Is your spiritual practice naked?
I don’t mean literally naked. I’m talking about stripping off the layers of culture that accumulate on religion and spirituality over time through the communities of people practicing them, their shared language and behavior, and through the institutions supporting them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with culture; it’s a natural feature of human society. However, it shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of gaining a deeper understanding of spiritual truths, and putting them into practice.
Through considering my experience in the national and global community of students of Christian Science, I’ve identified five components of culture that we would do well to be more wary of as we study, and put into practice these spiritual principles: church, other people, institutions, rules, and language. Because I’m a student of Christian Science, and a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, I focus on that community and employ examples specific to that community; however, I believe that most of these ideas can be applied across the board among all religions, and even other philosophies or value systems from atheism to vegetarianism. For that reason I’ve put Christian Science in brackets throughout the piece to remind readers to think critically about their own religious or philosophical culture.
Believe it or not, church is not [Christian Science]. Church is a place where people who are striving to live their understanding of God and the teachings of Jesus come together to support each other. But church itself — the building, the music, the order of service, the people conducting the service, the style of preaching, the arrangement of the seating, the sound system, the bible translation, the dress code — is not [Christian Science]. Church is an important part of spiritual growth, but it should not be mistaken for spiritual practice or principle.
Lots of people call themselves [Christian Scientists] and it’s not my business or purpose to comment on whether they are living up to the name (it’s never anyone’s business, in fact), but we shouldn’t define [Christian Science] solely, or even primarily, by the people practicing it. What are paramount are the results it yields for us when we are diligently doing the work and striving to put into practice what we are learning from [Christian Science], and the truth and principle that it maintains. The experiences or actions of others may be waymarkers for us — of what to do, or what not to do — but the demonstration of our own understanding should be the ultimate litmus test. Study the letter and imbibe the spirit. If others around you don’t seem to be doing that, who cares?! Your conviction should never come exclusively from watching someone else. Take ownership of your own spiritual progress and find your own proof.
[Christian Science] can not be wholly and perfectly represented in an institution (e.g. school, church administration, or religiously-affiliated organization). Like church, institutions are places that bring followers together to support a mission and learn together. Institutions are not [Christian Science]. They are human structures that approximate the substance of a spiritual concept; but inevitably they fall short. An institution can support someone studying and practicing [Christian Science] by giving them a community to share with, or providing a safe haven to develop their understanding, etc…, but the institution must not be confused with the teaching that it supports.
The other thing that institutions tend to do is reduce a complex, multi-dimensional philosophy to a set of rules and behaviors that measure conformity (more on rules next); and a code of conduct is not [Christian Science].
The common assumption seems to be that rules and organized religion go hand-in-hand. I get it. [Christian Science] seems like it has a lot of rules — no drugs, no caffeine, no extra-martial sex, no alcohol, no medicine, no mixing medicine and prayer. That’s a lot of rules! Firstly, closer study will reveal that nowhere in the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, is there a list of rules you have to follow to call yourself a [Christian Scientist]. Rather, there are strong recommendations based on the experience of Mary Baker Eddy and of her students — these behaviors are hindrances to healing, and if you abstain from them, you will progress more rapidly in your healing work. Secondly, abstinence from these things will not automatically make you an awesome [Christian Scientist]! Studying and practicing — healing — is the only way to do that. We mustn’t think that simply obeying rules makes us better, or that people who don’t obey them are worse. Our healing work is what matters, and the rules are simply there to save us the trouble of learning lessons that have already been learned.
This may seem like a weird one to add to the list, but I think language is really important. [Christian Science] communities definitely have their own unique vocabulary and even some syntactical features that can seem kind of weird to those not familiar with them. (Jargon, however, is most definitely not unique to Christian Science, or even to religion.) I find it useful, even essential, to occasionally step back and take a moment to really think about these words that I use, to reacquaint myself with their literal meaning, and to strip away the meaning that they take on through repeated use within a community. For every jargony word, there was a time when that word was not jargon and meant what it actually means, without the clutter of cultural associations. It’s so important to continue to explore and deepen our understanding of the language that we use, and not just use it because everyone else does, without taking the time to really grasp its meaning ourselves. Jargon is only jargon if you don’t give it that critical consideration, and if you can’t explain it to someone else. And if you are unable translate jargon into layman’s terms, then that probably means that you also don’t understand it completely. And that’s ok! (There are surely many words and concepts that I still need to get a handle on.) Jargon, language, is not [Christian Science], and there’s plenty to be learned and applied with or without all the funky words.
Culture is pervasive and unavoidable in our human communities, but it does not constitute the substance of the Truth that unites the seekers in those communities. Culture is a human construction, and it must not inhibit the ever-deepening and -expanding application and demonstration of Truth. Language, rules, institutions, other people, and church do not offer us the true meaning and substance of [Christian Science], and we ought to be willing to make a distinction between them in order to achieve the purest, most naked practice possible.
Let’s get naked!