No dinner-table topic is so taboo.
There are other anathemas, certainly: politics, sketchy relationships, your posse of kittens. But nothing stops the conversation as fast as the big one: Religion.
“What religion are you?” “What do you believe?” “What church do you go to?” Deceptively difficult and incredibly nebulous, these questions are. It’s almost as embarrassing as the nationality/race question. You instantly wonder: what do they think of me, now that they know?
No matter what your religious stripe, you likely have a laundry list of what everyone “knows” about you upon hearing your religious ties. And it’s just not that cut-and-dry.
But what if you *don’t* have a religious “camp” to sit in? What if you used to be religious, then atheist, and now completely unsure?
There’s no fancy box to check here. For the sake of polite conversation, you’d probably pick the safest blanket term and hope nobody presses the issue.
But religion – and spirituality – is so much more complex than that. It is so much more beautiful and mysterious. It is so much more personal than the institutions we have created.
I, myself, am still a skeptic. I filed religious and spiritual inquiries on the shelf years ago. But Pandora’s box opened when I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety.
I was hesitant to pick up the book at all, and almost stopped after seeing the words “God,” “prayer” and “spiritual.” But then it jumped out at me: Peck referred to God as “She.”
I nearly dropped the book in shock and quickly re-read the passage. Yup, he just referred to God with a feminine pronoun. Obviously, I thought, he has come to to terms with religion in a much different manner. Perhaps he actually has something new to say. And so, I kept reading.
And he had many things to say; some old, some new, and some very enlightening. The most gratifying thing he had to say: all thought, all of life, is a process. What you believe is not set in stone; your beliefs change every day with every new fact you learn. Every day, your mind continues to be molded into something slightly new.
In other words: you are not stuck. No matter what rut you’re in, no matter what’s going on right now, you have potential for change. And, thank goodness, mental growth does not stop at adolescence.
The same with religion; you don’t suddenly “get it all together” and that’s that. Spirituality is a constant process of building up, breaking down, reassessing and relearning. Peck offered a pattern of spiritual growth that he noticed many people go through during their own psychological and spiritual journeys; my own life follows this pattern closely, which proved to be a comfort… and inspiring.
– Stage one (“Chaos”) is where an individual appears religious or spiritual, but in actuality employs a superficial belief system. You often find this with children and young adults with indoctrinated religion. It is a collection of assumptions and beliefs, copied and pasted from their mentors directly onto themselves. They don’t “own” it, as strongly as they may believe they do.
– Stage two (“Institutional”) is where most fundamentalists stand. The familiar community and surroundings provides the comfort and power of these people. This also promotes a great deal of group-think and dangerous assumptions concerning the irrevocable nature of their religion’s dogma.
– Stage three (“Skeptic”) is self-explanatory. This individual rejects all which cannot be proven; is rational, secular and humane in their thinking; thus the term “secular humanist.”
– Stage four (“Mystic”) is the final stage. Here, Peck explains, skeptics begin to “doubt their own doubts” as they progress in life, coming across overwhelming evidence of the goodness of humanity and the incredible patterns within this complex world. These individuals continue to be rational and humane, and yet feel a deep connection with “an unseen order of things.”
This timeline reveals that maturity of the spirit and mind means flexibility. Adhering to a black-white code of honor, while seemingly virtuous, is not mature. It’s not smart. It isn’t even human. Are you really willing to let “someone else” to do all of the thinking for you, without thinking about it yourself?
Really thinking about something, deciding what is the best for you, the situation, the parties involved, while remaining true to your all of your own beliefs – that is truly difficult and excruciating work. And it all requires flexible, rational, humane thinking. Because life isn’t that simple.
While the codes and dogma of different religions might seem immovable, remember that they served as a code during a certain era, crystalline and rigid. While that may be how people from the 1500s till today came to find God, your spiritual path needn’t be the same; neither the shape of your path or the form your spirituality takes.
And that is truly liberating.