Why are my religious friends jerks?

osteen megaIt’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.

As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth westboroyear studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?

The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s trivial eventsperfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.

Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a depression surrounded by assholesspiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.

The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are.  To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.

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Ego

If you cannot explain theological concepts in clear, everyday language either you do not understand the principle or you are engaging in a religiously sanctioned form of public masturbation. Either way, the practice leaves no one better for having witnessed it.

Controling the Uncontrolable

Most people’s idea of the goal of religion and spirituality is an attempt to control what cannot be controled. They wear their beliefs and practices like some sort of talisman that [they believe] will divert all danger and unsatisfactoriness that lies in their path. In fact, an overly simplistic reading of Buddhism promises just that – an end to suffering. Kindergarden Christianity posits a “little buddy” Jesus who follows us around (unless we are Kindergarden Roman Catholic Christians, in which case we have a Guardian Angel who does this*) like a cosmic Wonder Woman, deflecting adversity with gold wrist bracelets. We have no idea what we are asking for when we ask to avoid problems, challenges, and suffering. In asking for these things, we are in effect checking out of the game, refusing to grow, and wishing for a life that holds still right where we are, which is no life at all. Forget about growth, forget about friendship, and surely forget about love when we are in this space.

Here’s the truth: we don’t grow in any way without adversity. From the physical growing pains we experience as children to the emotional growing pains of loss and failure as adults, growth isn’t smooth sailing. Honest religion and spirituality tells us that, and prepares us for the great adventure that is a fully engaged life. We all would do well to let go of our control issues and live life fully, experiencing all it has to offer – including the not so fun parts!

*to be fair, far better to assign such a nonsensical duty to an angel than to Jesus