Tag Archives: Spirituality without Structure

What makes a religion?

About eighteen months ago I read Alain Du Botton’s Religion for Atheists. I’m not an atheist, but I like exploring philosophy from different perspectives. It’s a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The most important thing is that it considers religion as a social phenomenon. What do religions do for people that atheists miss out on? What could atheists learn from religions? Good questions. That got me thinking about the relationship between religions as structures, and spiritual practice.

What is a religion? In essence, it’s an organised human response to the idea of divinity. Ways of thinking about deity, ways of relating to it, pleasing it, serving it and so forth accumulate around a religion. Habits of behaviour, ways of thinking about the world, dress codes and all manner of other things get drawn into the mix. Things that started as a way of connecting to the divine (I assume!) can turn, over time, into ways of participating in a system that is all about other humans and has precious little sacredness in it. When a religion becomes more about its own structure than about spiritual experience, something has gone wrong.

I’m fascinated by religions, by ideas and practises from all over the world. I’ve read widely, and been lucky enough to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds. I see quite often a disconnection between the spirituality of the individual, and the institution of the religion. Mark Townsend’s struggles with the Anglican Church are a case in point. Mark is a deeply spiritual man with a deep love of Jesus and a troubled relationship with the Church. One only has to look at Mark’s work to see the separation of belief from formal religious structure.

Religions offer us off-the-peg ways of expressing and exploring faith and spirituality. They make it very easy to show up and look the part without ever needing to engage meaningfully at all. In fact, the way in which spiritual experience takes power away from authority figures puts spirituality at odds with religious structure. If you can experience the divine directly, you don’t need the religious structure. There are financial implications to that. Big organised religions tend also to be financially busy, and independent believers are less likely to fund them. There’s a huge tension between the financial needs of a religious institution and the spiritual needs of the individual sometimes.

Whether your path is shaped by a formal tradition or not, I think to be spiritual you have to do a lot of figuring out on your own terms. You need to explore what it means to you. Spirituality is about experience and seeking the divine. You can do that in a religious framework, but entering a religious framework does not guarantee that you will be walking a spiritual path. If all you engage with is the surface, you’ll miss out on a lot, irrespective of which religion you are drawn to.

Following on from that line of thought, I set about trying to unpick what it is that religions do, from a spiritual perspective. How do they function? What does a spiritual person making their own path need to know? Most Pagans are, to some degree own-path folk and we don’t have the same structures as many religions, but we can learn by looking at them. There’s also a lot more diversity of religion out there than exposure to Judeo-Christian traditions might suggest so I’ve tried to give a sense of the range and plurality. There are many ways of being a spiritual person, inside a religion or purely on your own terms. If you feel some tools for deliberately working on your own path may be helpful, do saunter over and have a look at Spirituality without Structure http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-Spirituality-Without-Structure/dp/1782792805/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1383822624&sr=8-1&keywords=spirituality+without+structure

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Uncertainty

I question, everything, a lot. It means there are a lot of days when I don’t know what I’m doing, or what the point is. People following the blog have been generous indeed with support and kindness during some of those brutal times of lost direction and lost faith. My publisher at Moon Books, Trevor Greenfield was an absolute soul-saver when he asked me early this year to write him a Pagan portal. Spirituality without Structure will be along soon.

I question myself. I doubt. I pick over, chew over, gnaw until things bleed sometimes. I wrote about dark places recently. I did not say how much my own dark side frightens me, but it does. How deeply I fear all that seems wrong in me, and there is so much. There are days when I have no sense at all of there being anything in here that isn’t made of wrong. Sometimes I have a headspace that allows me to see that as a manifestation of depression, but there are also days when all I see is the wrongness, and the idea of letting myself off the hook by saying I am merely ill, is unpalatable. There are days when showing up here is hard, when I fear that anything I post will look like self-indulgence, but every time I’ve risked one of these, someone has found it resonant. If, by sharing, I can make the dark paths a little more bearable for someone else, then there is a point.

Some of you lovely readers walk the dark paths. You’ve shared stories and kind words when you’ve had something to spare. I don’t have much to offer today, but this is something I wrote recently. This time of year, and this state of mind have me thinking about all that is unacceptable, all that our civilizations have punished through time. The witches who were hanged, the heretics who burned, the gay and lesbian folk who were deemed monstrous. The mentally-different, straightjacketed at best, the learning difficulties folk who were demonised, the outsiders and the unacceptable. To anyone else who suspects that there may not really be a place for them in the village, I offer this.

Beyond the pale

I am your dishonoured dead
Buried unhallowed for fear
Transgressions in this life might
Transcend my passing
And haunt you yet.
Crossroad grave and stake
Exiled to the wasteland
For sins forgotten.
A forlorn waif now
Hungry remnant of ghost
To mourn outside the gate
Beyond the bounds
Unnamed, unclaimed, unmarked
But not quite silenced.