The next Discussion Forum is on May 20th. It lies between two days in our calendar that mark two events that should be of great interest to anyone who takes religion and spirituality seriously - Anzac Day on April 25th and the Day of Pentecost on June 4th. The first is known and acknowledged by just about every Australian; the second is acknowledged less and less. The first remembers the landing of Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli, an event that is said to be the defining moment in the young country’s development to nationhood; the second remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit to a group of 120 frightened and besieged Jews in an upper room in Jerusalem, and the beginning of the spiritual movement begun by Jesus of Nazareth which eventually became the institution of the Christian Church.
What is perhaps not well recognized is that the two events mark the opposite end points of the religion-spirituality spectrum, the sacred and the holy.
Anzac Day is the most religious day in the Australian calendar. It is steeped in the sacred. The sacred is about sacrificial death, and the hush and reverence we feel when we stand before it. It is the original religion when the chief activity that held communities together was human sacrifice. In its most archaic forms it brought communal catharsis and peace, similar to that experienced when mob violence is resolved in a scapegoating murder. Ritual sacrifice is the institutionalization and legitimation of these processes. War is the same. Violent death is interpreted as saving sacrifice, and the feelings and emotions they draw forth can be powerful and real, unifying and cleansing. We bow our heads in respectful reverence before the dark chasm of death, not thinking for a moment about the selfish, stupid, wicked acts that created the crisis in the first place, that then necessitated war and sacrifice. We cover that up with pomp and circumstance. High liturgy can cover a multitude of sin, and the people go away feeling unified by the remembrance of the sacrifice.
Pentecost is the most spiritual day in the Church’s calendar, if not the world’s. It is about the holy, about new life, freedom, spontaneity and creativity; being in touch with all that is good, and living openly in that energy. The holy needs no law to establish boundaries; it guides in the way of truth, love and care, all aspects of the human experience that establish and sustain community. If only there were not other aspects of the human condition that challenge this!! But there are.
So there is a tension between religion and spirituality, the sacred and the holy. Religion establishes boundaries that are policed by laws, and offers ritualised experiences of the transcendent which can produce catharsis and communal unity. It needs some sort of authority grounding it. The Holy holds out the promise of living together peaceably in care and consideration under a sense of profound Otherness that carries its own sense of authority.
The two can work together; but they can also be in conflict. If holy men and woman challenge the authority of religion (and politics), they can disappear suddenly or end up being crucified.
The archaic religion of ANZAC is being used by political forces to help unify Australians around a sacrificial ideal, while at the same time not acknowledging that it is a form of religion. At the same time also, modern religious institutions espouse a mixture of law and ritual and ideas that are locked in the past, in which there is little sense of the Holy and a living spirituality. Modern religion is floundering; it may take violence to reassert it; violence and the sacred go together. That would be tragic. Or it needs a real encounter with the Holy, a shaking of the foundations. This would be very challenging also, but so much the better option. We could discuss this in the Forum.
There is a real hope I think in ordinary people in the community taking the challenge into their own hands. Open Sanctuary is one example of this. There are many others. To openly seek the Holy, individually and in groups, and so grow our spirituality and engage the challenges of being together in community, whatever our background, is a great and important calling. And this may for some lead to confrontation with the authorities of religion and politics. It is the measure of our commitment that we do so willingly, knowing that it can lead to being marginalised even unto death.
There is now a crisis of authority in our land, it seems to me. Institutional religion has never been at a lower ebb in our history. It registers little authority in the general community. And nothing has replaced it, although business is trying hard to do so, and Islam eyes off the growing vacuum. The dominant authority now is political. This is a very dangerous situation. The community needs to find a way back to exercising authority in its own right apart from politics. Can we do so around the Holy and the spiritual, and communal life grounded in love and care. Maybe then the sacred and the holy can come together as it did in the death of Christ.