Monday, September 6, 2010

Spiritual & Religious

There are esoteric and exoteric dimensions of spirituality. The esoteric is the inner, experiential dimension. The exoteric is the outer, practical dimension. These days the esoteric is called the spiritual, and the exoteric is called the religious.

Many people like the esoteric but not the exoteric. They are “spiritual but not religious.” They have had a spiritual experience, but have no use for organized religion. But Jesus saw the value of both. He regularly attended both the temple and the synagogue “as his custom was.” He knew one’s spiritual life needed balance if it was to remain healthy.

Jesus described the relationship between the inner essence of religion and the outer expressions as the relationship between wine and wineskins. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”

He did not say that you don’t need wineskins. He knew that wineskins are necessary. But they had to be suitable to the wine within. Without skins (or their modern equivalents of barrels and bottles) only vintners would drink wine. Without wineskins, wine could not be transported from place to place, and passed from person to person.  Skins are useful packaging … but they are not the wine.

The wine is the experiential encounter with the divine – salvation, liberation, eternal life, enlightenment - call it what you will. It is the mystical essence of the religious life. It is deeper than emotion but expressed in emotion. It is more than thoughts, but expressed in words.

The wineskins are rituals and creeds, traditions and scriptures, institutions and organizations - that sort of thing. They are useful, but only insofar as they hold and serve wine. Without the wine, the skins are old and dry relics of a spiritually intoxicated past.

But without the wineskins there would be no wine! Grape juice needs containers in which to ferment and become wine. In fact, these days the wine takes on the flavor of the barrels in which the wine is aged. They give it character and flavor.

Jesus says an interesting thing: “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'” Everyone knows that the best wine is old wine. Some vintage bottles of wine can sell for thousands of dollars. Once you have tasted fine old wine, the $5.99 bottles at the supermarket just don’t seem like the same beverage.

New wine is the popular spirituality of our culture - eclectic renditions of ancient spiritual wisdom. They are appropriately labeled as “New Age,” “self-help,” “self-esteem” and “motivational” messages. They are packaged as esoteric wisdom (“The Secret’) and preached by spiritual teachers and self-styled gurus on Oprah and PBS. They aren’t all bad. In fact there are tidbits of truth to be found in them.

On the other hand, some are dangerous. They kill their followers in Arizona sweat lodges or bilk their na├»ve followers of hard-earned savings. But others are harmless. On the whole they are just new and inexperienced, like their followers. They are inexpensive wine. “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'”
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Painting is “The New Wine and the Used Wineskins" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

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