, when we see all
those “others” as our own. We cut them some slack, understand and forgive.
As I remind myself that I was once mired in the delusion that blocks my neighbor, somebody
up ahead is rolling his eyes at my stupid blunders. We’re all in this together, struggling
blindly back to the Father.
We’ve all heard that one’s life flashes before one’s eyes, at death.
A survivor who returned from death described for us his own experience with the “life
review.” What amazed him most was the degree of “significance” attributed
to his various activities. Some episodes he had considered noteworthy were dismissed as
relatively unimportant. Then, there were seemingly trivial scenes, so ordinary he had forgotten
them, that carried substantial weight in the realm of spirit.
We can’t always know, until later, whether our choices were good ones.
For me, the measure remains: God is Love. The goal is Love. Anything that diminishes love
is a step backward. It is not our mission to blast the “misbelievers”. After
all, when a particular belief system no longer serves the needs of humanity, it “dies
on the vine” and disappears. We need only live our faith and our American ideals.
Uncharitable thoughts will definitely keep us walking in circles. Whether we use them for
us or against us, thoughts are powerful things.