One of the problems continually faced by people my colleagues and I meet seems to be that of trying to figure out how to talk to a minister. I'm not sure why that should be a problem, but I think it must be because of the things people say as what seem to be opening gambits, to which no minister I know has ever found a response. One of them is from people who are members who hardly ever come to church who begin the conversation by telling you why they weren't there last Sunday. Those who come regularly either don't bother to explain, or tell you because they're pretty sure you'll be interest-ed. It is only the rare attendees who seem not to know what else to talk about. The problem for me with that is that it is hard for me to hear a reason that I will find more compelling than coming to church. After all, if I hadn't decided that celebrating public worship together with others of our faith tradition was one of the most important things we do, I wouldn't be in this business. By the way, I'm not talking about the things that are beyond people's control, like children's sports or one-time events, that I may resent but that none of us seem to have any influence on. No, I'm talking about - for instance - the woman who told me that she was so pleased that the previous Sunday morning she had finally got all her loose photographs pasted into the appropriate albums. Well, well, if that's more important to you than coming to church, go for it, but please don't tell me about it. Any response I could make would be either dishonest or unkind.
The other common remark to which none of us ministers seem to have discovered any response is actually, I think, related to that, although I only hear it from strangers, and that's the one that is implied in the title of the sermon: I'm not religious, but I am spiritual. I hear it most at wedding rehearsals and receptions, since that's where people know that I am a minister, and seem to feel that they somehow need to justify the fact that they don't attend church. It's really none of my business, of course. Although I think the whole world would be better off if everyone were a Unitarian Universalist, and I do a great deal of evangelizing among the interested, part of my free faith under-standing is the conviction that people are responsible for their own religious choices, and they need justify them to no one. So far the only response I've been able to come up with is, "Oh, really?" and no one I've checked it out with has done much better.
I don't think my discomfort with this gambit is simply that I have no response, or even the implied criticism of something to which I have dedicated my life. After all, I know better than to take it personally. Recently, however, when I heard someone talking about the quality of wisdom it became clearer to me why I can't deal well with this remark. The two personal qualities that I see as primary goals for my own life are to be wise and to be spiritual. I am too well aware of my many foolishnesses ever to call my-self wise, however much I work toward it, and even however much nearer to the goal I may come. To call oneself spiritual seems to convey the same feeling of hubris to me, of claiming what one cannot have as a divine quality. Even the best - even the most spiri-tual of us - have greeds and selfishnesses which we struggle with all the time. The greatest saints are often those most convinced of their own sin. I suspect that the truly spiritual people know only too well how unspiritual they often are, and would be embarrassed and ashamed to claim otherwise.
It is my suspicion, though, that all other considerations apart, there is a certain amount of sympathy in this room for the statement, "I'm not religious...." Even those of us who were not brought up in a different religious tradition, or who have no lingering resentments from a religious past have read history and we have read current events. We know very clearly that some of the greatest oppression, some of the bloodiest events in history and still today have happened in the name of religion. It is the presenting cause of the terrorism for fear of which we are surrendering many of our freedoms and much other violence around the world. Before the Christian era records are sketchy at best, but the Bible is filled with violent events based on religious differences and So-crates was executed because he challenged the religious establishment. In medieval times the conflict between Christians and Moslems, the horrors of the Crusades when even children were encouraged to leave their homes to fight for the holy land and hundreds disappeared never to be seen again. Whether they all were killed or ended their lives as slaves is unknown.... There were burnings of heretics, oppression of the Jews, Torquemada's Holy Inquisition in Spain where evil was justified again and again in the name of religious faith. Nor did it stop there. The Reformation began new ways of being heretical, and in England alone, traitors and heretics of the year before became holy martyrs as official religion changed and those who had done the killing were killed in their turn. The troubles in Ireland date from those times and are not yet over. Even those who made a religion out of non-religion had their innings with the terror in revolutionary France which guillotined for awhile not only the aristocrats but the priests as well, and the vaunted rationalism of certain of the French also has roots in bloody oppression. Conflicts in the Middle East which seem more and more intractable every day are between not only Moslems and Jews but Jew and Jew, Moslem and Moslem, with the strife between reform and orthodox of either faith often becoming as violent as any conflict between the faiths themselves. Who would be religious with a history of religion like this?
