What happens when religion becomes devoid of spirit and awe?

Perhaps something like fundamentalism has infected faith ever since humans first felt the religious impulse. By fundamentalism, I mean a false certitude about eternal things and no space where humility might dwell.

I'm tempted to call people with this disease "religious but not spiritual." If religion has lost its capacity for wonder and for awe and is instead stuck with nothing but indisputable creedal formulations, it has become a serious detriment to civilization.

I've had two close associations with such religious but not spiritual people. The first were the Branch Davidians, whose home, Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texas, burned to the ground in 1993 after a long standoff with federal authorities. The result was the unnecessary loss of many lives -- four of them authorities and more than 80 of them Branch Davidians, including their leader, David Koresh.

I went to Waco the next year to analyze what went wrong. The result was a series of commentaries I wrote for The Kansas City Star. Among my conclusions: "There's an important lesson to be learned here on this Texas pasture land and killing field -- a lesson our government violently failed to grasp: In the United States we protect people with strange religious beliefs, we don't assault them. ... At Waco, our government ignored both its constitutional and its spiritual roots. It unleashed on a deeply religious -- if strange and misguided -- people the repressive, coercive, violent power of the state. Then its representatives lied about what happened. Then they tried to hide what happened by issuing reports that reeked of deceit."

One of the saddest government failures in the Branch Davidian affair was that right in Waco, at Baylor University, were religious experts who had studied the Davidians over the decades the group had lived in that area and who could have warned authorities not to take the actions they took. But federal officials didn't bother to talk with those experts. Instead, they blundered their way to a deadly disaster.

Many times in the record of the negotiations between federal officials and Davidians, especially Koresh, you can sense a deeply contemptuous attitude toward people whom officials considered religious but not spiritual. Worse, they thought of them as religious nuts, wacked-out cult members who couldn't find a way to fit into American culture. And yet, that was no reason for their lives to end. There were, after all, proper ways to effect the arrest of Koresh and any other Davidians suspected of arms violations and even of child abuse. The courts could have sorted out what was true and what wasn't. That -- and not thunderous attack -- is the American system.

The other religious but not spiritual people who smashed into my life were the 9/11 terrorists who hid behind Islam that malevolent day to justify murdering some 3,000 people, including the only son of one of my sisters. He was a passenger on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

The terrorists who, at the urging of the late Osama bin Laden, pulled off this spectacular evil had abandoned anything like spirituality in favor of a vision of religion that required assent to cockamamie ideas unworthy of any major religion. The misuse of Islam continues to be monumental and outrageous among these theological thugs. It's what can happen when religion becomes devoid of the spirit, of awe, wonder, humility, healthy faith. We've seen it so often by now that we grow numb with the listings.

I wish I knew what would prevent people from moving into a condition in which they lose their spiritual bearings and become, instead, religious automatons, willing to blow up airplanes, murder cartoonists, die themselves in misguided attempts at martyrdom. All I know to do is to try to help people understand what healthy faith looks like, feels like, is -- though I know that effort will not be enough.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him atwtammeus@gmail.com.]

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