I grew up in a not-so-religious Muslim family, in an atheist country in the former Yugoslavia. In terms of history, stories, and religion, the Balkans were flammable. So, when at 17 I became a Christian, all hell broke loose.
My devastated parents recruited one of Europe’s best psychiatrists and 50 relatives to take their best shot at helping me get over my infatuation with religion. The ordeal went on from dawn to dusk, every day for two months. Religion was a crutch for the weak, they reminded me, the opiate of the masses. Even my former girlfriends were summoned to try to evoke sweet memories of my religiously unconstrained days and prevail over my heart.
They tried love, they tried threats. Eventually they resorted to isolation and I was expelled to the street and I did not see my mother and father for two years. I applied myself to my studies, returned to the tenuous atmosphere of my home, and after completing a structural engineering degree, I went to the United States to study psychology, theology, and then education. Eventually, I become a pastor in New York City and later moved to California where I co-founded a large young adult congregation. On this journey, I had access to high places and behind the curtain. It took me 15 years to find out that religion is as bad as my parents told me.
I found myself thoroughly disenchanted with Christianity. Religions, I realized, are God management systems that have compromised themselves in every way imaginable.
I hate religion. But I need it so that I can live deeply. Let me explain.
If you identify with the statement, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” you are not alone. If you circle “none of the above” when surveyed about your religious identity, you are part of a growing demographic. Even many of us religious people don’t exactly know how we got to this place of repudiating religion, but we have to honor where our hearts have gone.
Religion is difficult. It has history — and every history has its dark ages or, at the very least, dark moments. And the entire world is the judge. Spirituality, on the other hand, is personal. It starts and ends with me. I am the judge.
As humans we know there is more to life than what we can see and touch. Every answer we find, in science or philosophy gives birth to new questions. We don’t know. That’s what makes us different from other living organisms. We can sense that our existence is mystical. Scientists, like Sufis, twirl in their white robes in their labs transgressing the boundaries of what is known.
We are all made of this “spiritual stuff,” a dust that remembers its cosmic origins. As none of us is spared from being human, so none of us is spared from being spiritual. Spirituality is the subjective experience of our common lot of living “in between” — between dust and stardust, glory and gore, known and unknown, matter and spirit. Spirituality is our individual experience of the interior world we all have.
Spirituality does not have to involve religion. It is a way of traveling freely and intimately through the journey of human life, engaging with what’s to be found there. But, the moment two people begin conversing about the meaning of their experience, the moment they begin naming their thoughts, concepts, practices, convictions — anything at all — is the moment their religion germinates. We want to communicate about and pursue together what we think matters, strive for what is good, struggle against what is bad, cling to what is real and admire what is beautiful. And the moment a large number of people begin to want the same things and decide to help each other on their journeys, we have a major religion.
Religion comes from the Latin root word religio, meaning “to bind back.” We bind ourselves to what we hold as valuable and to others who value the same thing. To thrive and make a difference, spirituality needs a community, maybe not a church, a mosque, or a synagogue as we know them, but a community nonetheless.
In this sense, everyone has religion. Religion will never go away, for we will always want to make our spirituality function in more than our own isolated selves. We fight over our religions because it is in religion that we fully articulate our differences. Without religion, we would be left to drift with our own meanings isolated from each other. Without religion, nothing about our inner life would be passed from generation to generation. Imagine the invention of the wheel, fire and writing, and every new generation taking up the task of inventing them again.
Spirituality, on the other hand, can be frighteningly undemanding. It can serve some kind of generic god that submits himself (or herself) to our own egos. Such a god or universe never cuts across our will, never confronts, never frustrates, never leads us through dark places. But the world often is a dark place and, more importantly, each of us participates in making it the way it is. To change the world, one must be changed within, and a god, or a community that is not allowed to disagree with us cannot change us. Spirituality without religion has been as much a source of suffering as religion without spirituality.
Eventually I realized that my religion — any religion — is broken and beautiful (and at times beautifully broken), like me.
Now I try to turn my anger at religion into compassion, compassion for others and compassion for myself. I am being re-enchanted. I hate religion less, and I cry about it more. And I laugh.
Laughter is one of the ways we cope with the discrepancies of our lives. There is a dream we all have for this world, and then there is, well, the world. There are expectations we have of our religions, and then there are our religions.
I came to believe that our capacity to love God, ourselves, people, and all of life grows with our capacity to laugh. We are ridiculous, and not to laugh at our religions, our worldviews, and our philosophies (that is, ourselves) would be to bear false witness to life. We constantly bumble between our dreams and dignity on the one hand and human realities on the other. The ability to laugh in the midst of our imperfections, in the presence of God, is what those of us from the Christian tradition call “grace.”
Twenty years after I became a Christian, my parents. along with my older sister, finally entered a church for the first time. They came to hear me give a lecture (they could not utter the word “sermon”). I entitled my talk “Love.” I projected an old black-and-white picture of my mom and dad on two large screens in the auditorium. I showed pictures from their honeymoon, including some they took in a photo booth, kissing, caressing, laughing, feeding their hearts by looking into each other’s eyes.
“That’s love,” I said. “Because my mom and dad loved each other, I exist.”
I then continued:
“When I became a Christian, my mom, my dad, and my older sister were hurt beyond what I can describe with words or perhaps will ever be able to understand, but they loved me through it. After two years of difficult separation they lovingly brought me back home.
“And they are here today, in what to them is a very, very strange place. They have stepped into a church for the first time in their lives and in my 20 years as a Christian. And this might be the only time they will ever be in a church.
“There are people who must endure our conversions and the best intentions of our religions. There are millions of unsung heroes of God like my parents. So, please do me a favor, all of you, and give them a standing ovation for the love they have shown me despite the fact I became something they could not understand.”
Everyone stood up — about 700 people — and offered a heartfelt thank you: long, loud, sincere. I relished every second of it. Then I said, “Mom, Dad, Sister, thank you for your love. Everything good that I am, and everything good that I have, is because of you and your love for me.”
My mom, dad, and sister embraced me afterwards, freely and wholeheartedly, as I had not been embraced by them for almost a quarter of a century. At that moment, for the first time, I belonged to my family and to my religion.
We never belong to our beliefs anyway, no matter how personal or spiritual they may seem to us. We always belong to people. Even our belonging to God is experienced through people.
Religion is a journey of many generations that provides us with a starting point from which we can dig down to find the depths of our soul. Religious traditions — with their accumulated wisdom, practices, and an extensive chart of wrong paths taken in the past — can help us dig until we touch the bottom, or learn to fly. Religion is here to stay, simply because human beings will always put their efforts together in making good, or evil, happen. But it is here in a religious community where a robust personal spirituality can develop and where it actually matters most. In community, our personal spiritualities cross-pollinate with one another and interact with the wisdom and strength handed down to us from our particular religious traditions. In turn, our present contributions can be shared with others and passed into the future. When our personal spiritualities are bound together, we can help each other transform, and heal the world.