Thursday, February 28, 2008

Religious Protectionism?

In the second chapter of Thou Art That, "The Experience of Religious Mystery," Campbell notes how in the Western framework a person can only "become associated with the divine through the social institution." Persons are "emptied of our sense of our own divinity," he claims, and adds the assertion that, "The God of the institution is not supported by your own experience of spiritual reality."

What Campbell is saying, essentially, is that our awe-filled experience of the mystery and transcendence of God is hindered by religious structures and words that attempt to concretely define him. Persons who have gone through formal spiritual "training," he claims, are even more at risk for feeling restless in their connection; "They have got it all named in the book." (I guess I fall into that category, having the M.Div. and the pastoral experience and all. Drat.) Campbell then quotes his favorite psychologist, Carl Jung, who had said that "one of the functions of religion is to protect us against the religious experience."

That last line resonates with me. I've often heard myself complaining out loud about how, especially in mainline denominations, the schedule of worship services seems to hinder the potential of the Spirit's outpouring.

I once preached regularly at a contemporary Methodist worship service that needed to be over by around 10:45 to make way for the traditional 11 a.m. service. Those mostly older folks waiting to come in didn't like it when that loud music kept playing and they couldn't get to their favorite seats yet. Man, there were many times we could have sung, prayed and talked longer, because that palpable sense of the divine was there. But our religious structure cast its shadow high and long, essentially saying, "That's quite enough for now." Plus I had to switch gears and get myself ready to be at the mic by 10:55 so I could deliver, for the third time that morning, the bulletin announcements. I could feel that protective, religious veil, and pondered often the point of it all.

I can understand why people who place themselves under the banner of a Western religion can struggle with feeling consistent in living out its tenets. There can be a certain lack of spiritual peace and power, because the whole construct feels so doctrine-driven rather than mystery-driven. People can only be inspired and motivated so much by institutional branding of the God experience. We make linear what is perhaps meant to be circular.

What religious organizations and spiritual leaders must do is help facilitate that deeper drink of the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God that our common instincts--the perceptions we often are afraid to say out loud--tell us is beyond the categories, names, divisions we can carelessly banter about in smug self-righteousness.

The questions for the person committed to Christianity (but feeling there is so much more to the spiritual life than how the church is filtering things, and how well-intended scholars are exegeting texts) are thus: Can I fully identify myself with "Christ in you?" Can I, with staggering wonder, participate in his divinity rather than staying caught in a painful quest of attempting to be worthy of his salvation through my behaviors? Can I move past this fascination with good vs. evil and the dumbing-down of scripture's beautiful, metaphorical language, and truly realize that the Kingdom of God is within me now?

The experience of mystery, Campbell writes, comes "not from expecting it but through yielding all your programs, because your programs are based on fear and desire. Drop them and the radiance comes."


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