Leaving Your Religion

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If you have left or are considering leaving your religion for something spiritual, consider seeking out the renewalists in your religion.

Given the books I write, the talks I give, and the retreats I lead, I often meet people who are fed-up with their religion and long to abandon it for something more spiritual. Most often their understanding of being spiritual is connected with feelings of love, compassion, and connection: they are seeking something that moves them emotionally. For me, being spiritual isn’t associated with feelings, but with awakening.

Grammar aside, I understand “spiritual” as a verb: the practice(s) one employs to awaken in, with and as the Aliveness (Chiut in Hebrew) happening as all happening at this and every moment. Every religion has its spiritual dimension, and every religion has teachers who seek to renew their religion with this spiritual dimension. These teachers of renewal are often on the periphery of their religion, leaving the mainstream to focus on religious reform. Renewal is not the same as reform.

Reform tweaks the normative traditions, teachings, and techniques of a religion to make them more palatable to contemporary sensibilities. In Judaism, for example, reformers add the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah to the list of Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to include women more in Jewish worship. While this reform may be welcome and may make prayer more egalitarian, it does nothing to make it (or prayer, in general) a vehicle for awakening.

Renewalists might drop formal prayer altogether in favor of call and response chanting or silent meditation that use the contemplative traditions of a religion to point beyond that religion and toward the universal Aliveness manifesting as all reality. For example, Christian spiritual renewalists would employ the Gospels, the parables of Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the practices and wisdom of the Desert Mothers, etc., in service to awakening in, with and as that “in Whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:38)

Personally, I favor renewal over reform. The reason for my preference is that while renewal maintains the flavor of the religion being renewed, it points beyond that religion (and all religion) toward the greater Aliveness of which we are all apart. Renewal allows each religion to maintain its uniqueness while freeing it from any claim to exclusivity with regard to truth. A renewed Islam uses Islam to point beyond Islam; a renewed Judaism uses Judaism to point beyond Judaism; a renewed Hinduism uses Hinduism to point beyond Hinduism, etc. And in the beyond we can experience the unity of God, woman, man and nature as manifestations of Aliveness, which, to my mind, is the greater goal of religion.

If you have left or are considering leaving your religion for something spiritual, consider seeking out the renewalists to see if their reimagining doesn’t lift you out of the parochial and place you in the universal without you having to toss out the great traditions, teachings, and techniques of your religion.

Check out Rabbi Rami’s conversation with former priest Matthew Fox on 21st-century spirituality.

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