Space and Things: Incarnating the Sacred
When faced with the term “religion,” it is more common than not that a person would associate the word with some kind of symbol. Christianity, for example, is associated with the cross, Judaism with the Star of David, and so on. Festivals also play an important part in making religion real to its adherents. Many Christians, for example, celebrate Easter as the victory of Christ over death. There are also many, many Catholic festivals that celebrate various events in the Christian tradition. Buddhism also includes many different festivals, including the Plowing Festival and the Festival of the Tooth. These, as well as traditional ceremonies and festivals, are often extremely colorful. Symbols are also often made into material objects such as jewelry that the adherent can wear to demonstrate his or her affiliation to a certain religion. And example of this includes medallions, such as those from the Sufi religion that depict the shrine at Ajmer or the Hindu medallion that shows the revivalist Vivekananda. These are often worn by residents in Arampur, who identify with particular religious traditions and symbolize these by wearing images representing events or persons from these traditions (A Virtual Village, n.d.). The question is, however, whether these material trappings of religion in fact prevent the individual from becoming mature in the religious sense. While it may be argued that the material symbols and festivals associated with religion make the belief system real to its adherents, it might also be argued that these detract from the true spirituality that is the original purpose of religion.
This, however, is a very difficult point to support in terms of debate, precisely because humanity is physical in nature. From birth, we experience the world in a primarily physical sense. It is only later, with the develop of consciousness and greater maturity, that we become more aware of a spiritual side to life and the possibility of religion. Because we currently live in a material world, religious symbols and festivals are the most concrete way for us to connect with what we believe in a real sense. In Christianity, adherents connect with Christ by his physical life on earth. Christians celebrate his birth, death, and resurrection. They use symbols like the cross to connect with the idea of Christ’s suffering and victory. In Buddhism, the prophet’s material life is celebrated by means of The Ploughing Festival, where a golden plough is pulled by two white oxen. All of this symbolism is extremely rich, but also very stimulating in terms of the physical senses of sight and atmosphere. The same is true of symbolic jewelry such as rings, crosses, and medallions. The same is also true of religious building such as churches and mosques.
In terms of place, there are countless shrines and temples around the world to celebrate specific religions. There is a wide variety of extremely luxurious churches, for example. The St. Pual’s Cathedral, for example, is one of the richest and most ornate Catholic churches in the world. There are also many mosques in Israel, China, and Iran in which no expense has been spared to bring about architectural excellence.
The question that surrounds these rich material heritage sites, then, is whether the very material wealth and beauty displayed is not a vehicle for the very materialism that made these shrines possible. In other words, the richer and more glorious the site of worship, the less spirituality it in fact incorporates. When compared to the actual figures that inspired the religions that the shrines claim to glorify, for example, the disconnect becomes obvious. Jesus lived and died in relative poverty, caring about nobody and nothing as much as his followers. The Buddha, in turn, accepted suffering as a necessary part of spiritual and personal growth. The festivals in his honor, on the other hand, focus mainly on the landmarks of his achievements such as his enlightenment, without much attention to the suffering that made it possible.
Another component of the material in religion is adhering to certain dietary or other ritualistic rules that relate to worship. Jews, for example, are prohibited from eating pork. Muslims are only allowed to eat products that are officially branded as Halaal. Along with this, specific times and places for prayer and worship form a daily part of religion.
When coming to the idea of religious maturity, one must examine these material trappings for their influence on the individual and their place within religion. To focus this discussion, it may be a good idea to consider the life of a child. A by means of his/her senses. Most children tend to crave experience rather than listening to those who are more experienced than they are. Touching a hot plate, being bitten by an insect, and tasting a lemon are all examples of these experiences. By the same argument, one might say that a spiritually immature person needs material symbols to make religion real to him or her. Going to church on a Sunday, for example, may be an important part of a Christian’s weekly ritual. The building, the other believers, and the various rituals within the building serve to bring home the reality of the religion.
