"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Material

Religious or Spiritual?

Do we make a choice?

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Have religion and spirituality become opponents, like bad actors chasing on a merry-go-round. Or do they somehow complement each other? Spirituality is a singularly individual pursuit. Religion is a singularly collective pursuit. Are they opponents? Or are both enhanced by the other? The spiritual quest and the religious quest are very different, but they hardly exist without each other.

Spiritual? Yikes! It's as if religious organizations can't even say the word spiritual without desecrating all over themselves. It's almost like saying that a person might be able to seek spiritual guidance on their own. Unheard of! Tradition!*1 Let people run their own lives? It would ruin religion! Don't spiritual people ignore doctrines and become heretics?

*1 You may recognize the exclamations from Fiddler On the Roof, which is a movie about traditions and change.

Religion? Yikes! Who can stand the idea of some maniac trying to tell me how to run my life?!! Anathema! Evil! Nobody gets between me and God, especially religious organizations who have tried their best to run and ruin the entire world. Stay away from me! Around a fourth of all US citizens feel this way.

When I set off on my first spiritual quest as a young adult, within a year or two I separated myself from Christianity. I had to ask, "What is all of this nonsense about good people being sent straight to a lake of fire?" My reaction to the New Age God of Love was to question all of what I had been told in Church since it didn't make sense. I was beginning to mature - I was beginning to consider spiritual questions. I was beginning to think for myself.

Why do we need the spiritual? We are all ultimately responsible for our own spiritual development and the consequences.*2 Spirituality is an individual quest, not the corporate quest found in religious institutions. Spirituality involves the essence of our singular being. It involves our quest to become more mature in spiritual matters. We want to be "enlightened." We want to "know" and to be better. While religion wants to focus people on all kinds of things that have questionable personal value, we want to focus on what is vitally important to us. We want to know if all of the religious claims are actually true.

*2 During the days of the Israelite prophets, the covenant changed from collective responsibility to one of individual responsibility. See Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:37-40; Ezekiel 18:14-20:49.

Practicing spirituality often includes reading material that deals with a wider philosophy than an individual religious institution. The outlook may lead to a more pluralistic and less narrow view of the religious world. It may lead to growth and religious change. It may lead to a greater acceptance of differences between people and religion. It may awaken a need to be more accepting and nurturing of others that don't share the same religious point of view. Eventually I returned to Christianity.

Spiritual Quest

Spirituality can be an inner journey. It may be a vehicle to connect more closely with the creator, addressing some need not addressed by normal religion. Mystics, who are accepted by most religions, often take this journey of contemplation, looking more deeply within to find the infinite. Mystics meditate, which is an unguided listening. But many who are leaders and writers who communicate with others are not meditators, but contemplatives.

Contemplatives look deeply into knowledge and issues to get a better sense of its depth, its ramifications, and connection to other things. Contemplatives guide their focus. Personally I'm a more contemplative person who tries to become informed by others information and then contemplates the whole. I haven't found meditation particularly helpful, or even the religious service (except sometimes for the sermon or other speakers or plays).

The spiritual quest sometimes means looking within to find one's self, or to be true to one's self. There is sometimes a sense that we have gotten lost in the confusing chaos of life and gotten off the path. We get so fixated on specific goals and achieving certain things that we lose track. Sometimes we have this deep feeling that we are in the wrong place in our lives, but sometimes we have no idea, we just feel things are going wrong. In these instance, the spiritual quest is to find or regain meaning and purpose in life, and regain that sense of where we belong.

At various times of my life I have suspected that I was no longer in the right place for my spiritual growth and service. I tried to stay sensitive to what I wanted and new opportunities, and sometimes I just had to begin exploring alternatives until I found the right place. At the end of my first spiritual quest, I was simply jolted from one place to another by something I read. Another time I found that my heart and mind could not support what the religion was telling me, so I began exploring other denominations.

There can be a problem with introspection. Within us is a limited subset of life. Is there some master plan imprinted on our soul, and all we have to do is re-contact our inner-child to read it? Certainly we all have tendencies. We all have things that we love to do, and things that we know we are competent at. Meditation and contemplation often enable our knowledge to integrate into a cohesive whole, but it does not tell us things that are not there.

Looking inside ourselves may not show us our huge potential in life. It may not expose us to new things of which we have never thought. The inner-child grows up and has new needs. Often we must look outside ourselves to find ourselves. The answer to finding ourselves sometimes lies out there in a world full of people and situations and opportunities. We are rarely sufficient to ourselves.

