Minimalist Spirituality

I’m a big fan of minimalism.

Those of you who follow me on social media probably know this. I like a lot of posts by folks like Joshua Becker, Be More With Less and The Minimalists and follow people like Marie Kondo, Greg McKeown and Leo Babauta. Each one of these has a unique take on what constitutes a minimalist lifestyle, achieving balance and experiencing contentment in life.

There is one commonality in all interpretations of minimalism and that is that we humans thrive best when we only hold on to that which brings meaning and sparks joy.

I’ve often thought that minimalism would also serve us well in our spirituality. As I reflect on past expressions of my faith, theology, and spiritual practice, it is clear to me that many things that once served a purpose for me no longer meet that need. There are principles I once held dear which, over time, have become, for me, spiritual clutter–clouding my vision, distracting me from what is important, or just taking up space in my soul that would be better given to meaningful pursuits or joyful contemplation.

Whatever we choose and however we practice our faith, juxtaposing it against a minimalist mentality has helped me personally to clarify what is essential to my spiritual wellbeing and what is simply excess baggage that I would do well to discard.

CatPigeonAnd here’s where I may be setting the cat amongst the pigeons.

Over the past twenty-or-so years I have found myself gradually re-forming many of my previously-firmly-held beliefs about God. And that, in many circles, may now classify me as somewhat of a outsider. I believe still in the unconditional nature of God’s love, but I have now defined this as truly unconditional.

PreviouslyI would have stated with not a small amount of cognitive dissonance that God’s love was unconditional as long as I am not gay, I am not fornicating, I attend the right church, listen to the right music, read the right Bible, say the right words and ‘accept Jesus as my personal Saviour’ (not a Biblical concept by the way), or as long as I keep the hundred-or-so rules that ensure God doesn’t reject me. I would even twist my understanding of “unconditional” to say that I put my own conditions on God’s love by sinning (a classic ‘blame the victim’ stance that is characteristic of a fundamentalist mindset).

To me, having gone through the valley of doubt and deconstruction, discovering a God whose love is not only beyond our comprehension but is as the very core of the universe was mind-blowingly liberating. As my eyes became adjusted to these new lenses, I began to see the spiritual clutter that lined the walls of my spiritual home:

  • The feeling of not being good enough
  • The rule book of other’s expectations
  • The tally board that kept score of all my wrongs
  • The tally board that kept score of everyone else’s wrongs
  • The blinkers that once kept me from looking at those in the margins
  • The reasonable arguments that convinced the faithful ones that their understanding is the one, definitive, correct interpretation of the Holy Bible
  • The smug feeling that I was one of the faithful ones
  • The judgemental spectacles through which I viewed all those who did not fit into my understanding of the Divine

Like minimalism, my spiritual minimalist journey has brought my focus into those few truths that truly bring meaning and spark joy in me:

  • God = Love and all love is from God
  • Sin is our choice to live outside of the love of God and in no way affects God’s unconditional and eternal love for us
  • There is no need for us to prove anything to God.
  • God is in the process of reconciling all creation to God’s-self and sometimes–often–chooses to use us in this process
  • Our humanity is a gift, not a curse
  • Our togetherness is God’s design and needs to be nurtured
  • Our differences are chances to show love and develop our understanding

I still believe many of the truths which I was raised to value such as the love, generosity and grace of God, the incarnation of God revealed in Jesus who died and was raised to life by the power of God, the importance of Scriptures in shaping my faith, the creation of this amazing universe by God–although I would nuance these understandings differently than perhaps you would. No, I’m not turning into a Buddhist monk or a Zen master. I am not choosing to live as a hermit or monastic. I am not even working on my new age guru skills.

I am also not devaluing those truths in your spiritual house that bring to you meaning and spark joy in your heart. As we are all different, so is the way that God speaks and relates to each one of us. What I may view as ‘clutter’ may be your most valuable asset. For some, a systematic theology might indeed spark joy, or having a certainty that your Scriptures are infallible and factual may bring meaning. Maybe there’s other forms of spiritual clutter that you need to cast out of your home. Rules that were good to form healthy habits but no longer serve any purpose. Ideas that once brought joy but now provoke feelings of uneasiness or regret.

In the end, the object of living a life of love is to recognise this and, in the midst of these differences, still choose love, because, above faith and hope, it is still the greatest abiding presence.

Which Religion is True?

BuddhaFor many, this is a genuine question. It is not something that requires a pat, one word answer. “Christianity, of course!” say some. “Islam,” say others.

People have died because of either their answer to this question or their refusal to accept another’s answer as truth.

