Recently I attended a service at the Church of Beethoven here in Albuquerque, which describes itself as Church minus the religion. Their website says:
What you can expect . . .
First of all, come early. Enjoy our complimentary espresso bar courtesy of EspressoArtists, serious Baristas who prepare first-class drinks in brightly colored ceramic cups. Save a seat, chat with friends. The one-hour program begins promptly at 10:30 am. We usually open with a short work . . . something out of the ordinary, followed by a reading by our poet of the morning. Intermission takes the form of a two-minute “celebration of silence” and finally a substantial work of chamber music to close the show.
It’s church because it meets on Sunday morning, lasts about an hour, and is a focal-point for community. Sadly, I attended the Church of Beethoven for a funeral, which turned out to also be “minus the religion.” It was really an extended reception with wine and cheese and great coffee and some musical performances in the background. People didn’t really know what to say about the tragic death, but did their best to show support and love for the bereaved family. This church embodies the spirituality vs. religion paradigm more radically than most.
Those of us who follow the weekly Torah readings are in the middle of the book of Exodus. Someone who reads Exodus with the spirituality vs. religion paradigm in mind might think that the book reaches the pinnacle of spirituality rather early, at the incident of the burning bush in chapter three. Here, Moses has an undeniable, unparalleled, life-changing encounter with the divine.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am,” He said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face . . . (Ex. 3:2-6, NJPS)
I used to argue about this passage with my father, may his memory be for a blessing. My father felt that the point was that God is pure energy, like the flame, which we can never really understand or relate to. God is above all human categories and even above human contact. I claimed the exact opposite; in the burning bush, God is not seeking to demonstrate that he is beyond our understanding, but to reveal himself to Moses. He speaks out of the bush, tells Moses who he is (as much as this can be told), and gives Moses an assignment. Indeed, the burning bush hints at God’s ultimate self-revelation in Messiah. As the bush is burning but not consumed, so Messiah fully embodies deity, burns with the very presence of God, yet walks among us as a man, as one of us, mysteriously not consumed by the fullness of deity that he embodies.
Moses has to remove his sandals and hide his face in the presence of the divine, but God tells him that this encounter, awesome as it is, is not the goal. Rather, after this transcendent experience, Moses must now bring the whole community back to this very spot, so that they will all encounter God here. “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you [plural] shall worship God at this mountain” (Ex. 3:12b, NJPS).
And so it comes to pass. Moses leads the people out of Egypt and brings them to this very place, which is Mount Sinai. There all Israel sees, not just a burning bush, but the whole mountain burning with the glory of God (Ex. 19:18-20; 24:16-17), and they commit themselves to follow all that God will tell them to do (Ex. 24:7). Again, if it’s a spiritual experience that we’re looking for, Exodus provides it, not just for Moses, but for all Israel. But then, at Mount Sinai, God directs Moses to do more, not just to bring the people here, but to build the tabernacle as the place of ongoing, trans-generational encounter with God.
Surely, with this, we slip across the border from spirituality into religion. Spirituality is all about the encounter, the experience; religion asks us to get organized, to follow the directions, to contribute money and resources, and to get to work on building something together. The point of building the tabernacle is clear enough, and it’s about as spiritual as you can get: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). God wants to dwell among us, but he won’t let us experience that without a lot of effort and dedication.
People sometimes say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” But Moses had the relationship down at the burning bush and Israel had the relationship down at Mt. Sinai, where they beheld the glory of God and told Moses that they’d do whatever the Lord told them to do. God’s plan went beyond this to include building the tabernacle, which is going to take up the narrative of the final 16 of the 40 chapters of Exodus, to demonstrate just how central it is to the whole story.
Spirituality might bring us to a divine encounter one by one, and really effective spirituality might bring a whole bunch of us into a divine encounter together, but God’s plan goes beyond the encounter itself to encompass a way of life structured upon and sustaining that encounter. Likewise, the life-changing encounter with Messiah is not the goal of our story, but the beginning. We need to revisit this encounter continually, or ask Messiah to revisit it upon us, but we cannot camp out there. The effort of building community, providing for continuity, integrating the relationship with God into all we do, and passing that on to the generations to come-all of this is holy work, religious work, without which the story is incomplete.
Adapted from Rabbi Russ’ Blog at www.umjc.org.