I don't know how religion came to be a dirty word, exactly, but I think it has much to do with the very human failings of people like me (i.e. clergy) The Church has failed people far too often through it's own desire for power and self-preservation. As is so well known, some have preyed on the innocent. But many more even than that have failed to protect the innocent. And beyond the very obvious violations of trust and sexual misconduct, is the "bad theology" that has kept people from knowing the breadth and depth of God's love in Jesus Christ for all of God's children. When people think of "anti-women and homophobic" when they hear the word "Church" there is clearly much that is broken.The Church has clearly left deep scars on so many people, pushing them away from "religion." There is a prayer in the liturgy for the Stations of the Cross, at the eighth station where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, that always stops me in my tracks:
Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them; that, by your pardoning grace, the results of our iniquities may not be visited upon our children and our children's children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (emph. mine)Even so, I don't think it is all the fault of the Church that "religion" has become such a dirty word. We live in a culture that likes to do it "our way." Spirituality is so much more an acceptable word in our culture in part, I think, because we get to do it ourselves. Religion requires commitment, work, devotion, and above all else, other people who see the world differently from us. Who needs that mess? So it is much easier to say, "I'm spiritual, not religious..."
If forced to choose between spirituality OR religion (and in spite of the fact that I have a pretty good pension plan with a religious institution) I still would choose spirituality every time. (Or, at least as I wrote two years ago, spiritual practices.) The thing is, I don't want to have to choose between the two; and I think it's a false choice to have to make...I want to be more spiritual AND more religious. In fact, increasingly I understand this to be my vocation as a priest: to help create communities of faith where people can be working at both.
I think the reason people are far more okay with spirituality is that they know in their bones that God is WAY bigger than the Church. They sense God at the beach and on hikes in the mountains (of course the Creator is present in creation!) and in yoga and in meditation and at the birth of a child. We are "spiritual' because we are, all of us, made in the image of the Creator.
But without religion, spirituality can so easily become narcissistic. It becomes the "religion of me"; whether acknowledged as such or not. Religio: the root meaning.is about connecting, about binding together. While religious communities (including the one I serve) are made of of flawed human beings, the heart of Christian theology is not only about love of God but love of neighbor. There is both a "vertical" and "horizontal" dimension to our faith. At it's best, religion is about the goal of binding together God's children. It is about being part of a community of faith where we can encourage (and sometimes challenge) one another. Religion, or more accurately, healthy religious communities, give us a space where our spirituality can mature.We need them.
That is what I yearn for. That is what I dream of. That is what I want to be a part of, with God's help. I don't think for a minute that there is only one way to do that, or that the way we do things in my congregation or denomination are the only or even the best ways of so doing.
But I think that there is a need - and even a deep hunger (before there is even a language to express that hunger) for faith communities where people can be both religious and spiritual: communities where followers of Jesus can be together as a Body, to love and serve the world not just by words but in their actions.