Spiritual But Not Religious: the Way or the Church?

It’s often remarked that any institution is principally concerned with its own survival as an institution.  Perhaps this remark is made concerning religious institutions more than any other.  Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.

Jews did exactly that – split up and scattered—after the destruction of the first temple.  In making the move to diaspora over edifice, the kitchen table replaced the alter table and Jews looked simply to the Torah as the Way.  The temple was reconstructed, however, and came to represent the institutionalization of authority and codes of conduct that Jesus rebelled against.  Much has changed over the millennia, and it is now Christians who have priests, alters, and lines of institutional authority.  And some things haven’t changed.  Codes of conduct fuel splintering divisiveness in religious communities today.

Standing in contrast to the hierarchical structure of many religious traditions, the Twelve Step tradition is starkly egalitarian in nature.  The enduring success of Twelve Step programs can be attributed not only to steps that capture a spiritual essence shared by many faith traditions but also to organizational philosophy.  A.A. is a self-organized, self-supported “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  The A.A. support organization assiduously avoids religious, political or ideological affiliation.  There are no dues or formal membership, so the number of participants isn’t known.  The best estimate is 2 million members.  Its operating structure has been described variously as an “inverted pyramid” with no top-down authority and as “benign anarchy” by one of its founders.  Even in meetings, there are guiding principles but no leaders.  Everyone enters with equal authority.

Theologian and Rabbi Shais Taub writes movingly of the theology reflected in the Twelve Steps.  When asked whether it is in agreement with Jewish theology, he says, “The answer I usually give is not only that is there nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Twelve Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God.”  I have observed the same to be true for Christians.  There are those who left the church for the Twelve Steps because they just couldn’t get there—to spiritual awakening or profound life change—with what the church offered.  Truly for those, the Twelve Steps were the Way.

The question—the Way or the Church—is particularly germane following yesterday’s announcement of a Vatican crackdown on US nuns.  Along with the recent Catholic involvement in political discourse, the move appears to elevate institutional authority over compassion for the poor and powerless.  Here is the article’s poignant conclusion:

“I don’t know any more holy people,” [canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School Nick] Cafardi said of American religious sisters. “I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery.”

Join the conversation.  What attachments is your faith community willing to surrender to follow the Way?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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