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Spirituality vs. Religiosity

Updated on October 6, 2012

The Ten Commandments

There are good reasons why comparative religion eventually winds down to that analogy to bowling teams. Pretty much the only difference between teams has to do with what is written on their t-shirts. But independent spiritual quests, golden at the outset, have often enough crashed and burned in some very officious and offensive ways. They can give rise to weird cults and alternative life styles, both laughable and tragic, in equal measure. This is a touchy enough subject in and of itself, but it seems, mostly from the outside looking in, that no set of beliefs, whatever the system, can contain spirituality, which is by definition pure and not for sale.

But then, spirituality and religiosity are not always incompatible. In fact, though few in number, there are biblical events comprised of, in addition to the above, every imaginable element essential to the humanities: history, geography, ethnicity, customs, politics, monarchy, patriarchy, matriarchy, royalty, leadership, culture, family values, nationality, brotherhood, personality, epiphany, race, and deity. The story of the Ten Commandments is an apt illustration. Before their extraction from Egypt, the Hebrews were mostly a biological entity. Who these immediate descendants of Abraham were remains a mystery. But their formation into a spiritual unit, first, and then a religion, second, remains a singular achievement. The commemoration of it in scripture, ritual, and the arts testifies to the immortal power of the covenant between the heavens and earth.

And then, also, all this is not scientific fact but has been handed down by means of lengthy literary passages, stultifying and riddled with embellishments. Pillars of cloud and fire guide Egypt's escapees day and night. Before they depart, one plague after another assails their captors. This phantasmagoria is not immediately convincing, though there are credible explanations for many miracles. Moreover, the fact that science does not fully comprehend nature is not irrelevant. That is to say, the temptation toward cynicism can be dealt with, if there is the will to do so. The writing in Exodus, whether the word of God or that of scribes, has inspired and comforted generations, century after century. Its profundities and impossibly rigid morality has provided an enduring backbone to Western Civilization. It has not yet been shaken loose, despite multiple pressures to do so.

But what about the people whom this event elevated? They must certainly have been real. The psychological affiliation with them, too, is as thick as blood in the Middle East. Perhaps, in line with Martin Bernal's analysis of their taskmasters, they were not as blanched in skin tone as commonly visualized. And behold: there appears in their story to be no end to any number of fierce oppositions. Slavery versus freedom, nobility versus humble birth, Egyptian versus Hebrew, and Goshen versus the Wilderness of Sin are a few. Among so much else, it seems that God's plan, if allowed, together with spirit-minded men and women, as well as staunch disbelievers, worked earlier on through race and racial divides. This is not how today's mindset, but the ancient world must have been shaped and re-shaped accordingly. Remember also that God's intentions concerning races, tribes, or extended families were and are incommensurate with those of his ruling creatures. Four hundred years of separation from one Egyptian dynasty to another created an exciting scenario, if modified in print, for whatever reason. That a people rose up against an oppressor not with stealth and weapons but the help of an ethereal power fulfills a universal hope and dream. It is still the earth's prayer that higher justice will prevail upon the machinations of bloated egos.

The Ten Commandments has also filtered into our modern lives by way of the Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza from 1956. The Charlton Heston rendition of Moses is almost as authoritative and definitive as that of the King James version. But others have tried. There is a recent release of the same name, directed by Robert Dornhelm. It does not come close, but certain scenes yield rich food for thought. For instance, in the newer movie an Egyptian reminds Moses that he is the byproduct of two peoples, having been brought up Egyptian despite Hebrew birth. It is an interesting point since race does not, then or now, necessarily determine fate. Had there not been such a strict dichotomy between Egyptian and Hebrew, moreover, a choice, to Moses, might not have been either advisable or much of a consideration.

Ultimately, written or filmed, the decision to lead an uprising against the Egyptian court has as much to do with internal dispositions as external cirumstances. It is not for nothing that the Declaration of Independence refers to "inalienable rights". Slavery is wrong; it violates a right needing neither explanation nor defense. But what exactly is the heavy-duty spiritual substance that overthrew servitude and then kept on? The stern conscience that carved the Mt. Sinai tablets has never vanished. It is still vital and influential. Like that burning bush, it is never consumed. It can be used to challenge anyone or anything no matter how mighty or fearful. There will never be a time when select individuals are not caught up by the raw and unadulterated source of religions. This is spirit, which sometimes coincides with religion, but just as often does not.


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