Monday, July 20, 2015

Letting Go of Religious Labels

I have been struggling over the past year + with how I should be identifying myself in terms of my religious views, which have changed drastically since the birth of my daughter nearly 20 months ago. I have long associated the religion of my upbringing - Catholicism - with my ethnicity and country of birth - Poland.  I spent the majority of my life so far as a cultural Catholic, but in my late teens I began a spiritual journey which eventually led me to become a revert to Catholicism, albeit only temporarily.  In the process, I brought my husband into an embrace of the Catholic faith, or at least his flavor of it.  So when I realized last year that I suddenly no longer believed what the Catholic church taught, I began to search - again - for a replacement religion.

However, I now see that I haven't been completely authentic with myself.  I have been making excuses for why I "have to" find a replacement religious label, why I "have to" belong to a worship community.  A few days ago I thought I had "finally" - for the umpteenth time - found the community I had been looking for in Buddhism.  Decades ago I already identified as a "Cabudhsit" (Catholic Buddhist).  I long held an interest in martial arts, yoga, meditation, feng shui, and various other Eastern philosophies.  But what always put the breaks on my pursuit of Buddhism was their lack of belief in God.  I may have had my doubts and disbeliefs when it came to organized religion, but to doubt the existence of God was just going too far for me.

Yet as I began to read - again - about what Buddhism was all about, I started to contemplate the usual questions: how do I become a Buddhist?  When can I officially say that I'm a Buddhist?  Where is the nearest Buddhist community I can visit?  I wasn't even going to mention this rekindled interest to my husband, since I had already nearly become a Reform Jew and a Liberal Quaker just in the last eight months alone.  But then as I kept reading, I became aware of a disappointing feeling.  It was a bit ironic, actually, as I think it was quite a Buddhist thing for me to observe my thoughts and feelings in this way.  But I realized that I didn't really want to commit to a new religion, a new community.  I didn't want the responsibility of representing something as serious as a spiritual way of life or a religion.

What's more, I noticed I missed the things I love about the Quaker tradition, and started comparing the Five Precepts with the four most common Quaker testimonies, and I thought the Quaker version resonated much better with me.  So why wasn't I becoming a Quaker then?

At first I thought it was because the Quaker tradition originated in Christianity, and I am really done with that outlook on human nature and life's purpose.  I do not believe in original sin, so I do not believe in a Savior.  It took me years to not feel guilty, like I was betraying Jesus, conspicuously looking down at me from various artwork I have around the house.  If I was being brutally honest with myself, I had to stop thinking about what I thought I wanted to believe, or what I wished that I believed, and took a hard look at what I actually believed.

What I came up with was something I had already come across and blogged about previously - spiritual independence.  But my desire for a community, or rather, the notion that I thought I needed to have a corresponding community which would validate my religious label, has finally started to subside.  Another interesting quote I read recently - "Don't be a Buddhist; Be a Buddha."  To become enlightened meant letting go - once and for all - of all the internalized expectations I had placed on myself and what I thought a spiritual life must look like.

Here's what I've come up with.  To me, religion consists of three aspects: theology, morality, and practice.  In Catholicism, the theology stems from the Creed, which I have stopped professing during Mass several months ago in an effort to stay true to my actual beliefs.  Instead, my theology is quite simple and minimal:  I believe in a Creator-God of some sort, and I see proof of "His" existence by observing nature.  I furthermore believe in life after death (eternal life), again from observing how life is fluid and merely transfers the vehicles it occupies, moving from one material body to another, from seed to tree to fruit to new seed, or from corpse to dust in the ground to nutrients for other life forms.  One way or another, I see there is a system in place that does not abruptly stop at each individual's death.  But beyond this, I believe God's nature and the details of eternal life are unknowable and not important.  I am comforted enough knowing that I come from a source into which I will be taken up again, and that when I'll be on the other side, I will experience no remorse for having left my mortal life behind.  In other words, my theology is that of a Deist.

As far as morality, I keep coming back to the Quaker testimonies, which are so simple and pure: peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  Sometimes community and stewardship are listed as additional testimonies, but I see these as already covered in the first four: community is peace and equality among any group of people, and stewardship is the same plus living simply such that natural resources are not abused and wasted.  Every value I hold dear, every moral goal I uphold, can be traced back to at least one of these Quaker testimonies.  I feel as though if I live my life in an effort to live out these testimonies, that is all I need as a moral compass to guide me.  