Brian McLaren not only gives insight into this (often contentious) question in his most recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? but has just put up a post about it on his blog. Here’s some of what he writes:

I appreciate logic as much as the next person. But I find your statement seems to be missing some pieces:

“either all religions are false or only one is true.”

I can imagine four options:
1. All religions are completely true.
2. All religions are completely false.
3. One religion is completely true and others are true wherever they agree with it.
4. All religions are partially true and partially false.

I find #1 impossible since different religions contain many contradictions. I find #2 unlikely and incredible. That leaves #3 and #4. A big problem with #3 is that you have to ask, “Whose version of which religion?” For example, if you want to claim Christianity is completely true, you have to ask, “Pope Urban II’s version of Catholicism?” or “Benny Hinn’s version of Pentecostalism?” or “C. S. Lewis’ version of Protestantism?” or “Leo Tolstoy’s version of Russian Orthodoxy?” or … you get the point.

I would be happy to say that God knows what is completely true … but I would reject any human’s claim that they or their religion knows God’s mind with perfect accuracy. That’s why, as a committed follower of Christ, I advocate
– humility of heart and mind,
– a childlike desire to learn,
– love for neighbor, stranger, outcast, and enemy,
– and a sincere hunger and thirst for justice,
because, as Paul said, “we know in part.”

Think on these thing.

(You can read the rest of Brian’s post here.)

The Cost of New Life

wheat“Creativity and newness of life have a cost, and the cost is what appears to look like death. But really it is not. It is just letting go of one thing to make room for another thing. Loss is always perceived as an enemy or affliction, and looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve something more and something bigger. Some form of positive dying invariably allows us to be united with what is Larger Reality, but of course we never know that ahead of time.

“So if you spend your whole life avoiding dying, the spiritual teachers would say you will never get there. Meditate on the phrase Jesus gave us, ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). That quotation is about as counterintuitive as you can get. Rationally I cannot prove that to you. You have to walk through it. You have to experience it to know that it is in fact true and true for you. Frankly, none of us go there until we are shoved.”

Richard Rohr

Simplicity

Here is something of which I need to be reminded often (and I suspect I’m not alone in this), from Richard Rohr:

We are all complicit in and benefiting from what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.” That’s not condemning anybody; it’s condemning everybody because we are all complicit in and enjoying the fruits of domination and injustice. (Where were your shirts and underwear made? What wars allow us to have cheap food and gas?) Usually the only way to be really non-complicit in the system is to choose to live a very simple life. That’s the only way out of the system!

Thus most of the great wisdom teachers like Gandhi, Saints Francis and Clare, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Jesus and Buddha—lived voluntarily simple lives. That’s almost the only way to stop bending the knee before the system. This is a truly transfigured life in cultures which today are almost always based on climbing, consumption, and competition (1 John 2:15-17).

Once we idealize social climbing, domination of others, status symbols, power, prestige, and possessions, we are part of a never-ending game that is almost impossible to escape. It has its own inner logic that is self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self-congratulating, as well as elitist and exclusionary. It will never create a just or happy world, yet most Christians never call it into question. Jesus came to free us from this lie, which will never make us happy anyway, because it’s never enough, and we never completely win.

Adapted from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CD/MP3 by Richard Rohr)

Slamming Doors: A Reflection on a Reflection by Richard Rohr

doorknobI’m not a religious person. I do religious activities like going to church, praying, reading my Bible, taking the Eucharist. But I shy away from labeling myself as religious.

The problem with identifying myself as “religious” is that it sets my identity in my own idea of what spirituality is and puts me into a box, further defined by which religion I choose, then by which sect of that religion I claim. This identity assured, I can go on living my life secure in the comfort I have from knowing “it is well with my soul.”

The problem with this is that I still slam doors. Otherwise stated, I am still angry, noisy, overtaken by my emotion–which is really a manifestation of my ego, which no amount of religionising can overcome. My normative functioning is driven by my ego.

This, I believe lies within the same category as that which Jesus addressed when he told his disciples that, if they had anything against their brother, to go and reconcile with him before coming to offer their gift on the altar. I cannot expect to connect with the God who says “Be still and know” when all around me is the disturbance of my own false-self, my ego.

Even in my own worship of God, my ego seems to delight in its glorious spiritual identity.

Richard Rohr makes this point (quoting Thomas Merton quoting Thich Nhat Hanh):

We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors. Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966

The piercing truth of this statement struck me as a perfect way to communicate the endless disguises and devices of the false self. There is no more clever way for the false self to hide than behind the mask of spirituality. The human ego will always try to name, categorize, fix, control, and insure all its experiences. For the ego everything is a commodity. It lives inside of self-manufactured boundaries instead of inside the boundaries of the God-self. It lives out of its own self image instead of mirroring the image of God. It is that superior self-image which must die.

