I have a friend who teaches in a Catholic school where the children are required to attend weekly Mass. I’m well acquainted with this custom since I grew up Catholic and my mother was the principal of a Catholic school. I remember once asking her if I could go to her school for a day, unwittingly picking the one day of the week they celebrated Mass, resulting in my attending church twice in one week, which was excruciating, like having to eat spinach twice in the same day.
But back to my friend. The priest at my friend’s school was sick so they brought in a ringer to conduct the weekly Mass, a priest from another parish, who during the homily told the schoolchildren that people not educated in Catholic schools grow up to be evil monsters who harm children. I’ll just let that sit there for a minute while you contemplate the irony of a Roman Catholic priest boasting about the moral superiority of persons educated in Catholic institutions. Sometimes people ask how I became bald. In my case it was genetic. I hail from a religious tradition whose theological absurdities caused me to pull my hair out by the roots.
There is no institution so holy, no theology so orthodox and pure, that it guarantees its members moral superiority.
In my final message contrasting the differences between religion and spirituality, I will observe that far too often religions see and assume the worst in others. In religions, there are always demons aplenty. Though spirituality is keenly aware of the reality of evil, it begins by seeing and assuming the best in others. Because religions often see the worst in others, because it has eyes for the wicked and depraved, it usually finds it, absorbs it, and is eventually consumed by it. Conversely, spirituality sees the best in others, and because it has an eye for beauty and goodness, it usually finds those virtues, absorbs them, and is ultimately consumed by them. If Quakerism had a shining moment of theological brilliance, it was when early Friends spoke of humanity’s Inner Light, when other Christians were emphasizing humanity’s inner darkness or original sin.
When a religion begins with the assumption that people are evil, sinful, and estranged from God, it must provide a fix, a way of getting people right with God. Pay careful attention to see who claims the power and authority to do that, whether through a sacrament or a prayer or some other ritual designed to get people right with God. It is usually a pastor or a priest. Notice the power they accumulate, the authority in which they drape themselves. Notice the deference they receive, the esteem in which others hold them. And all because they have perpetuated the myth that you are broken, that God is mad at you, and that they alone can fix it. Think of the power we give them.
Whenever a politician votes against the public good, we too often discover they have been paid to disregard their duty. Their corruption is usually brought to light by examining the trail of money. Look who’s profiting from a new law and there we’ll find the source of corruption. Follow the money, we say. This is true not only of political corruption, it’s also true of religious corruption. Except in religion, we must follow the power. We must look to see who benefits from bad theology. Does a particular theology permit some to accumulate power over others? Follow the power. If a religion demands forgiveness and restitution, look carefully to see who has given themselves the power to pronounce that forgiveness, or impose that restitution? Follow the power.
When you follow the power in religions, you will not find a god, but a person claiming to speak for a god. You will find a person persuading you of your sin, and then persuading you that they have spiritual authority you do not have, that they alone can announce forgiveness and restore you to God. Follow the power, and if at the end of power’s trail, you discover someone hard at work convincing you that you are less than, that you are morally deficient, you can be reasonably certain you have found yourself in a religion. But if you discover light and promise not only in others, but also within yourself, you will have discovered the golden treasure of true spirituality—that God’s light is given freely and joyfully, in equal measure to all.
There’s a psychiatric term called projection, where one displaces one’s feelings onto a different person, animal, or object. Jesus taught about religious projection when he spoke of those who railed against the splinter in someone else’s eye, while ignoring the beam in their own.
Last Sunday, our 7-year-old granddaughter went to her other grandparent’s church where a Sunday School teacher told her she was full of sin and would go to hell if she weren’t saved. Our granddaughter, who shares her candy, who does her farm chores cheerfully, who befriends everyone she meets, who cuddles her five kittens and makes sure they’re safe, who cried on the last day of school because she already missed her teacher and friends, is apparently so full of sin God cannot stand the sight of her unless Jesus advocates on her behalf.
The Sunday School teacher who told my granddaughter she was full of sin is a product of that dark and bitter philosophy and considers it her divine duty to pass that poisonous perspective on to others. I don’t think she’ll succeed with my granddaughter, who said to me later that day, “I only prayed with her because she made me.” While I want my granddaughter to treat others with dignity and respect, I suggested that the next time someone told her she was full of sin and headed to hell, it would be perfectly appropriate for her to tell them they were full of beans.
At the end of his life, the Quaker James Naylor was robbed, beaten, and left to die in a farmer’s field. Discovered by other travelers, he was carried to the home of a fellow Quaker. These were some of his last words. “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end…As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other.” Did you catch that? As it bears no evil in itself, so conceives none in thoughts to any other.
Religion and spirituality are the same in this regard—they both give you precisely what you expect to find. If you look for sin and evil, you’ll find it every time. So too, if you look for goodness and beauty, you will awaken each morning surrounded by it.