Thursday, March 29, 2012

Personal spirituality vs. sociobiological functions of religion

James Griffith writes in his book Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms:

Religion is perhaps so powerful because it activates many different sociobiological systems simultaneously. Religion recruits not only attachment behaviors between an individual and his or her God but also social processes of peer affiliation with attendant alliances and coalitions; social hierarchy with dominance, submission, and status seeking; kin recognition with demarcation of an ingroup apart from outgroups; and expectations for a just social exchange that includes reciprocal altruism. P.27

And yet, in our postmodern age when people increasingly are rejecting organized religion but continue to value a spiritual life, we find that while the sociobiological functions of religion may hold less importance, the spiritual functions continue to be studied and practiced. As Griffith points out the spiritualities associated with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism thrive. Unitarian Universalism proclaims that it draws its spirituality from six sources: direct experience, the words and deeds or prophetic men and women, the world’s religions, Jewish and Christian teachings, humanism, and earth centered traditions. There are a lot of roads to Rome as they say and even more vulgarly, a lot of ways to skin the cat. Unitarian Universalism focuses on the “perennial spiritualities”. What are they?

The perennial spiritualities can be enumerated, as they are by Griffith, as a whole-person relatedness, compassion, hope, purpose, joy, love, encounters with the sacred, and recognizing the importance of the well-being of individuals over the group.

Religion and spirituality are two different things. Some people are religious but not spiritual and some people are spiritual but not religious and then there are some people who are both spiritual and religious. Some would argue that it is very difficult to be spiritual if one is not religious. In fact, some would say that people who say that they are spiritual and not religious are only kidding themselves. To develop one’s spirituality requires a certain amount of knowledge, skill, values, and discipline. Spirituality to some extent is a social construction and human beings are social animals. We cannot achieve and enhance our awareness and consciousness without participating in social relationships and culture and reflecting on that experience. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. However, when the development and enhancement of individual awareness is no longer supported by the group participation or interferes with it, then the individual must take responsibility for one’s growth and not be constricted by group loyalties.

This creation of one’s own spirituality requires a higher level of self awareness and consciousness than the average person in our current society and culture possesses. Perhaps this is why Unitarian Universalism is not the religion of the masses. Few people have the capacity and interest to consciously pursue the creation of one’s own theology and the ability to articulate it in any effective way with ones associates, and so the creation of a personal spirituality is a private affair and rarely shared except in the most intimate of conversations. 

To what extent do church congregations develop a level of intimacy in which an individual can drop one’s false self and be one’s real self? It is this experience of the real self that defines an authentic spirituality and because of all the sociobiological functions which religious organizations perform it is rare that they can afford to acknowledge their members’ experience their real selves.

Unitarian Universalists are known for being "nice". They bend over backwards to accomodate. I asked a staff member of the UUA one time why UU congregations tend to be so small and she said simply, "They don't know how to handle conflict." It seems that UUs are so busy empathizing that they rarely take a meaningful stand on anything. Perhaps it is the ambiguity, the amorphous seeming confusion, that is so unattractive to prospective members who are looking for knowledge, wisdom, guidance, meaning, and fail to find it when they stop at UU congregations on their journey. UUs are so nice, but seem to not stand for anything and so there is very little of substance to attach to. Unless one already has an interior spiritual life which could be nurtured by a UU congregation that congregation has little to offer the seeker who is looking for sustenance.

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