My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

11 November 2007

How spirituality will kill the church

I love the Weekend Journal. On Fridays and Saturdays, the Wall Street Journal includes this section of movie reviews, book reviews, art lessons, political commentary (Peggy Noonan) and other assorted goodies. If we ever stop getting the Journal, I'll probably still go out and buy it on the weekend just for this section. For me, the most important column is the weekly "Houses of Worship" column, authored by various writers, giving quite wide-ranging thoughts on religion.

This week's column ("Buddhist Boomers: A Meditation" by Clark Strand) really has nothing to do with Christianity, which is of course my religion. Except that between the lines of the article is a potent prophecy for American Christianity about her incessant desire to flirt with the world ('cause, y'know, if they like us, maybe they'll invite us to the party!).

Here's the scoop: Among the major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), Buddhism stands as the only one the rest of the country is comfortable with. Even Sam Harris, one of the new evangelistic atheists, doesn't mind Buddhism so much "because it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all in the Western sense."

The problem Buddhism faces is one of aging and eventual extinction. Most American converts to Buddhism are over 50 years old. Worse yet (for the religion, that is), these converts have no concrete sense at all of what it means to be Buddhist. They know nothing about Buddhist baptisms, weddings or funerals. The version of Buddhism they practice is a "thought experiment" more than a true religion; that is, it is an active attempt at a peaceful, tolerant form of spirituality trying to find a home in the intolerant, hypermodern world. Problem is, without the religious part of the religion, without baptisms and rules, funerals and rites, there is nothing to pass onto children except a vague sense of spirituality. And so young Buddhist children have a vague sense that their parents want them to be spiritual, too (but nothing too specific, lest anyone charge the parents with abusive brainwashing).

Therein lies the parable for the church. Quite in vogue is all this talk about spirituality versus religion. (Exhibit A:
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality, by Donald Miller. Exhibit B: every other Christian radio preacher proclaiming "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion!") As the church continues to lose relevance by chasing it, she is more and more capitulating by refusing to speak of "religion" and focusing solely on "spirituality." Loaded terms, to be sure. But here's what I think folks like Donald Miller mean: religion is what constrains us and restricts us, defining us with rules and rites. Spirituality is what sets us free to be what we're meant to be in Christ.

For these anti-religious Christians, Buddhism is now waving the yellow flag. If we lose the religion and attempt to keep the spirituality, we will end up with neither. While this anti-religious spurt may really tickle you, it will mean nothing to your children because there can be no substance without form. It is religion we pass onto our children and it is Spirituality which the Holy Spirit imparts through the ordained means of grace (y'know, those rules and rituals that seem so confining).

Can the church be too religious and not spiritual enough? Absolutely. But the answer is not to abandon the foundation for the upper story. The answer is to use the rites and rituals and means of grace to the end for which God intended: radical spirituality. Just because your car smells a little funny doesn't mean you should stand in your driveway, hoping magically to appear at the Grand Canyon. God has ordained one to get to the other. Give up the car and you can't go anywhere. Give up the religion and spirituality becomes a vapor to chase.

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