It doesn’t really matter if Quakerism disappears tomorrow. If Christianity vanishes from the face of the Earth, it’s no great loss. And we are abandoning institutional religion in great numbers. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, only 47% of Americans are members of a church or synagogue. Among unprogrammed Quakers, the inevitable passing of the “baby boomer” generation means that many meetings will go extinct. And yet, this is no great tragedy.
Why? Well, religion and spirituality are not the same. In fact, an unhealthy focus on religious rites and dogmas leads to spiritual atrophy. Take the Catholic requirement that the faithful attend Sunday Mass. If someone drags themselves out of bed in order to listlessly and perfunctorily go through the motions of worship, a religious obligation has been satisfied, but nothing spiritual has been gained.
Or suppose our Catholic friend is a police officer who has spent Saturday night and early Sunday morning patrolling the city. He or she is just too tired to go to Mass. According to Church law, missing Mass is a mortal sin. If the officer happens to die before confessing that sin, they’ll go to Hell for all eternity (according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church). This mistaken idea is religious, but it has nothing to do with love or spirituality. As Jesus remarked, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And there is also Jesus’ phrase in which he describes the Scribes and Pharisees—the religious authorities of their day—as “straining out gnats while swallowing camels.”
A deadening religious legalism also happens among unprogrammed Friends. Traditional silent worship is pointless if it’s nothing more than silence. If God’s Presence is not sought or felt during silent worship, the silence is an outward religious observance with no interior spirituality. And the opposite travesty occurs in so-called “popcorn meetings,” where several people offer superficial vocal ministry that is not guided by Spirit.
Curiously, the most spiritual people are often the most religious. Yes, religion may be an empty form, but spirituality seems to need religious rites and traditions in order to express itself. It’s just that religion, in and of itself, has no ultimate value. Rather, religion is a vehicle for a spirituality that has ultimate value. We may be very attached to our Quakerism, but we must always remember that God is not Quaker, Catholic, or a member of any other religious group. God stands above religion and frequently—like Jesus versus the Scribes and Pharisees—judges particular religious manifestations.
Perhaps it’s not inappropriate to finish this essay with the words put in God’s mouth by the prophet Amos (5:21-24):
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a
stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain
offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellow-
ship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise
of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let
justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.
~ Richard Russell
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