It is far from true to say that the majority of thoughtful young adults today have abandoned religion. My experience is that it is the denominational that is the issue. They want spiritual relevance and ethical responsibility, but cannot see it in any us-and-them ideology that has accompanied so much institutional religion. While formal religion seems to be on the wane, there is certainly a resurgence of interest in things spiritual.
For many, spiritual realities do not happen apart from some kind of formal belief; whereas human experience suggests otherwise. But how do we recognise these signs, and what are they telling us? Is it possible for a genuinely spiritual person to see institutional religion as irrelevant? We have inherited formal structures which seem to suggest they are a sine qua non – monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, formal work place and religious institutions with dogmatic boundaries. These boundaries translate as rules and regulations controlling personal behaviour. On the one hand, without these boundaries there would be anarchy; on the other hand, leaving such boundaries unquestioned is a prescription for disintegration.
Personal relationship with Jesus is regarded by spiritual guides as the ultimate criterion of genuine spirituality. I have experienced the closeness of God when walking in the countryside, or meandering along the coastline, or sitting quietly in chapel. I hesitate to use a human analogy to explain this experience, because it feels as if something greater, more profound is here. My hesitancy is the possible danger of reducing God-in-Jesus to our own image and likeness, and in some way alien to the freedom of the children of God.
Does this sound a little pagan, worshipping the elements as in primitive times? Such statements seem to carry an element of certitude and clarity of faith – we know what is right and this isn’t it. We are so much part of the system that we easily adopt its labels. Take the word pagan. It is used frequently to denote not just opposition to formal religion, but devoting one’s time and energy to worshipping what are seen as replacements for the real God. Jesus said: do not be like pagans, those who make their authority felt – Mark.10.42.
It alleges that ancient worship of sun, moon and stars is primitive when seen from our civilised times. True worship of God is only possible in a civilised world, and is monotheistic. The ability and freedom to see our past in a more favourable light is one of the spiritual challenges facing us. It is not exonerating the past, but widening our horizons and seeing the unity in creation in ever new light.