What is a “spiritual community”?

During his ministry, Rev. David Ridge has encountered a number of questions related to the teachings of Unity. A compilation of those questions and his present answers follow:

“What is a ‘spiritual community’?”

The word “church” is often associated with practices and ideas that are contrary to the teachings of the great spiritual masters of the ages, including Jesus. “Shame” and “guilt” are at the top this list for many people. Yet there is much wisdom to discover when we get past the dogma and the incredible myths that have come to be known as “Christianity”.

But many people carry a lot of confusing baggage about “church” and Christianity. The creation of a ‘spiritual community’ gives us the opportunity to lay aside this old baggage and reconsider what we would like our spiritual community to be. Each of us is a unique being. We need to find God in our own unique ways. The ‘spiritual community’ denotes we have created a special place and a special community where your own unique path to God is valued. We honor your commitment to knowing the truth. We support and nurture you in exploring and developing your personal pathway to knowing AND experiencing God. We are thankful and joyful that you have joined us in your journey. Our ‘spiritual community’ is a place where you can explore your spiritual nature without being shunned or excluded as your values and beliefs change over time. Our ‘spiritual community’ is a supportive spiritual home where you can receive support from others and give support to others who, like you, are using their lives to move closer to the awareness of God’s presence.

“Who do you think will respond to this idea of an ‘spiritual community’?”

There are a lot of people that will be receptive to this idea. A couple of surveys conducted in the late ’90’s stated that about 90% of the US population believe in a “higher power” but only about 40% consider themselves to be members of a church (i.e. attend a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque at least once a month).

What happened to the other 50%? Students of church growth consider these to be the “unchurched”. In a five-mile radius of our Olde Towne Arvada location, there are about 270,000 people comprising 70,000 families. If the 50% statistic is correct, that’s 135,000 people in 35,000 families that are “unchurched”. A significant number of these people are looking for exactly what we have to offer. The challenge for us is to become known.
Perhaps I can make the point with these propositions:

If people are aware of or accept the possibility of a Divine Presence in the Universe, but are not willing to be force-fed a predefined set of beliefs, then the ‘spiritual community’ might be for them.

If they are interested in exploring their connection with Spirit without being condemned for their skepticism, maybe the ‘spiritual community’ will provide them the enriching quest they are seeking.

If they yearn for a community of like-minded people that are open to new ideas and perspectives, and do not require that the newcomers believe as they do, then the ‘spiritual community’ just might be what they’re looking for.

If those people look at scripture as a source of wisdom and guidance but not as the “inerrant, infallible Word of God”, then the ‘spiritual community’ may be where they learn to experience themselves as a Child of the Most High.

If they are willing to explore the possibility that their purpose in life is to become fully conscious of their Divine nature, then the ‘spiritual community’ might be the starting point of a fulfilling and glorious evolution of heart, mind and body.

“Don’t you think this will offend church-going people?”

My role is not to be “un-offensive”. My role is to stimulate people to consider ways to more effectively and consistently experience love, peace and joy. Sometimes it’s necessary to shake people awake. And the ones that I think will thrive in our environment are not what I would consider “church-going people.” The ones that look for challenging ideas, new perspectives and are willing to put these into practice in their lives are the ones that will find the “spiritual community” to their liking.

“I can see how this billing as a ‘spiritual community’ might attract an eclectic crowd. But is that the type of audience that is going to support your efforts?”

That’s an interesting question – and one that will be answered in time. One thing of which I am certain is that what we offer will feed many, many people.

“So you’re not presenting yourself as the ‘ultimate authority’ in your church?”

Certainly I have the responsibility to lead the church in its operations, in presenting its teachings and in co-developing with many others its vision. But as for the ‘ultimate authority’, I’m finding that it’s far more effective to present ideas for consideration and let the people who are willing to explore those ideas discover their own truth. How can I possibly know what is best for Fred, sitting in the third row every Sunday, or Hilda, who comes just once in a while? They each have access to the same Source that I do — and they can be very motivated to learn their own truth about their own lives and their relationship with God if they are empowered to explore. Perhaps the only difference between them and me is that I trust that access more than they might — but they can gain that trust themselves as well (one of my objectives is for them to develop that trust). So I present ideas for consideration and let them explore whether those ideas resonate within themselves.