Spiritual practice is something I have struggled the most with, and probably is the reason I have held on to the desire of finding a spiritual community or religious label for so long.  Spiritual practice is at once something I haven't prioritized in my life lately and something I believe I would benefit greatly from.  In order to live a moral life as outlined in the previous paragraph, I believe that I need a spiritual practice that will help me keep these four testimonies at the forefront of my consciousness. Quaker tradition utilizes silent waiting worship to this end.  And while I've tried that, both alone and in meeting, it isn't powerful enough for me.  I guess I need something more concrete, more definable, more ..... eek!... disciplined!  Whenever I've taken the time for waiting worship, I've ended up getting lots of great insight into things that have been brewing in the back of my mind, but it always felt as thought it was only the beginning, that there's more I should be doing to apply the insights from my contemplation into daily life.

And I think this is where the practices of meditation and yoga will have to come in.  Hatha yoga in particular allows me to be in my body, to truly experience the current moment, to live the way we are meant to live.  It has the added benefit of course of increasing strength and flexibility, among other concrete health benefits.  Meditation for me likewise involves breath control and maintaining an alert but still posture.  Sitting cross-legged and counting my breaths gives me something to return to again and again when my thoughts begin to race as they often do during waiting worship.  My goal is to sit for a given amount of time.  The time spent in meditation is to be time I take out of my day in order to live more fully because I'm not thinking about the past or the future.  Again, there are added benefits to meditation, including relaxation, lessened anxiety, and groundedness. With both yoga and meditation, the end result is something I need a lot of help with - building self confidence.

And so I seem to have found the three elements of religion that resonate with me: Nature's God of Deism; Quaker Testimonies of Peace, Integrity, Equality, and Simplicity; and the Buddhist/Hindu practice of yoga and mediation.

Furthermore, when it comes to community, I started to reflect on what I was really trying to get out of a community, what sort of communities I've most enjoyed in the past, and which aspect of religious service (where the community gathers to worship together) I enjoy most in the religion of my upbringing.  Everything points me to education, teaching, learning.  Hearing wisdom and sitting with it, letting it percolate, waiting for it to naturally find its way into an application in my daily life.  That's why sub-par homilies and sermons have always been so disappointing to me.  That's why it took me several years to make my peace with the fact that my PhD program was no longer serving me.  This is why I await with great excitement homeschooling my daughter.

Deism, as luck would have it, is all about education.  Lifelong learning is really the Deist worship. Everything we learn about has the potential to point us back to God.  Deism doesn't come with a creed, moral guidelines, or a spiritual practice.  Deism is a do-it-yourself kind of religion, and because it doesn't come with a brick-and-mortar worship community, I didn't think I could officially call myself a Deist.  But Deism is exactly the umbrella term I need.  I am free to supplement Deism in whatever ways are meaningful and helpful to me.

While I thought - and hoped - that I could do so with Quakerism, something about the need for an official commitment to a specific community has kept me at bay.  I think because I'm prone to replacing aspects of religiosity instead of doing away with them altogether.  Also, as I shared at the last Quaker meeting I attended, the testimony of integrity led me to the Quakers.  And yet, I think it's the testimony of integrity that is likewise preventing me from calling myself a Quaker.  Most Quakers are Christians, and with that comes a certain morality that I do not ascribe to necessarily.  I do not want to pick and choose aspects of an established religion to fit my own fancy.  That would be disingenuous of me, to use the label "Quaker" knowing full-well that it may conjure up certain expectations regarding belief and/or practice that simply do not describe me.  I know there are plenty of Liberal Quakers who do just this and their communities welcome them to do so.  But I think That of God in me is telling me that this is not to be my journey.  I am welcome to appreciate Quaker thought and apply what fits to my own spirituality, but I must stop short of applying the label of Quaker to myself as my religion of choice.  The same applies to Buddhism.

And so, while I thought at the beginning of this post that I was making my peace with the label "Spiritual Independent", I now see that I have actually made the case to embrace the label "Deist" without a moment's hesitation.  There is nothing in Deism that I don't want to embrace, and there's nothing about Deism that tells me I can't supplement the core Deist belief with morality and practice borrowed from other traditions.

The challenge that I have shied away from until now has been the anticipated questions from others when I finally announce that I am a Deist.  What do Deists believe?  What do Deists do?  My answer must simply be, "I can't speak for all Deists, but I can tell you what I believe and how I determine in what way to live my life."  I think the Buddha would be proud of me for taking that first step of authenticity, owning my own spiritual path without depending on external validation.

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