When I was in my late teens, I began dating a nice, young lady and was growing fond of her. I think she was feeling the same way, because one day she invited me to dinner so I could meet her family. I saw this as a positive development since most of the other girls I had dated were reluctant to let anyone know they were spending time with me, advising me not to greet them in public or do anything that would indicate we knew one another. So I took this as a good sign. She was willing to go on record about our relationship.
I went to her house on a Sunday evening. Her father, a deeply religious man, greeted me at the door and invited me to sit down in their living room. He had a few questions he wanted to ask me. Just a few, before we ate. I realized this was the interview and totally understood it. I never had a daughter, but I have a granddaughter, and if some guy starts hanging around her, I’m darn sure going to be interviewing him. So the father and I exchanged pleasantries. I felt it was going well and that I was making a good impression. I assured him I intended to vote for Ronald Reagan, a youthful indiscretion I hope you’ll forgive. I told him I went to church every Sunday, and assured him I didn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs. I could tell he was warming up to me. I mentioned that I had grown up Catholic, but had left that denomination to become Quaker. He seemed especially relieved to hear that and made a crack about the Catholics, which honked me off, but I didn’t say anything because his daughter was cute.
Then our discussion turned toward theology and he asked me whether I believed in the Trinity. I had heard the word trinity, but wasn’t sure what it meant, so asked him. He told me God exists as three equally divine persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This sounded so implausible I assumed his question was a trap, that he was testing me, that no one in their right minds would believe something so incomprehensible, and I said, “That makes no sense to me,” which was apparently the wrong answer.
The dinner was quiet, even, now that I think about it some 42 years later, a bit strained. When I phoned her the next day to ask her out for the following weekend, she told me her father forbid her from dating me. I had met a man for whom the right answers were everything and I had failed the test.
We’ve been thinking about what it means to be spiritual, contrasting it with what it means to be religious. This morning, I want to suggest that religion is about having answers, and they must always be the right answers. Indeed, much of religion’s energy is heavily invested in formulating, disseminating, and enforcing the right answers. These right answers eventually become creeds which must be believed to join the religion, then are repeated every week so those in the religion will remember the right answers. And so in Christianity we have the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, to name a few.
The Mennonites, Baptists, Lutherans, and others have their Confessions, the Anglicans have their Articles, and the Congregationalists have their Declarations. Even American Quakers, who for hundreds of years thoroughly rejected creedalism, eventually got around to writing our own creed in 1887, the Richmond Declaration, which ironically warns against creeds, except for that one. Religions devote most of their energies to having the right answers.
Let’s contrast that with spirituality, which is always less concerned with the right answers and more passionate about asking questions. The goal of the spiritual is never certainty, but exploration. While religions must have borders and guidelines, spirituality favors curiosity and exploration. Religions put down roots as quickly as they can. Spirituality is always looking beyond the horizon, venturing into the unknown. It has made its peace with mystery and uncertainty.
Let me tell you a story of something that recently occurred, that illustrates what happens when the right answers no longer work. In conversations with three different friends, I was asked why God wasn’t intervening to stop the murder of Ukrainian children by Russian military forces. I’ve known these three friends many, many years. They are kind and wonderful people. Like me, they grew up in the church and were taught, as I was, that nothing was impossible for God, that God had the power to do anything God wanted to do. So why, they asked, wasn’t God doing something to help the Ukrainians?
I sensed each of my three friends were spiritually distressed and not wanting to add to their burdens, I reverted to the language of traditional religion and said, “I don’t know why God isn’t rescuing the Ukrainians. God’s ways are a mystery. Perhaps when we see God face to face, we will understand.” If that answer is familiar to you, it’s because it’s one of the accepted “right” answers religions offer about the mystery of human suffering and evil.
I didn’t tell them what I really thought, that God might not have the power to save the Ukrainians. Nor did I point out that there is scant historical evidence of God intervening to save good people from bad people. Some 187 million people, many of them children, died from war in the 20th century and if God did anything to stop that, it escaped my notice.
As you might imagine, that is not a right answer, according to religion. But I should have been less concerned about defending orthodoxy and more concerned about telling the truth. My friends, after all, are adults, and perfectly capable of wrestling with difficult issues. So when they asked why God didn’t intervene to help the Ukrainians, I should have been a little less religious and a little more spiritual. I should have said, “Maybe God doesn’t have that kind of power. Maybe God can’t do anything God wants. Maybe God can’t do everything we think God should. Maybe we’re all on our own here, maybe all we have is one another, so if we want a better world, it’s up to us, not God.”
Isn’t that a sobering thought?
I did my friends a disservice when they asked me that question. I gave them a religious answer, not a spiritual one. I told them I didn’t understand. That wasn’t truthful. I do understand why God doesn’t intervene to save the Ukrainians. Because God can’t. My reluctance to say that aloud to my friends is because a part of me still likes the comfort of pat answers.
Our creeds and affirmations and confessions haven’t done us any favors. They’ve made us spiritually and intellectually complacent. They’ve held our existential hands when they should have kicked our existential butts.
Friends, we will never arrive at the truth by parroting without question all we’ve been told and taught. Religion says, “Believe!” Spirituality says, “Think, reflect, imagine, ask!” Then it says one more thing. Act. Think, reflect, imagine, ask, then act.