Religious quest

Why do we need religon? The answer is the same as the answer to the question, "Why do dieters need to join weight loss organizations?" Dieters could just skip the extra cost and the bother and do it all themselves. Makes perfect sense. People want to lose weight on their own, they try... and fail in staggering numbers! They decide they are going to diet, and a week later realize either they perpetrated a hoax on themselves, or they just failed to accomplish the task. Similarly, people make New Year’s resolutions to change things they want to change about themselves, and a few weeks later nearly everyone has forgotten the resolution.

There is a better way. Put dieters in a group and on a plan and they usually succeed. Take a New Year’s resolution and put on paper what you are going to do and how you are going to achieve it, and tell a few friends for support, and people get it done. Put smokers and alcoholics on a plan to stay off the chemical, in a group setting, and failure changes to success. Groups are the secret sauce.

Trying and failing alone is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. It is estimated that over 90% of people who begin dieting by themselves to lose weight, actually fail in their efforts. They soon gain all of the lost weight back, and often more. People who make New Year’s resolutions also fail at over 90%. Smokers who want to quit, unassisted, succeed at only around a 5 to 10% rate. Our efforts in these endeavors have remarkably similar failure rates when we go alone.

People definitely want to improve themselves. We spend over $9 billion a year on self-help books (personal development) and other media, which often become no more than reading material. We read a lot about positive thinking, but positive thinking actually works for very few people.

Alcoholism is particularly difficult for individuals to change alone, despite sincere efforts. Alcoholics typically follow a curve in which they often try to quit, get worse after each failure, until they reach bottom - that point at which they have ruined their entire lives, lost family, friends and support, and must decide whether they want to live or die and then begin trying very hard to avoid alcohol. We really do want to improve ourselves, but it typically doesn't work in isolation.

Behavioral change is tough. Why? Several reasons: 1) Habit strength. 2) We are not sufficiently convinced on the need for change. 3) Social pressures. 4) The impact of failure. 5) Having enough desire to deal with the difficulties associated with change and overcome the obstacles.

We would like to believe that we can accomplish anything - we're in that top 5% of super-people who succeed at changing ourselves without assistance. Dream on. We don't know the strength of our opposition. Our habits are very difficult to change. Habit strength is a function of the quantity of times that a behavior occurs, and the length of time that the behavior has occurred. The strength of the reward also plays a role.

Habit strength is cumulative or may actually be a multiple of quantity times duration.*3 So the person who wants to quit eating hard candy every half hour will have a relatively easy time quitting after only a couple of days of doing it, but the person who has been doing it for years will find it very difficult to quit.

*3 The strength of every habit cannot be defined in this way, but this mathematical construct offers a generally good approximation.

What happens when we fail? The first time we fail to quit doing something that we thought we could control, we develop a major deficit in our esteem for our strength. We realize that we are not as strong as we thought. It's a monumental moment. Staring at the monument to our weakness allows our enemy, habit strength, to keep us defeated.

The next time we muster the enthusiasm to quit, we first have to defeat the sense of failure. Our previous failure is the monster hovering in the shadows that already has us mostly defeated. We have to rationalize that the previous failure was a fluke and this time we can really do it. Again we fail. Each additional time that we fail after that simply confirms and reinforces the notion that we can't defeat our opponent. Trying to go it alone, and failing, invites an attitude of defeat and hopelessness.

After twelve years of smoking, I quit at age 28. I had tried several times to quit. I was lucky on my last attempt. When I tried to quit earlier, I still wanted to smoke, but thought that I shouldn't and I shouldn't teach my kids to smoke. I failed. My first attempt was when some other Navy guys and myself made a no-smoking pact and publicly posted it. We were determined to succeed. We all failed and were publicly smoking by the end of two weeks. That attempt, and my attempt years later to avoid teaching smoking to my kids, got me through a few days of not smoking. Subsequent attempts lasted a few hours to a few minutes.

Knowing what we should and shouldn't do is insufficient motivation to get us past the difficulties. I could tell you about the hundred or so bad chemicals in tobacco smoke and what they do to your body. I could tell you about lung cancer and emphysema and how they destroy you and make it impossible to breathe. That wasn't motivation to quit. My previous attempts to quit didn't work, and too many of the people that I identified with did smoke.

At age 28, smoking up to 3 packs a day, I no longer wanted to smoke. Fewer of the people that I identified with smoked. One day I threw the cigarettes out the car window, said a prayer, and managed to quit, cold turkey, just as 90% of those who successfully quit do. It would have helped to have had the knowledge motivation and chemical assistance, but it was the right time and I succeeded. I hear from many other people that "It isn't the right time." They have a point.

The extremes of habit and addiction tell us something important about ourselves. Substance abusers (smokers, drinkers, drug users) have it even tougher. They build tolerance to their drug, so they have to use even more to get the effect, and more drug is more destructive and addictive. They say they can stop, and often do for short periods of time. But then they return to the substance after weeks to months to years. Most of them relapse. Quitting success can only be defined in quality of life and length of time between relapses. After a while they understand that they just can't (smoke, drink, take drugs) - if they do they can't control it. Their only choice is to just stay away.

