When I was a kid, my dad worked for Johnson Wax, selling Raid bug spray, Pledge furniture wax, and Glade air freshener, driving from one small town to another, all over the state of Indiana. It was the perfect job for an extrovert, seeing old friends and making new ones, trading Johnson Wax products for assorted items, including, one glorious winter’s day, a six foot wooden toboggan sled and a female mannequin, which we dressed in my sister’s swimsuit and leaned against the telephone pole in front of our house, until Charlie Williams, the chief of police, came and hauled her to the hoosegow for public indecency.
But the best thing about my father’s job was the company car, always a station wagon, which my father received brand-new every two years. Every other fall, Dad would turn in his old station wagon at a car dealership up in the city and drive home a new car, honking the horn as he pulled in the driveway, which was the signal for us to run outside, get in the car, and drive to Gray’s Cafeteria in high style. The next morning, we would help him load up the new station with bug spray, furniture wax, and air fresher and off he would go to Rushville or Brazil or Jasper to make his fortune.
I remember one station wagon especially well, a 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a rear-facing back seat, which I had to sit in with my little brother David even though it made us nauseous and pukey. It was clear the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser had never been road-tested on small children prone to motion sickness. There was something about looking back for hours at a time that did me in, which is ironic, given my fondness for nostalgia. I love looking back. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the word “nostalgia” literally means to reminisce about home to such a degree you become physically ill. The pain of looking back was first documented among Swiss mercenaries and English sailors who longed for home. Given what we know about their exploits, one can’t help but think everyone would have been better off if they had just stayed home. But imagine that, looking back so much it makes you sick.
We’ve been thinking about what it means to be spiritual, contrasting spirituality with religion. We know, of course, that sometimes religion and spirituality overlap, that religion includes dimensions of spirituality that are helpful and instructive, which is why religions last. At their best, they provide a platform for spirituality. But we also know religion and spirituality are sometimes at odds with one another, sometimes conflict with one another. This morning I want to suggest a significant difference between religion and spirituality by noting that religion often concerns itself with looking back, or reminiscence; while spirituality often orients toward the present and future, or reality.
Religion, because it is rooted in past people, events, and beliefs, asserts that our ancestors had a greater understanding of truth than modern people. The ancestors they venerate believed the earth was flat, thought illness was caused by demons, believed multiple gods were vying for supremacy, thought kings held their power and position by virtue of God’s authority and approval, believed God required human sacrifices, and thought a man’s status in his community was predicated on the sexual purity of his wives and daughters. These are the saints of old who religions urge us to revere, the exemplars of faith we are encouraged to emulate. Not long ago, I heard a radio preacher say he wanted to have the faith of Abraham. You remember Abraham, don’t you, who willingly placed his son Isaac on a stone altar to slice him open?
I am not saying those in the past have nothing to teach us. Of course, they do. But the absolute and mindless veneration of the past, the dogged insistence that something is true only if it is ancient, cripples our ability to learn and grow. Religion sees truth only in the dim past, never in the sunlit future. That poses a danger. Because religions are rooted in the past, they often carry forward the ignorance and prejudice of the past, which is why those most resistant to equality and justice are often deeply religious. Poll after poll conducted on the topic of religion and discrimination confirms that piety and prejudice too often walk hand in hand. The more devout the community, the greater the racism, the greater the sexism, the greater the homophobia.
By way of example, I want to tell you something I’ve been struggling with that bears on this tension between the comfort of old answers and the necessity of new ones. I’ve been struggling with the issue of gender identity, how some people, rather than identifying with the gender they assumed at birth, now identify with the other gender, or perhaps even both genders, or no gender at all. A few weeks ago, my friend Jim Mulholland and I went on a trip to the farm, something we do from time to time, and this subject came up. I told him I had misgivings about it, that I didn’t quite understand it, and that, quite frankly, it seemed like a fad, that some people were identifying with another gender just because it was the thing to do.
Jim said, “So what if it is a fad? Isn’t it our most basic right to decide who we want to be?”
And Boom!, the instant he said that, I thought, “Yes, no government or person should have the power to tell someone who they must be. That is a personal and private decision.”
Now, do I still understand the nuances of gender identity? No, not at all. I have a lot to learn, but I’m reading about it and talking with people about it, and I’m determined to understand it, because I have a large family and lots of friends so this issue will touch people I know and love and I need to educate myself.
Yes, I could do what some have done, and simply declare that God made everyone either male or female, like it says in the Bible, “male and female he created them,” I could get all religious on everyone.
Or I could study and learn that scientists have identified at least six markers for gender identity: one’s genetic sex, one’s hormonal sex, one’s internal genitalia, one’s external genitalia, one’s secondary sexual characteristics that appear in puberty, and one’s social gender that reflects the norms of their culture. And guess what, those markers don’t always line up. So sexual identity isn’t always either/or. Sometimes it is, but it can also be both/and or reside on a spectrum.
Isn’t science fascinating?
The older I get, the more I appreciate those enduring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said by the people of old…., but I say to you… What is that but the recognition that past truths have their limits, that new insights are not only possible, but preferrable.
Friends, we are not mannequins, forever cast in one mold or another. We are complex living beings, seeking to understand and be understood.
Religion too often says, “The matter is settled. The subject is closed.” Spirituality says, “There is much here to learn. Let’s get started.”