When Religion Is Not Garbage
Photo copyright: (c) Wilfredo Benitez
Many of us in the postmodern world recognize a yearning for spirituality, a longing for something that gives meaning to life. Perhaps like never before, we live in an age of brilliant psychological insights and openness to spirituality. There is a growing convergence between psychology and spirituality, something I’m convinced is an unavoidable phenomenon when exploring the deeper meaning of human life. Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the father of analytical psychology, established the foundation for this intersection between psychology and spirituality, and although there remains a lingering distrust of organized religion, the wealth of spirituality and wisdom contained in the world’s great religions, cannot be denied. Book stores are replete with titles on spirituality, and yet most of these have no direct connection to organized religion. There is a yearning out there, a search for deeper meaning; and yet many of those searching have turned away from organized religion. Why?
I few years ago I started a webpage: www.ReligionIsGarbage.com . The webpage was inspired by a Sephardic Jewish car salesman who I once met while looking to buy my next car. When he realized that I was a priest, he told me he had no use for religion; he said: “religion is garbage.” He then shared how he was forced to flee from his native country Iran, for being a Jew. I listened to his story with no intent of contradicting his statement, how could I? I knew myself that too often religion turns into garbage - it becomes destructive, persecutory, it can cause great psychological emotional damage to individuals, suicide bombers sometimes kill in the name of God, and quite frankly, too often religion engages in destructive politics. But, what about when religion is not garbage? What about when religion moves us towards deeper truth, authenticity, and liberation from our false selves? What about when religion moves us towards inclusion and community?
Those of us who live in the world of organized religion live in a world of paradox. Religion can easily become God’s greatest obstacle. When it becomes dogmatic and fundamentalist, it can stand in the way of truth and love. And yet, when we probe deeply into the essence of the world’s great religions, we discover authenticity in its highest form, the “spiritual” side of religion.
When religion is not garbage, it nurtures our souls. Those who penetrate deeply into their own particular religion, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., eventually discover a common thread running through all of these, all leading to the same living fountain of compassion and love. I’m often amazed, when I meet a Buddhist monk, a Sufi sheik, or a Jewish rabbi, etc., that we often identify each other as brothers and sisters. This only happens because we recognize the Divine in each other. We see it. We smile a smile of knowing -- a knowing that makes itself present. We may be travelling on different roads, nevertheless we travel towards the same destination.
When religion is not garbage, the encounter between people of different faith traditions is rich, and false barriers dissolve. Religion then binds people together as one human family celebrating the diversity of our global religious faith traditions, and this makes us rich in Spirit. At this point, spirituality flows unencumbered in religion, and the insistence on “my way or the highway,” fades into the sunset.
I posed the question: “when is religion not garbage?” to those in my immediate circle, and the responses were varied. One response that seemed to stand out was the notion of community and inclusiveness. Religion is more than just a call to moral and ethical living and dogma, it is a practice born of unconditional love, for the sake of creating genuine community, and bringing people together without the usual prejudice that goes with being exclusionary. Many who identify as “spiritual, but not religious” have this inclination, not realizing that it is one of the tenets that make for genuine religion. Somehow, we in the world of organized religion have lost this precept, yet it remains the essence of who we are.
When religion it is not garbage, it calls us to be as true to ourselves as we can possibly hope for. In my own faith tradition as an Episcopal priest, I use Jesus as the model of the One who is transparent to the core, willing and able to be His authentic self. How institutional Christianity has managed to hide this Jesus from the faithful, is truly mind boggling, and it points to our chosen human blindness, our refusal to see each other, and the world around us, with the eyes of God.
Religion becomes rancid when it is not refreshed by Spirit. I believe that many who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are closer to the Divine, than those who have gotten themselves caught in the murky waters of institutional religious stagnation. Paradoxically, there is enormous wealth to be found in the world of religion. This wealth needs to be reclaimed, and perhaps we’re on our way, perhaps being spiritual and not religious will ultimately lead many back to the spiritual purity of religion; perhaps being spiritual and not religious is a necessary step in moving towards the divine, a rediscovery of faith traditions in their authentic forms. This certainly was the case for me, and if this is the case for countless others, religion will cease to be garbage someday. May it be so.
The Rev. Wilfredo Benitez hails from the Bronx, N.Y. He is a priest, artist, poet and activist. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1991. He is the current Rector of historic Saint George’s Church (Episcopal) in Flushing, New York, a multi-cultural parish that worships in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. He is also a Board Member of the Flushing Interfaith Council. Wilfredo has a Bachelor of Arts degree from La Universidad InterAmericana de Puerto Rico, where he majored in Sociology; a Master of Science in Education degree from the Bank Street College of Education, with a concentration on Multi-Cultural Counseling; and a Master of Divinity degree from the General Theological Seminary. His photography and poetry can be found on his webpage. He’s had numerous photography exhibitions, and his photographs have been published journals such as "Reflections" (Yale Divinity School) and" Image: Art • Faith • Mystery." He’s often invited to lead prayers at public events around issues such as nuclear disarmament, worker justice, immigration, and women’s rights in places such as Afghanistan. He is currently developing a practice as a Spiritual Director.