I’m also finding that there are lots of wonderful teachers in our community who may or may not hold the same beliefs that I do. But their willingness to express their ideas just might be the catalyst for someone or some several to have the break-through in their own realization of God Presence.

As I have come to understand what people are looking for when they come to our spiritual community, I realize that some of them are looking to find ‘something to believe in’ — regardless of whether that ‘something’ is reasonable and immediately applicable to their lives — even to the extent of surrendering their own authority with, “Just tell me what to believe so that I can get on with my life.” Well, those people have plenty of other churches to choose from. And we bless them in their search. But Living Water Unity is probably not going to meet their needs because we don’t tell our congregation what they must believe.
On the other hand, there are many others that are NOT looking to be told what to believe. They’re looking for new ideas to consider, to apply and to test their validity so that they can choose those ideas that do ‘meet the test’ and integrate them into their own lives. They’re less likely to accept an idea just because ‘someone of authority’ has told them what to believe. These are the ones that are more likely to find the spiritual community experience of Living Water Unity more to their liking. We ask only that they consider an idea, test the idea and then decide whether it is effective in bringing a greater sense of peace, more loving relationships, spontaneous joy and an awareness of God into their day-to-day experiences.

“So you’re saying that when you quote scripture, you encourage the audience to decide for themselves whether the scripture is true or not?”

That’s an interesting question — and one that gets right to the heart of our teaching. I consider myself a ‘scriptural skeptic’. There are far too many obvious inconsistencies in scripture for me to accept the Bible as the ‘inerrant Word of God.’ Just take a look at the birth stories in the gospels — or the various resurrection stories. Those stories are not reconcilable without invoking some response such as ‘well, it’s a miracle’ or ‘our human intellect just can’t fathom the wisdom of God’ — both responses I consider to be a “cop-out” and a disservice to a greater understanding of our relationship with God. And there are numerous instances where the advice of scripture is just downright wrong. As an example, Leviticus gives us clear instructions on what type of slaves are permissible to own. Really? Are we willing to assert that it is permissible to own slaves in some instances? That doesn’t sound like the teaching of Jesus to me.

But those erroneous ideas do not depreciate the value of the teachings of Jesus. There are extraordinary principles of how to live our lives that were offered by an obviously enlightened being, teachings that we can apply each and every day. ‘Turn the other cheek’ is one such example. What a powerful and difficult teaching that is — one that will help us heal the world! But it is also quite appropriate for a battered spouse to say, “NO!” to the abuser. We must be willing to say, “This scripture is not universally applicable in its literal sense.” Even the words attributed to Jesus must be considered in light of the context of the teachings and their applicability in our own lives.

When we consider the teachings of scripture, whether it be Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Taoist scripture, we open up these questions for consideration. “Don’t believe only the literal meaning of what you read. Delve into the deeper teachings of scripture, test these teachings in your own experience and, if you find them valid, apply them with gusto.”

“Wait a minute. You mentioned the scriptures of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. Do you use those scriptures as well?”

Christians do not have a monopoly on Truth. If you haven’t delved into the scriptures of the great traditions, do yourself a favor. Read them with an open mind. I’d suggest the Dhammapada for Buddhism, the Bhagavad Gita for Hinduism and the Tao de Ching for Taoism. You’ll find that there are threads that permeate every great tradition that also reflect the likely teachings of Jesus. It is an amazing experience to realize that the human condition has revealed similar truths in every culture, in every time. The differences reflect the culture and times out of which they emerged.

Some of these teachings you might find bewildering. Others might seem close to your own tradition. But all of them are a reflection of earnest individuals in pursuit of a greater understanding of their relationship with the Divine — whatever that meant to them at the time.

Yes, we draw upon what many have referred to as the ‘perennial philosophy’ in our teachings. In fact, Charles Fillmore, the co-founder of Unity, began his exploration of the spiritual dimension with his study of the seven major traditions of the world.

“Ok, you’ve said you call yourself a ‘scriptural skeptic.’ You just referred to the ‘likely teachings of Jesus.’ What did you mean?”

