It is not uncommon for people today to express an interest in spirituality but eschew the church or other religious institutions. This is like expressing an interest in cruises but not wanting anything to do with ships.
Religious institutions can go terribly wrong – as can the occasional cruise ship. And some passengers can occasionally behave in unspeakable ways. But without ships, there are no cruises.
What happens in the bowels of the ship may not seem especially noble. But without the steel girders and boilers and generators and kitchens, without the navigational charts and waste management, there can be no cruise.
Religious institutions – churches, synagogues, mosques and temples – are the infrastructure that provides the opportunity for spirituality. They preserve the stories from the ancient texts that call us to a deeper awareness of ourselves and our obligations to one another. They provide the institutions for teachers and mystics and those we have come to call saints. They provide the images that feed great art. They provide the patterns of life we dismiss as ritual but are the fabric from which great spirituality is woven.
The Christian practice of Holy Communion can be seen as mere ritual, but those who ponder the spiritual significance of this act see a profound reality: The central act of the Christian community is sharing bread. In a world where little bread is shared, this is a profound act of faith and hope and ethical formation, not just mere words.
Religious institutions tell the stories from which noble deeds arise. We use the term “Good Samaritan,” but it would have no meaning apart from the story Jesus told. And would we feel the obligation to be Good Samaritans without such stories? At the very least, these stories give us a common language for our best ideals.
Religious organizations are made up of human beings, so all the glory and shame of human beings can be found there. But they should be judged on that to which they aspire, not how well they have attained it. We cheer a child’s soccer game knowing the children are learning a sport, not because they have perfected it.
Religious institutions should be respected and supported for what they try to do: Teach a way of life that speaks of humility before the mystery of existence and compassion for others on this spiritual journey of life.
The Rev. David K. Bonde is pastor of Los Altos Lutheran Church, 460 S. El Monte Ave. For more information, call 948-3012 or visit losaltoslutheran.org.