For a religiously more mature person, on the other hand, this is not necessary. For such a person, worship is a part of his or her psyche. The reality of the religion is inherent in the personality. The awareness of God — whatever form this concept may take — is in everything. It is not necessary to go to a certain place or do certain things to make religion real to this person. Some refer to it as “Spirit” (Kumar, 2008). In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul addresses this idea in his Epistle to the Hebrews. He refers to those who adhere to dietary and other religious rules as “immature” in a religious sense, because they need the physical symbolic act to focus their faith. According to the Apostle, those who are religiously mature do not need such symbols. They are equally faithful whether they deny themselves certain foods or not, or whether they go to church or not. According to this idea, spiritual maturity means that faith is a constant experience that is not dependent on physical symbols or festivals for its fortification (Copeland, 2011). Hence, in this sense, it might be argued that too much focus on physical symbols or festivals might deter the religious maturity of the individual, because physical symbols are needed by those who are less mature.
The characteristics of a religiously mature person, then, would be less dependence on physical symbols. It is a kind of religious “adulthood,” in which an individual becomes independent from what is offered by the physical senses. A religiously mature person would have a greater awareness that the deity (God, Allah, and so on) is in fact everywhere and in everything. It is an awareness that God is not limited to any specific place or symbol. There are no restrictions for the deity, which is entirely spiritual. This understanding of the nature of the essential spirituality of religion is one of the clearest signs of religious maturity. It means that the faithful person has no need of physical symbols to maintain or focus his or her faith.
From the above, it is easy to create a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual, or the immature and mature. However, it is not, in truth, so simple. While it is easy to see how a richly architectural location such as St. Paul’s Cathedral might focus on material wealth as opposed to the spirituality that is in fact the purpose of religion, the distinction is not so clear with all festivals and symbols.
Easter, for example, is a very spiritually enriching holiday for some. The commemoration of what Christ did on the cross for his believers is a highly spiritual experience. Although the spiritually mature person does not need these commemorations, it is nevertheless enriching to experience it with others of the same persuasion. From this perspective, Easter is a spiritual celebration of a religious truth. On the other hand, Easter is also highly materialistic, often overrun by advertisements that glorify chocolate and bunnies to the exclusion of all else. This completely detracts from the spiritual significance of the holiday for Christians. The same is true of Christmas, which is currently widely accepted as the celebration of Christ’s birth. Christmas is probably the most commercialized holiday of modern times. These are two examples of religious holidays that take an entirely different meaning from a commercial viewpoint. Christmas has become about the gifts and parties for many, while Easter has become focused on hunting for chocolate eggs and bunnies.
On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that all symbols of religion are completely material or focused on the physical. The Elephant Festival in Buddhism, for example, is focused on the needs of a new Buddhist to form a friendship with a more experienced adherent in order to develop his or her spirituality (Buddhist Ceremonies, n.d.). This symbolism appears to enhance spiritual maturity rather than being to its detriment. Other symbols, like the empty cross, also holds deeply spiritual meaning for Christians regarding the victory of Christ.
It cannot be denied that there is a decidedly material component to religion as it is manifest today, particularly in terms of Christian holidays. These endanger the spiritual meaning initially attached to these holidays. For the less mature religious adherent, such materialism could be to the detriment of his or her spiritual development. Easter and Christmas holidays have become worldwide celebrations among both Christians and non-Christians.
Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of each individual person to ensure his or her spiritual development. While it may be true that materialism has tended to override spirituality when it comes to certain religious holidays, locations, and symbols, it is also true that each person has the power of choice. A religiously mature person can choose to use symbols and ceremonies as a manifestation of faith. A less mature person, on the other hand, can be led to a greater understanding of what it is to be mature in a religious sense by those who are more advanced.
A Virtual Village (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://virtualvillage.wesleyan.edu/topics/religion.html
Buddhist Ceremonies (n.d.) Festivals and Special Days. Retrieved from: http://www.buddhanet.net/festival.htm
Copeland, M.A. (2011). The Epistle to the Hebrews: Marks of Spiritual Immaturity. Retrieved from: http://executableoutlines.com/he/he_12.htm
Kummar, D. (2008). Never a Moment When we are not in Touch with Spirit. Retrieved from: http://www.divyaakummar.com/test/Spiritual_vs_Material.php?main_Page=98&fileID=1711