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Are you Religious or Spiritual?

An address by Fr John Slater

15 September 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

When I was in New York last month, I was asked: Are you religious or spiritual? Of course I replied that I hoped I was both, but I knew what the question was getting at. There is a dangerous and superficial assumption around today that religion is something essentially outward and institutional, to do with the Church Commissioners and the Vatican, fanatical suicide bombers and ethnic hatred. Spirituality, by contrast, is seen as something deeply inward and private, a sense of harmony with the universe and with all people. Well, if it were as simple as that I'm sure we would all choose spirituality, but of course it isn't.

There is enough that is seriously wrong with religious institutions to make them an easy target for their critics, but religion is about broader issues than promoting a sense of inner harmony and peace. It is naïve in the extreme to believe that everybody, left to themselves, will choose the path of non-violence and love. Christianity, along with Judaism and Islam, has a much more realistic assessment of human nature. The Garden of Eden may not be history but it is a fair picture of human self-will which lies at the root of much that is wrong in our existence. This selfishness has to be addressed before we can progress to any deep spiritual maturity.

Many, though not all, of the spiritual movements of today aim at achieving a sense of bliss without seeing the need for any moral demands at all. They are built, I believe, on a false optimism about human nature. I am not myself a disciple of St Augustine or John Calvin in their pessimistic interpretation of human nature, but we do have to be realistic and face up to what human beings are actually like.

Last Sunday, I suggested that the Blessed Virgin Mary can be a model of the Christian life. And for this reason - that she first surrenders herself to God's purpose in her life, and that she later experiences a mystical union with God as she suffers with her Son at the foot of the cross. We can find here a model of Christian life because each of us must come first to a point at which we can conform our lives to God's will in outward things before we can go on to the ultimate goal of all human striving which is to find inner union at last with the one who made us. These two dimensions are the moral and the spiritual.

Sometimes, the New Testament can seem to concentrate on morality, how to live the good life, and this is what many of the new spiritual movements are unhappy about. But that is not the whole of the Gospel or of Christian belief. There is also this other dimension of the spiritual life. In today's reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, we come across the marvellous phrase:
that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might, by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.

Here we are pointed beyond moral obedience and towards the rich interior life of the spirit. But in the New Testament, the spiritual life is always built on the foundation of the good life. Moral goodness has to come first; you really can't aspire to spiritual maturity until you have mastered human selfishness.

The Letter to the Ephesians goes on with a wonderful description of the spiritual life to which we all aspire.

that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Surely that is what we ultimately long for - to be filled with all the fullness of God. But this conclusion is reached at the end of the long period over which the Jewish and Christian scriptures evolved. This vision of union with God depends upon all that the scriptures have already revealed to us of the nature of God - that he is a holy God who calls us to holiness, a God of goodness who calls us to goodness. Until we choose holiness and goodness in our daily lives we cannot truly seek union with him.

So it's first things first. We know what is right and what is wrong. The good life is described in many different religions and philosophies - to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. There is a selfish self that must die if the true self God calls us to be is to be born. The selfish self is incapable of spiritual growth, but the true self God calls to himself, to the peace which passes all understanding, and to knowledge and love and to the mystical union for which we were made.
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