When you’ve reached the end of religion

When you’ve reached the end of religion

Seems like I get myself caught up in a perpetual stream of “religion vs. spirituality” debates. “Religion is rules, spirituality is experience.” “Religion focuses on externals, spirituality is concerned with internals.” “Religion is believing in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is is having your own experience.”

I find myself arguing against these polar views of one being good, the other bad. To me, religion is the human expression of our spirituality; it is spirituality lived in real life. It is not a matter of either/or. It is — and should be — a healthy balance of both/and.

And when we focus exclusively on one over the other, we get into trouble. We all know overly-religious types who seem to lack any internal sense of spirituality. They focus on rules and strictly defined codes of behavior. They’re the ones who want the 10 Commandments posted in public spaces and prayer brought back into public schools. Yet they’re the ones who will likely ignore the hungry or poor children in those public spaces. They tout their “love” for God, and they’re willing to fight you over it. But they’re also the ones often without compassion or any sense of demonstrated “love” for their neighbor.

On the other side are those who are so anti-religion, seeing only the abuses of white male patriarchy and those legalistic behaviors. They flaunt their independence of rules and rituals — though they might cling tightly to the crystals they wear around their necks or burn sage in their homes to clear the negative energy. Sometimes the “woo-woo,” so focused on non-material essence, can also be lacking in real-world demonstration of love for their neighbor.

When described starkly like that, it becomes obvious that neither is good without the other. And that’s the point. Reality is a rich composite of physicality and spirituality. And we need both to keep us happily living with both feet firmly planted in the real world with our hands reaching out to the intangible one.

The gospel portion of this Sunday’s lectionary reading relates to Jesus’s healing encounter with two women who reached the end of religion’s usefulness. The scene opens when Jesus is seized by Jairus, a respected leader of the local synagogue, to heal his sick daughter. As a leader, Jairus would have been what we’d definitely label “religious.” He would have have been scrupulous in observing Jewish customs and rituals. He would be careful of his public reputation and maintaining all the outward appearances and behaviors of what religion dictated for a person claiming to walk with God. Yet religion hadn’t prevented his daughter from becoming deathly ill. And it wasn’t able to heal her. But Jesus had a reputation of being a spiritual healer. So Jairus steps beyond the normal limits of religion and reaches out to faith and spirituality.

On his way to visit the daughter, Jesus is accosted by another women at the limits of religion. This woman had been “suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” Religion — and medicine as it was then known — could not help her. In fact, the rules of religion made her an outcast. She was required to keep distance from people in order not to contaminate them, to render them “unclean.” She couldn’t be touched. Even her friends and family would be required to keep distance, condemning her to a life of isolation and loneliness, a living death. At the end of her religion, at the end of her finances and her sanity, she reaches out in faith to seize spiritual power. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” And she is.

The story continues with Jesus arriving at Jairus’s home, seeing the sick, possibly-dead, girl, taking her by the hand and speaking life into her. “Talitha, cumi! Little girl, get up!” “And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about … At this they were overcome with amazement.”

Religion is important. It offers tools and practices for living an ethical and spiritual life. It can help US tap into that great Resource of intangible energy. But it doesn’t have the power. Spirituality is the door for us to that deep Reservoir of Life. So, like Jairus and this “woman with the issue of blood,” we can live our lives defined by our religion, but at some point we will reach the end of its power, and we have to step over, reach out, into the “woo-woo” of spirituality, to something beyond and further out than our religious practice provides.

This is often what happens during faith “deconstruction.” People begin to see the limits of their religion and begin to re-examine its function and value. And, if they’re persistent, they often come out with a much deeper and richer spirituality. Like that little girl, we “immediately get up and begin to walk about, overcome with amazement and joy.”

Jairus and the woman had come to the end of their religious rope. They needed more. And thankfully, Jesus was there as a conduit for that “more.” May we all, this coming week, reach out and tap into the Source of Power that our religion is trying to point us to. And may WE be overcome with amazement and joy.

ref: Mark 5:21-43
Photo by Aamir Suhail on Unsplash, cc0