Coded gray.

Monday 3 December 2001


Pic of the day: The small farm on the west coast of Norway, where I grew up.

Spiritual stuff

"It is better to sit in the hay and think of God, than to sit in church and think of the hay." So said my father once, and to a farmboy such as I was, it made sense instantly.

For a farmer on the rainy west coast of Norway, it was a horrible feeling to be somewhere else and know that it is about to rain on your hay. It is sheer torture. The drying of the grass is half science and half luck: You need to keep an eye on it, but you also need good weather. So when you finally drive the good hay in to the barn, there is a feeling of sincere thankfulness in the heart (at least of those who have that kind of heart) that hymns and intricate organ music can not fully express.


Of course, the aphorism about the hay and the church was meant to be just an illustration. It illustrated that true spirituality is not a matter of form, but of content. To defend my favorite religion (and it can sure need some defense) this was exactly what Jesus tried to teach. "God is spirit" said Jesus, "and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

It bears noticing in what context Jesus said this. Most notably, to who. He was waiting outside a town in Samaria while his disciples were doing errands. Here he struck up a conversation with a local woman. Now this would surprise most of his contemporaries, and did indeed surprise her. The Samaritans were a mixed race of immigrants with a religion based on the ancient Israelite faith but without the continuity of teaching: They were brought from various parts of the Assyrian empire to settle the deserted land of Israel, and a few priests were set to teach them how to worship the local god. The Jews generally held this mongrel people in low esteem. Being a woman would not exactly help, either. Particularly when Jesus remarked on her number of husbands, and the fact that her current husband not was her husband at all. That's where you'd expect the conversation to end, if not before. But that's where Jesus start to get interesting.

As far as I know, Jesus is nowhere else in the book so clear. He drops hints, but here he tells her right out that God is spirit, and does not require particular places of worship. Worship is a thing of the heart: Spirit and truth.

Elsewhere, Jesus tried to explain that we shouldn't draw attention to our worship, by praying in public or by looking shabby while fasting, or by giving gifts in public. And intriguingly, he also points out that prayer does not require many words. God already knows what we need, there is no reason to explain in detail.

Jesus died, and according to the Christian faith he was raised from the dead by the Heavenly Father, and taken up into "Heaven". Whether this means outer space or some alternate reality, or both of the above. Whatever happened, he has been scarce for a couple thousand years now, at least physically. This has allowed a large number of religions to claim to represent him. By and large, they studiously ignore his teaching on true spirituality, and compete in gathering money to build the largest and most decorated "house of God". Furthermore, they employ a number of mediators to handle the worship. You pay, they pray. Consider me skeptical of this entire setup.

What truly baffles me is that people read the stuff, right there in what they call the Holy Bible, and then cheerfully ignore it as if it were not there at all. What gives?


Some people I know online want nothing to do with Jesus whom we call the Christ, or even with God or gods; and yet they consider themselves spiritual. I don't deny this. When Jesus says: "God is spirit", it is clear to me that he does not speak an equation (God = spirit) but a type declaration. There are certainly many other manifestations of spirit, though I think it is pretty clear where my personal preferences lie.

On the other hand, there seems to be a large number of Christians who are not spiritual in the least. They approach religion in much the same way as insurance, leaving it to the professionals. The less they know about what actually goes on, the happier they are. Prayers are to them like magic incantations, which are supposed to work if performed correctly; not like talking with someone. And if talking to God makes no sense, listening does so even less. People who think they hear God's voice are suspected of being insane. (And in all honesty, there is probably a good number who are. But that's a whole other topic.)

Decades of life has led me to the tentative conclusion that there are different axes (axises? - not the sharp tool) in spirituality. You can have mystical experiences regardless of your religion or lack thereof, but if you are religious you are almost certain to experience the mystic encounter in light of your religion. Then there is the moral side of things. Religions typically prescribe certain ways of living: What to eat and not to eat, how not to have sex, and of course let your neighbor keep his life and his stuff. (As if people needed a religion to understand that ... but I guess at some time they did.) People can be very moral without being spiritual. I'm not so sure the other way around, though. And finally there is the whole ritual thing. Some people find great spiritual strength in ritual, while others (like I and Jesus, evidently) dismiss it completely.

Sometimes I think it must be kinda nifty to have such a magic relationship with religion. It would be kind of like that role playing game, Darklands, where the characters can go to church and recharge their Divine Favor. I imagine just sitting there and soaking up spirituality like some kind of sponge...

Places of worship do indeed have a kind of aura, depending on the actual cult that use them. But often an ancient forest grove may be just as vibrant with spiritual energy. Or a majestic mountain range. Or a small farm on the west coast of Norway.

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