On compassion and spirituality

peace4-180Organized religion and I are not on particularly good terms these days, and I find it to be a fairly interesting juncture in my life. For 25 years I faithfully attended and participated in church – exceptionally active in music, governance, benevolence, publicity and public relations, event coordination, book clubs, education, retreats, outreach. It mattered to me.

Today I stand apart. Oh, that doesn’t mean I’m not keenly aware of spiritual matters. The church as an institution has simply slipped a bit on the list of things I respect or revere.

But really, this isn’t about my church affiliation (or lack of). Over the past year, I’ve been studying Positive Psychology via an online university class. I took my final today, and, yes, I’ve learned a lot. (Mostly about how NOT to set up and run online classes, but that’s a whole other story.) In the penultimate module, the assignment set me to excavating, maybe for the first time, pieces of what sent me packing from organized religion.

[Some studies] confirm “that spirituality begins to move people toward being compassionate only when a threshold of involvement in some kind of collective religious activity has been reached, [and] “… evidence now shows that people who embrace a spiritual view of a purposeful life (regardless of whether this view is derived from religion or from philosophy) are more likely to be happy and to find fulfillment …” (Robert Wuthrow, Princeton).

As a coach, I’ve studied transcendence and spirituality in a broader sense than strictly adhering to a specific religious doctrine or faith. I acknowledge that, while many people with strong religious faith and regular church affiliation are incredibly spiritual, others are not. Likewise, many people who have no real religious affiliation are highly spiritual. So it follows, for me at least, that spirituality itself is not found solely within the bounds of religion. That’s why I can’t help but believe it’s a separate entity altogether.

I suppose it’s no surprise, then, that what I actually unfolded was the notion that I hold spirituality to be as separate from religion as church ought to be from state. And while that probably shouldn’t surprise me, I think the stark realization of that concept did.

I fall out here: I think compassion arises from a place of spirituality as we nurture a sense of transcendence, but not from participation in a collective religious activity. But, because the outlet for compassion is so conveniently served by that collective activity, we mistakenly decide the two are linked by cause and effect. I have been “unchurched” now for four years, and I assure you that my compassion is as high as or higher than when I left behind the world of religious institutions altogether.

Let’s face it, if you’re not churched, the opportunities to extend compassion to the world are somewhat more limited, although I suspect it may be more correct to say that being unchurched requires you to proactively seek them. In a church setting, opportunities abound, paraded before us as recommended outlets. They’re pushed, suggested, and sometimes even expected. It’s easy to attribute good works to religious affiliation and participation, but maybe – just maybe – there’s more to it. Maybe this disconnect can be explained by that easy availability of outlets for our actions. As members, opportunities are plopped into our laps; participation is often a collection plate away; reminders and exhortations are omnipresent.

For unchurched, compassionate people who are nevertheless highly spiritual, those avenues of information and persuasion thin out, although there’s no question that opportunities exist. Always, we have need of compassion. Animals need rescued, food banks stocked, the homeless fed and housed, community built, literacy encouraged.

Compassion, wherever and however it arises, leads us onward, if we choose to follow. When we’re not involved in a collective religious activity, it’s simply up to us to step up and seek our own outlets. I think it follows that the majority of the unchurched are usually out there doing something because it matters a lot, not because it was easily available. After all, it took extra effort to seek out the opportunity to be of service. Not that those who are affiliated are not equally dedicated; many are. I’m just saying that the availability of opportunities skews the results here.

Unfortunately, I think many religious institutions (and some secular, for that matter) allow members the luxury of expressing compassion with minimal actual effort. And when the real sweat equity is missing, I’m not sure spirituality is truly served or that we grow much in humanity.

On the one hand, religion definitely encourages us to focus on spiritual matters and leave materialism behind, yet we’ve all witnessed institutions that cultivate wealthy members as smoothly as, say, a Harvard or Yale cultivates donors. And that creates a disconnect between words and actions – a “do as I say, not as I do” reality – that leaves a lingering aftertaste.

Gregg Easterbrook, in The Progress Paradox (2003), says that spirituality “need not mean participation in a specific religion …. A person who believes the universe is entirely natural in origin could nevertheless be spiritual – attuned to life, grateful to be alive, aware of the web of interconnectedness among fellow human beings.”

I agree. Spirituality is bigger and grander than any one religion, but religion without spirituality is empty. Compassion arises not from affiliation with organized religious activity but from that place of spiritual essence. And that’s not limited to the domain of the world’s houses of worship.

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