(I met my friend Seth Jones during our freshman year of college, and we remain good friends to this day. He now lives across the country from me in Maine where he is a pastor. Below is his thoughtful and passionate response to yesterday’s essay “Talking About God.” I am posting his email in its entirety with his permission.)
I read your new posting in your blog. There is a lot I liked and appreciated about it. The fear of talking about God is misplaced, and we would all be better served if we could learn to listen and speak respectfully and with reflection regarding those most important things in our lives.
When I was in Maine for about four months the AA group started meeting in the basement of the church. I was thrilled to have them there; they had to leave the place they were meeting until a construction project finished. Some of the people in the AA group, though, had problems with being in a church. Sometimes, they had to meet in the sanctuary and they felt–threatened?–by the large blue stained glass cross that is in the front of the sanctuary. So they moved.
Before they moved, I went to one of their meetings. After the meeting, I swear to God, five people came up to me to explain their belief system or why they didn’t go to church. I guess pastors inspire that kind of thing; I have begun to perceive it as a kind of confession. They all began the same way: “I am spiritual but not religious.” By the fourth person, I started responding, “That is OK, I am religious but not in the least bit spiritual.” One took offense and the other said that was impossible.
All of them had a bizarre and distorted view of what constituted “organized religion.” I don’t know what “organized religion” is. It can’t be dogma, because everyone I have met who does not have a religion has a dogma of some sort. The meaning of the word “religion” has as its root word the same root word as the word “ligament.” So “religion” means “to re-join, re-connect.” Whenever I am in public and someone talks about organized religion, I always ask what they mean. They tell me, and then I say, “Yeah, I don’t believe in that either.” Because I really don’t. Because it is not what I am involved in either. Most say, “Churches tell you what to do and what to believe. It is all about rules.” They have no clue how offensive it sounds to someone who has devoted their lives to the experience of worship, community, and spiritual growth.
My biggest problem and the biggest personality difficulty I have is that I ask questions of people. When they say, “I am spiritual but not religious,” I ask questions. It drives people crazy because I keep asking questions. “Where did you learn that perspective?” “Which wars were religious wars in your mind and in your understanding?” “When you say ‘Christianity’, what kind of ‘Christianity’ do you mean?” “You just used the word ‘puritanical.’ Do you know anything about the Puritans? They might surprise you. Did you know they were the first sexual revolutionaries?” “You say nature is your church. What does that mean? How is God present for you when nature kills and destroys without discrimination?”
I can be exceptionally annoying. Worse, I actually know a thing or two about other religious systems as well.
My suggestion is not to take religion out of the discussion, but talk through, with, and beside it. It is integral to how we all understand God, whether we have rejected or accepted a particular religious perspective. You would not have a spiritual perspective if it weren’t for some community defining their experience together regarding their relationship with God. My daughter’s school doesn’t allow religious expression of any kind–no crosses, no Stars of David, no head coverings. It is such a tragic loss of opportunity. The open free discussion among one another about faith, religion, spirituality, and non-belief can only be invigorating and helpful. I guess what I am saying is that I will not give up my “religion” to talk about my relationship with God. My religion is how I am in relationship with God.
I don’t mean to sound harsh–your very well-written article got me going. That is a good thing.