Yet we need to recall that great good has also been done in the name of religion. When the teachings of most religious faiths are followed rather than their political power as-serted, the hungry are fed, the suffering relieved, the structures of oppression, of bigo-try and prejudice are challenged, and the meaning of our lives discovered. Although religion, because it is something that we do in relation to others, to a history and tradi-tion that goes before and to fellow practitioners today, as well as those who will come after us, must set limits to freedom as all things that we do in relationship must, it need not be oppressive; it need not seek political or social power for its own good rather than the redemption of society - although it too often does - it can, instead, fulfill its purpose of being a vehicle to lead us to the holy, establish meaning and show a path which can make us, if not spiritual, at least more spiritual than we are.
We may not wish to admit it, but human beings are hive animals, herd animals, and we fulfill ourselves completely, religiously as well as materially - and also, I would argue, spiritually - only in relationship with one another. We kick against this sort of thing, but it still is true and will remain true. It is a part of our success in survival, just at the most basic level of understanding. Hank Williams, Jr. wrote a song some years ago which became amazingly popular about the dangers of the wicked old city, and argued that with his pick-up truck and gun he didn't need it and the evil people it produced. It was called "Country Folks Can Survive," by the way, for those of you who may have missed it. Every time I heard it I wanted to point out to him that the resources to create his pick-up truck and gun were only found in concentrations of human beings - cities, in effect.
I suspect that we are also religious by nature, and perhaps the only animal that is. It is said that prostitution is the oldest profession, but I am convinced that's merely to give people a way to talk about it without giving it a name, because the evidences of priestly professionalism are even older. Being religious is a part of what makes us human and a basic structure of human relationships. We may be spiritual alone, although I doubt that we can reach the fullest potential of the life of the spirit alone, but religion is about relationships of service: service to what we find most holy, to the highest we can imagine, service to the faith tradition which calls our loyalty, and service to humankind and to the earth that is our home. We do that best, as we do everything best, in community.
That is part of what makes it worrisome to me that almost every technological advance that is made gives further opportunities, or perhaps persuasions, for isolation. With the invention of the telephone we no longer had to be face to face when we spoke to one another. When the car came along we could transport ourselves father and farther in our splendid loneliness. The phonograph, the radio, the television, the tape player, the CD and now the ipod brought entertainment to our lonely houses. The computer and the internet make it possible even to do our work without ever even seeing another's face, except, perhaps, electronically. We can work in cubicles by ourselves, or we can even work at home. I am no Luddite. I love my computer. It gives me previously im-possible hours of pleasure and productivity. Nevertheless, the dangers of isolation and alienation become clearer all the time. It can be argued, of course, that with these new technologies we are in communication with more people than ever before. Communica-tion, however, is not the same as relationship, and no matter how well you think you know someone you have met through your computer, it is one-dimensional knowledge and to become real it must get out of the computer and become more than that to be real. Without such relationships our fellow human beings are not our brothers and sis-ters but objects for exploitation or amusement, and the violence or indifference that we show to one another is the obvious and necessary response to the unreal constructs that others have so often become.
Religion is about binding us to one another through our particular faith tradition, through our religious communities. It is about practicing our faith together in ritual that ties us to our past and gives meaning to the present. It is about serving the holy and our faith and all that seems good to us together rather than in isolation, remembering those who went before us and preparing for those who will follow us. It works against the isolation that present-day society encourages. And this is, I think, the essence of the spiritual as well - the relationships and the service that enable us to transcend the material world of getting and spending and thus grow our souls. The spiritual that divides itself from the religious may be emotionally satisfying but without the service demanded of us by the religious life it cannot truly redeem us.
One of the most famous Biblical tales is that of the tower of Babel. After the flood the human race was of one language and they decided to cooperate to build a tower to reach the heavens. When Yahweh became aware that it looked as if they might well succeed he was deeply perturbed. This was not the first time human beings had achieved the power to challenge his sovereignty, and he wasn't going to allow it to happen this time either. In concert with his heavenly cohorts he gave them different languages so that they could no longer work toward one end and they scattered to the ends of the earth - each with those to whom they could speak and whom they could understand. There's a lot of stuff in that story that can be gleaned, but the understand-ing that matters most, it seems to me, is that working in community human beings, de-spite their little foolishness, their self-absorption, can so grow in spirit as to rival even the majesty of the holy!
So let us reclaim not just the word but the spirit of religion. Understanding the evil that the power of community can do, and even the frailties of our own faith, we can yet learn again the power for goodness of dedication to our free faith and to its practice, coming together in fellowship in order that the divine spark within each of us will so grow that our lives can indeed become more spiritual, and the light of integrity and freedom in the life of the spirit will fill the world with its beauty