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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Spiritual Practice

So, you say you want to start a spiritual practice? You say that first you just need to read these books, attend this retreat, or sign up for this class?

You’re fooling yourself. You’re also being fooled by the spiritual marketplace that has commodified spirituality and turned it into a cash cow.

Want to start a spiritual practice? Pick one, pick a ten minute instructional video on YouTube, and start. You can learn more along the way, but you need to start today.

But he’s not up there anymore!

crucifix

I can’t tell you how many people, confronted with a crucifix or other image of the crucified Jesus, say to me, “…but he’s not up there anymore!” Of course, part of the reason they are saying that is they can’t deal with the idea that Jesus ever was “up there.” It was a great problem for the people of his time, too.

Here’s the bigger issue: He isn’t up there, you are correct. Now you are up there. Are you ready to talk about that?

What Really Matters…

I have spent a good part of my life studying spiritual belief systems and religious traditions, as well as psychology. As you might imagine, more has been said and writtenJesus Use Me about these things than any one person could read in one lifetime. Even if a person did manage to read everything that might be read and closed the cover on the last book just as they breathed their last breath, they wouldn’t have had time to integrate what they had learned into any kind of organized system.

There is no shortage of people who are only too happy to take advantage of this truth. They try to sell us a prepackaged system of belief, and do so by hoping to convince us that theirs is the only true system. The funny thing is that when you start to examine all the different belief systems that people employ you discover that they agree more often than they disagree.

The short version is that we all need to find a way to make sense of our lives and our world. If the way we do that stops working for us, we need to change it. None of us need to share the same way of seeing the world, but if our view are too divergent from the great majority we may need to reevaluate our beliefs. The truth is that what we believe is far less important than that we believe. Anyone who tries to tell you something different is trying to manipulate you. Don’t listen to them.

Spiritual Health

The truth is that healthy spirituality cannot exist outside psychological health. If our worldview is distorted and our coping mechanisms inadequate, our spirituality will become nothing more than another attempt to escape reality rather than a means to enter it fully.