I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” It’s a phrase I hear more and more these days. What does it mean? Generally, it means the speaker does not attend church, but believes there is a loving God, and that there is life after death. Beyond that, there is often vague confusion about the particulars.
Is God personally involved in our lives, or is God merely a creator whose love is reflected in the beauty of creation? Is evil as real as love? Are we judged according to our sins and good deeds when we die? Is there a hell? Are we saved by faith no matter what we do?
Spiritual vagueness may seem like a symptom of modern times, but it’s as ancient as the Old Testament. When the Assyrians swept down on the Ten Tribes of northern Israel around 740 B.C., and moved those defeated Hebrews north and east away from their synagogues, their traditional religious practices — already weakened by pagan influences — slipped away.
Then around 586 B.C., when Judah and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah heard from God about the Lost Tribes, as well as about Judah:
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah … This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Many Christians take this new covenant as God’s promise of the coming Messiah, and the forgiveness embodied in Christ’s death on the cross. But why did God tie the new covenant to Israel — the Ten Lost Tribes — rather than to Judah? Is it because the Ten Tribes escaped their Assyrian captives, fled north through the Caucasus Mountains, and ultimately became the people known as the Celts?
It’s an intriguing and well-developed theory, quite popular in 19th century England. Based on this theory, the kings and queens of England traced their royal lineage back to King David. (For more on this story, google “Word Alpha Omega” on the Internet, and click on Lost Tribes.)
But I digress. For this column, my interest is in God’s new covenant: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” If that’s the case, then why should we belong to churches, and listen to pastors and priests?
Jesus himself sent conflicting signals about faith and organized religion. He was, in practice, a knowledgeable rabbi, teaching the meaning of the Torah to even the priests in the Temple. Yet he called out the religious leaders as abusers of the law and hypocrites, even as he appointed his disciple Peter to build the Christian church. Of course, Jesus realized the faults of religious structure, suffering as it does from all the ills of any governmental structure. But how else do you organize community?
The early Christians were all about community, and shared their goods as well as their gifts of the spirit. Bishops were simply the homeowners who opened their doors to the local congregation, while deacons were the ones who served the communal meals. The spiritual gifts were shared throughout the community.
To quote Paul: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” (I Corinthians 12:7-11).
By the third century A.D., the church had become an official arm of the political system under the Emperor Constantine, with powers comparable in function to the Jewish Temple in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. The love embodied in the early Christian community often was supplanted by the hierarchy and rule-making of the church.
Occasionally, certain heroes, such as St. Francis, would remind the church of Jesus’ vision of sharing, love and community. Later there were some Protestant sects that sought to restore Christ’s vision. One that continues to this day is the Society of Friends, which declares all members to be ministers of the faith. A Quaker meeting for worship begins in silence, until the inner light moves any member to minister to the others.
Have I wandered too far from my original question — the difference between faith and religion? Here’s the problem, as I see it. Those who claim to have faith without a faith community miss the point of Jesus’ message — that two or three, at least, must gather to make his presence articulate. We learn God by learning giving, and giving becomes possible with community. We give to God by giving to one another. We learn and we teach, we gain support and strengthen others, through spiritual community. And it’s not due to the “leadership.” The best pastors and priests live as equals within their communities, sharing their gifts as others share theirs.
It is the community that is the basis and the reason for actualizing God’s love on Earth, and it’s through the mirror of communal service that we begin to achieve our own spiritual maturity.
Lee Witting is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center, pastor of the Union Street Brick Church, and a doctoral candidate at Bangor Theological Seminary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.