Reflections on Sane Spirituality

Weddings: Religious or Vapid?

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I just came back from the wedding of a young couple. Like many witnessed by members of the Forge, most weddings that I see or officiate at are not traditional church or synagogue rituals but more in the do-it-yourself genre: self-created, original, and trying to express the values and aspirations of the young couple.

This young couple was among the many who have been alienated from the religious traditions. They had fallen away from their natal faiths in their teens, one from Catholicism, one from Judaism. Tired of folks in gowns telling them what to think, whom to date, whether to have sex with their lovers, they left. They were tired of the emphasis on tradition, on a frozen scripture and on “the way its always been.” I must admit, I completely understand their frustration and the need to find their own way outside of what seems like a long-frozen institution. I too left my natal tradition.

But the wedding I just witnessed left me utterly flat. Oh, the couple was lovely, their friends charmingly attractive, and the food tasty. But the ceremony itself was nothing but a long and repetitive cascade of how they met, how lovely, talented, intelligent and successful she is (though still only in grad school) and how energetic and cute and athletic he is. Ego-stroking boosterism for the bride, ego-stroking boosterism for the groom and joint boosterism for the couple. Boosterism from their respective sisters about their sibs. Boosterism from the couple about wonderful and athletic and sexy is each other.

But for the high-fructose jazz band as the couple walked up and down the aisle, there wasn't even one note of heart rending music. Nor one thought-provoking poem. Not even one word from a thoughtful parent (until their toasts, in which they tried to offer their wisdom and insight to a now drunk crowd), not one word about the value of the community that had gathered around them, nothing about their teachers or their mentors (except for those relatives who had paid the bill).

Even their vows left me uninspired. In ceremonies traditional and new, vows are generally the centerpiece of the moment' intensity, where what the promises in good times or in bad are uttered and the ring of the courage to commit is sounded in the land. But here was more narcissistic mutual stroking: I like the way you pat my back. I like the thoughtfulness with which you choose the brand of tea you buy me; I like your morning fussy face. Until the grand and vapid finale: "will you wear this ring." "I will." They actually committed to nothing more than a piece of jewelry.

Frankly, I left feeling slightly horrified. Where were the tens of thousands of years of human beings, struggling to find the meaning or value in love? Where were the millions of people reaching haltingly to face the paradox of generational change? Or to set up a relationship for the challenging miracle of child rearing? Where was the hope for satisfaction in the face of the better and the worse? Most of all, where was the challenge of anything larger than themselves?

The problem with this, and with so much in our culture, is either / or thinking: either you are in a religion or you are out. Either you bring in all that religious claptrap, or leave it all out. And because for them the religions are bad, well, that's it: let’s get rid of all that old clap trap.

But in matters like this, when it comes to all the meaning that the religions have pointed to for ages, the choice here is not a toggle switch. There is a huge distance between religion (and its meaning and aspiration and human struggle to be free) and nothing. I think that is where spirituality, the human reaching towards depth and meaning through whatever non-traditional means we can, lives. And it has something incredibly important to say.

OK, a reference to God, that terribly problematic word, would have been inauthentic. Fair enough. But nothing greater than ego stroking? Where was the great sway of time? Where was a commitment to some cause larger than themselves? Where was a connection to their larger community of support, other than a cute "so and so came the farthest?" Where was the greatness of a Shakespeare, an O'Neil, the Psalmist or even a schmaltzy Kahil Gibran or a Rilke? Where was a Mendelssohn or a Barber, or even any music in the dance party more meaningful than a slow swing?

OK, so a wedding no longer has to take place in a church. But still, a wedding is and is not about its lovely, hopeful couple. It is also a time to make contact with the great hand of history and the slow rotation of generations. It is about developing human courage and commitment and tradition and love and dread and life and death. It is about the couple and their gleaming teeth, and it is about us, their witnesses. Even if it is no longer about God, it certainly has the opportunity to touch into the great things of life, the great forces of human existence, and about rising to important causes and commitments.

And, even without religions to dictate the way, it is about rising to human possibility in the face of luck and difficulty. Even if a wedding is not about becoming reborn in the church together or about being a “member of the (Jewish) tribe" together, it is or should be about the paradoxical, horrible, wonderful existential depth of things. For it is this that makes life authentic and multi-layered and truly meaningful.

And this, this depth, this multiplicity, this connection to that which is larger than our little egos, is what serious and thoughtful spiritual people are attempting to dive into, with every minute on our meditation cushions and every conversation that opens into one's depths.

The choice is not an either /or one between religion and (a superficial) secularity. There is a middle way between mindless, ossified believer-dom and meaningless ego-boosting superficiality. There is a huge opportunity between being mind-whipped into stock and tired biblical platitudes, and empty lives of getting and spending. We call it developing a life of depth and meaning. We call it learning to live a life of soulfulness. We call it a spiritual life.

Updated 10-08-2010 at 12:20 AM by Bob-ji

Spirituality & Relationships


  1. -'s Avatar
    Hi Bob, Thanks for this incisive reflection on weddings. I agree with everything you say. One little caveat: The either/or choice you present implies by omission that a wedding ceremony can be both traditionally religious AND have spiritual and artistic depth. Maybe it's not quote so either/or as you suggest. Love to you, Jonas
  2. Bob-ji -
    Bob-ji's Avatar
    Absolutely Rbt! I was trying to capture that when I said there's something this side of "mindless, ossified believer-dom." There is wonderful, open minded believerdom, open minded religion, open minded ceremony.
    In fact, help me out here. How would you articulate that place: religious ceremony that remains open to a range of ways to think, and strict, sectarian or fundamentalist ceremony? I am trying to articulate that kind of sane spirituality that (in Venn Diagram terms) includes both open minded religion, open minded meditation practice, open minded people who find depth on a walk in the woods, etc. How to say that best?
  3. Jari Dvorak -
    Jari Dvorak's Avatar
    I love Bob's thoughts on Weddings and I do agree with him that what used to be an inspiring ritual is deteriorating to an expensive narcissistic exercises. The gay weddings that I go to a no different. Wedding is one of the most important religious stations in life. Funerals, Confirmations..They have all deteriorated. Is there a middle way, as Bob hopes? What could that be?
    Before even considering to wed, teens try to figure out dating and sexual orientation. And they get whacked by negative religious messages. Here is a recent poll that speaks to this. Sixty-five percent of Americans — a vast majority — blame churches for “higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth,” such as the suicides that have shocked the country in recent months, according to a new poll just released by The Public Religion Research Institute. The survey also finds that seventy-two percent of Americans believe “messages 
 to negative
 people.” Additionally, forty-three percent of Americans, a plurality, “think 



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