Monday, January 25, 2016

Is Being Spiritual Enough? What do we in the Judeo-Christian world mean when we speak of being religious?

IT TAKES NOTHING away from God to presume that religion is man made. 

Religions come and go and evolve. Fewer Americans are in the pews yet more say they feel spiritual, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. There are people "across a wide variety of religious identities who say they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe," Pew reports.

You could think of spirituality— the capacity to look beyond ourselves and to speculate about the purpose of life— in psychological terms. If spirituality is broadly synonymous with emotional health then being soulful could be rooted in hormones, genetics, nurture, and luck.

Religion is off the radar for more and more Americans. In the 21st century it's a lifestyle choice not a prerequisite for membership in society. That may be unfortunate. It takes the virtues of discipline and devotion to practice religion. To be spiritual merely requires feeling; to practice religion entails prayer, ritual, community, time and money. The best, I suppose, is when you can combine the two. A sense of deep spiritual peace and contentedness is particularly common among evangelicals where ecstasy is an element of the church service.

Of course, the search to explain the mysterious – something that occupies both religion and science— remains intrinsic to human nature. For some, spirituality may be a way of exploring the mysterious within the bounds of 21st century sensibilities.
Pew found that just 39 percent of Jews said they experienced "spiritual peace and well-being" on a weekly basis and about 42 percent expressed "a wonder about the universe." Just to put these numbers in perspective: Some 54 percent of atheists expressed wonder about the universe. Roughly 64 percent of Christian believers say they achieve weekly spiritual peace and well-being. 
Such comparisons may be misleading.

For Judaism is not just a religion it is a civilization. Judaism encompasses believers and non-believers, those who seek out spirited, joyous, song-filled Friday night Kabbalat  Shabbat services (called "Carlebach minyans") and those who prefer a night at the opera. Jews have their mystics and Hassidim, but also those who express their Jewishness by watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or voting Democratic. There is no catechism in Judaism. Indeed, Jews can't agree on "who is a Jew" or how the Sabbath should be observed. There are Orthodox Jews who engage in ritual without giving a thought to theology, and progressive Jews who forget that ritual can instill deeper meaning to their ethos of repairing the world (tikkun olam).

But let's put nomenclature aside.

Dominic Johnson's God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human makes the point that, "Our brains are wired such that we cannot help but search for meaning in the randomness of life." He continues, "Humans the world over find themselves, consciously or subconsciously believing that we live in a just world or a moral universe where people are supposed to get what they deserve."

In the West, moral relavatism has been taken to an extreme leaving random individuals to decide what is right. The paradigm that moral order emanates from a Creator strikes modernists as outmoded. Yet Johnson argues (and not necessarily because he is a believer) that only belief in God can help humans triumph over their own selfishness. Belief in a supernatural God is a practical evolutionary adaptation. Put another way, Religion and its belief in punishments encourages cooperation and stifles selfish behavior.
In this way, religion and life within a religious community can be a force for good.

It is easy to lose sight of this basic truth in a world torn asunder by religious violence above all within Muslim civilization. Islamist forces are also at war with Western notions of modernity, tolerance, and respect for minorities. Alas, internecine Muslim bloodletting in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is a struggle between different shades of dark.

Judaism and Christianity may have their own corrupters, but they have gone through their evolutions, adaptations, and reformations. Islam has not.

Like fire and water, religion can warm our souls and quench our longing for purpose. It is essential to the human operating system even if religions—some more than others— become corrupted and require critical patches and updates.


Elliot Jager is author of The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness. He is a senior editor at The Jerusalem Report specializing in the Jewish world. 

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