This could be a long answer — but I’ll try to keep it short. The only ‘authoritative source’ of the teachings of Jesus that we have is the Bible. Specifically, the teachings of Jesus are buried in the four gospels. I say ‘buried’ because much of the gospels — and almost all of Paul’s writings — are not the teachings OF Jesus, but the teachings ABOUT Jesus. In Paul’s case, they were teachings about Jesus by a person that had admittedly never met him in the flesh. And, according to most Biblical scholars, only part of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by him. The other letters attributed to Paul were probably written by disciples of Paul in a much later time — 50-100 years after his death. Within the gospels, many of the teachings attributed to Jesus were most likely a reflection of an evolving Christian doctrine. An example of this later “evolution” is John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Ooops. Did I offend anyone?

I do not pretend to be an expert Biblical scholar. But I trust those Biblical scholars that have made it their life work to set aside doctrinal biases and have analyzed the evolution of our most cherished scripture. They make a persuasive argument to me that none of the authors of the gospels were likely eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. And if scripture is the ‘inerrant Word of God’ why do we see the variety in the stories written about Jesus. To test our faith? I don’t buy it.

The Book of John, as an example, was likely written in the seventh decade AFTER Jesus was crucified. At a time when the average life expectancy was 35-40 years, I doubt that John, who must have been at least 15 years of age during the time of the ministry of Jesus, lived to be at least 85. But based upon the relationship that Jesus apparently had with John (at least according to the various gospels), it seems to me that John was more likely a contemporary of Jesus, i.e. 25-30 years of age during the ministry of Jesus — which would put him at the ripe old age of 95-100 at the time the gospel was written. It’s possible John was a witness to Jesus’ ministry, but not very likely.

There are other indicators that the author of John was not a ‘witness’. The dialogue of Jesus was portrayed as far more ‘philosophical’ than the other gospels. For example, look at John 17. While somewhat apparent in the English translation, the original Greek manuscripts reveal a unique speaking style and vocabulary different from what is found in the other three gospels, indicating, at the very least, the author has changed the words of Jesus, if not fabricated them. This challenges, again, the idea that the Holy Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”

Another example, do you know how many years Jesus’ ministry lasted? Three years, right? How do we know that? John said so — not directly, but he referred to the Passover four times in his gospel, each separated by enough events for us to imagine the passage of a year between each mentioning. The other three gospels mention the Passover only twice, indicating the ministry lasted only a year. In my mind, the Passover was too significant an event in the Jewish culture to have the narrative not mention the intervening Passovers of a three-year ministry. Who is right? What was the length of Jesus’ ministry — one year or three years? If we settle it by vote, we’d have to throw out John’s three-year version, the one adopted by most Christian traditions.

But, in the end, what difference does it make? It only matters when we steadfastly adhere to the idea that scripture is the ‘inerrant Word of God’ and do not explore more deeply the significance and applicability of the teachings of Jesus in our lives today — where it really matters. It seems to me that discerning students of scripture, as well as thoughtful, casual readers, will see the absurdity of the claim that the Bible is ‘the inerrant word of God’.
“So it sounds to me like you’re promoting ‘spiritual anarchy’ when you diminish the authority of scripture for your congregation.”

I suppose that a casual observer could come to that conclusion. But my objective is to facilitate the revelation in each and every member of our congregation that they are, as Jesus said, a child of the Most High. It’s not just a belief that they are a child of God for which I’m striving. I want them to “real-ize” that they are an expression of God, that Christ resides within them and it is their responsibility to express their Christedness in each and every relationship, in each and every circumstance. To make God real in your life is far superior to merely believing, without tangible evidence, that God is in your life.
The purpose of the scripture of all traditions is to be a roadmap to the Divine. Removing false, incredible beliefs such as “the Bible is the inerrant word of God” helps reveal the map in our scripture, bringing God’s real-ization closer. To me, that is not anarchy, that’s empowerment — which is our ministry’s ultimate goal.

If you still have questions, please contact our minister, Rev. David Ridge, at 720-935-3999 or by email. He will be happy to answer any questions you might have and discuss this further.