People who get assistance often succeed at change for longer periods of time, or even permanently. When I quit smoking, I at least had the support of my wife.

I dislike abnormal psychology - I really have only been interested in assisting people who want to improve their lives, not work with so called disease states. But abnormal psych, the extremes, has informed psychology about a lot of human behavior, and it can tell us a lot about how to accomplish change in our own lives.

What do the extremes tell us about our "normal" problems that we want to overcome? Many factors may be necessary to accomplish constructive change. Our attitude about the change has to be complete. 1) Primarily, we have to really want to change, not just think that changing would be good for us or do it because someone wants us to. 2) One very important component of our attitude is how we feel about what we are doing. It helps to be convinced that we should change, through authoritative advice or experience. 3) Feeling defeated and negative prevents change, so we need to stay confident and positive.

The extremes tell us additional important things that help with our attitude. Two examples: With chemical dependencies, there are other important ingredients in successful change. If there are chemicals involved, we often need help nullifying the addictive effects of the drug. Secondly, it helps tremendously to have the support of other people, and a process. Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the best examples of a group that works, and has a great process (12 Steps). It has saved countless lives, and given people back their quality of life, and a lifeline of support for when people struggle or stumble. People sometimes need help with damaged self-esteem or other psychological or social problems. Substance abusers can measure success in quality of life, days without relapse, and a way back when they stumble.

We do get addicted to certain behaviors in our lives that we want to overcome. Maybe it is some illusory idea of success that we have, and we realize that it isn't as satisfying as we think it should be, but we can't turn loose of, say, the image of having the largest house on the block, or making the most money, or hanging with friends who love to take drugs and rough up people. There is nothing wrong with money or having friends to hang with, but if they are dragging us down, they are obstacles to a better life. Religion and spirituality can help us see the illusion clearly, and find substitute attitudes or behaviors that help us get past the old stumbling blocks.

In the Christian Bible New Testament, there were several examples of people who had much to overcome. One person was highly religious, followed all of the Old Testament commandments, but his heart was in the wrong place. Jesus helped him see that he worshipped the wrong things - money. Another person, Zacchaeus, was a tax collector. He made a fortune through corruption, and was despised by the people. His behavior gained him nothing.

Zacchaeus must have realized that something was missing in his life and went to observe this miracle worker, Jesus. Jesus helped him onto a new path. Zacchaeus gave half of his money to the poor, and said that if he ever cheated anyone again, he would repay him times four. Following Christ changed him into a different person, although he may still have collected taxes and been regarded by some with suspicion.

One of the most important ingredients in successful change is the assistance of others. Groups. Religious groups change failure to success because they are systems with support that works. They have people who are going through similar experiences, or who have gone through similar experiences. They have a path to follow (such as the path of Christ, or the twelve Buddhist steps), that transforms people.

While groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are examples at the extreme, many organized religions also have the ingredients required for successful personal change. They have authoritative advice on the most desirable ways of life, they help people actually want to change (often because they want to stop suffering or they want to grow and be more), they often have a process that assists change, they offer the experience and support of others, they substitute the rewarding habit of good deeds in place of illusions and bad deeds whose reward evaporates, and they have a lifeline of support. Yet these same people seem just like you and I and never know they are doing such things.

Personal transformation, or personal development, is what both spiritual and religious pursuits are about. Enlightenment is not a process of gathering correct information. Enlightenment is the transformation of attitude that results from applying knowledge to day after day experiences. We prove it to ourselves.

The spiritual experience, the connectedness with God, for some occurs when they are experiencing the symbols and ritual of the worship service. It is different for everyone, and can occur anywhere and during most any activity.

Part of the process of enlightenment is the process of integrating that knowledge and experience through meditation, or during quiet moments of reflection, or it can simply be the realization that comes while reading a magazine article or listening to a speaker. Suddenly, if we allow ourselves, during a moment of receptivity we gain clarity and we are on top of the complexity that surrounds us. Then we are immersed in it again for more knowledge and experience.

Spirituality is a wonderful quest to expand our consciousness horizons and also explore our inner selves. But spirituality by itself can lead us to a narrow, selfish focus on ourselves and our needs. Religion by itself leads us toward collective solutions to collective problems, and sometimes can drown us in self-less activity that actually prevents personal growth. Both can be mind expanding. Spirituality needs religion to broaden its opportunities for action. Spirituality has always been a welcome part of most religions. Religion needs spirituality to make it a sincere expression of individual faith and action in a collective setting, and to keep religion relevant. When spirituality is alive and active in a church, the church usually attracts others.

Christ said in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.












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