A few months ago I stumbled upon a web site for something called “Unity Spiritual Center.” Large letters proclaimed that: “It’s not a religion . . . It’s a way of life.” I thought this was a very curious distinction, since I understand a religion to be a way of life.
I can only surmise that the idea that “religion” is separate from “way of life” comes from a notion that “religion” is something like:
performance of certain rituals, or mental assent to certain creedal statements, neither of which have much connection to the rest of one’s life.No actual religion has ever conceived of itself this way. Though I understand that we may sometimes get the impression that certain other people’s religion is confined to empty ritual and dogma, the reality has always been that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and all the world religions are both religions and ways of life.
So what distinguishes, for example, my Unitarian Universalist way of life from the way of life of other religions? My liberal religious tradition grew out of Christian history, so the contrast with more conservative forms of Christianity is sharpest. The most traditional forms of Christianity see the world through the lens of human sin. Such Christians read the morning paper and see in the news stories the playing out of a struggle against, or capitulation to, a fundamental corruption at our core.
On the other hand, when I look at my own life and lives around me, I see the primary spiritual struggle of our time quite differently. I see us struggling against a shallow and frantic culture; against forgetfulness about who we really are and who we want to be; against a feeling of being pulled apart and fragmented; against our desires for “more.” The busy-ness and consumerism of modern life creates a profound disconnection, which we feel as a brokenness and a wound.
To choose the liberal religious way of life is to choose a path of healing the disconnection, of being more intentional about strengthening the connections to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. Where we have become disconnected from ourselves, our path is to learn again how to hear and heed the inner wisdom of the true self so often muffled in the pursuit of achievements and material acquisition. Where we have become disconnected from the world’s beauty, our path is to learn again how to bask in the grace of gifts which we have not earned and do not deserve. Where we have become disconnected from the world’s needs, our path is to serve the needs of other people, of other beings, and of the planet itself.
Our great need is to create connection. Liberal religion's way of doing that, in short, is by listening to our deepest selves, by opening to life’s gifts, and by serving needs greater than our own. In shorter: listen, open, serve.