The ego is constantly searching for any solid and superior identity. A spiritual self-image gives us status, stability, and security. There is no better way to remain unconscious than to baptize and bless the forms of religion, even prayer itself. As long as I am going to church, it is really meaningless whether I close the door quietly or slam the door. A spiritual master would say, “first stop slamming doors, and then you can begin in the kindergarten of spirituality.” Too many priests, bishops, and ministers are still slamming doors, so how can we expect the laity to be any better?

In the name of seeking God, the ego pads and protects itself from self-discovery, which is an almost perfect cover for its inherent narcissism. I know this because I have done it all myself.

Adapted from Contemplation in Action, pp. 79-80

So, taking the lead from St Paul, “I die daily” to my own religion, to my own sense of spirituality, to my own prideful door-slamming and noise, to my false self. And I rest in the “new self”–or as Rohr calls it, “the God-self”–as God renews me, recreates me in God’s own image and imparts to me a new identity.

Trapped in Church?

I came across this photo today which intrigued me. It sends a message that is receiving a fair amount of airplay in recent times and that is: Church is a trap.

Does this ring true with your past experience? Your present? In what ways would you say this is true, or not true? How do you see your friends, neighbours, and workmates believing this claim? Why would they see the Church in this light?

(Discuss amongst yourselves.)

The Church Trap at the Burning Man Festival, Black Rock, Nevada, USA, August 2013. (source: The Atlantic)
The Church Trap at the Burning Man Festival, Black Rock, Nevada, USA, August 2013. (source: The Atlantic)

Prescriptive Christianity

Prescription2I had this pain which seemed to persist for some time. I had tried several “old wives'” remedies, but none of them had seemed to work. I went to my doctor and he took one look and, it seemed, the look on his face said “that’s easy fixed!” He promptly wrote me out a prescription which I took to the pharmacy and had filled. Within a few days, with the help of the correct medicine, the pain disappeared.

Too often I see people who are struggling in one area of their life who have the idea that they can go to the Bible for a “prescription”–a spiritual drug that, when rubbed into the offending spot, will provide a cure.

Many times these people queue in the hallways of pastors and spiritual counselors with their list of ailments, seeking that quick fix–that magical formula–that will remove the sin, guilt, shame, hurt, scar, disease. They seek prescriptive answers to every question in life:

  • What should I tell my daughter about sex?
  • How much should I limit my son’s exposure to video games?
  • How can I stop thinking about what he did to me?
  • What can I do about the emotional abuse I am enduring?
  • How can I be a good husband and father?
  • What can I say to my child who is questioning God?
  • How can I be a “good Christian”?

We all want quick fixes, easy answers, miracle cures. We all want that magical formula which, when applied to our wound, will instantly take away all pain and all scars. Or perhaps we want a “daily multi” that will prevent pain from encroaching into our life.

And we think a person with the right understanding of God’s truth can give that to us.

Are we deluding ourselves?

There is  definitely a place for wise spiritual counsel. Many times God uses a well-thought word from someone we respect to guide us in a better path. Once in a while we may even find these words of counsel in the Bible. The Bible indeed does address some issues we may face, but it is not a pill we can take or an ointment we can rub on our ailing limbs to fix the tissue damage.

Truth is, there is no quick fix.

Sometimes our answers come in the long a painful journey itself. Sometimes the healing comes in the form of grace-filled deeds of kindness or uplifting words from a friend. Often, we find our victory after years of struggle, and in spite of seemingly good advice.

Once in a while we find that life itself is the answer, that the questions we ask resolve themselves as we grow, learn, re-focus and re-calibrate on our journey.

And once in a while we find that there are no answers but, instead, an increasing number of questions.

I find myself in that place frequently.

I know, in my experience, I need to become a better “holder of tension;” I need to learn how to keep traveling with unresolution and uncertainty. After all, this is what life is all about. The answers (e.g. “42” for the HHGTTG fans among you) come after a long pilgrimage and many adventures, and, when they do eventually fall on our ears, we don’t always hear them . . . or understand what they mean, for us.

It is said that one who spends all his days in the doctor’s office, seeking one drug after another, may find, in the end, that the prescriptions cause more harm than good because, in attempting to cleanse the unhealthiness from our bodies, they also wash away some of the inherent immunity and healthy bacteria that we need to survive.

Could it be that this is the way it works in our spirituality as well?

Let me leave you with that question.