Eliyahu Krigel is a young Jew on a mission: "to make prayer relevant," he said.
Krigel, 34, is the director of education at B'Nai Emunah Synagogue, in which capacity he teaches classes and coordinates programs for all ages: "from babies to bubbies" as he put it.
The specifics of theology are less important to Krigel than the ability to connect with Something Greater. Even though he teaches at the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, his classes are open to goys as well. He isn't interested in making more Jews. "Judaism is not a proselytizing religion," he said.
Yet connecting with tradition is profoundly important to Krigel. When he was born his parents named him Andrew, giving him Eliyahu as a Hebrew name, only for use in certain religious contexts.
But Jewish tradition spoke to Krigel, and he wanted to express it more in his daily life. When he was a sophomore in college -- a time when many people are deciding who they are in the first place -- he started to go by his Hebrew name. Thus Andrew became Eliyahu. Unlike many college fads, this one stuck. It better "expressed who I am," Krigel said.
Stories like this become all the more fascinating in a time when -- according to a recent Pew study -- almost a third of people in Krigel's age group don't identify with any religion. This represents a larger percentage than belong to any one religion. This group -- called the "nones," which might raise eyebrows among "nuns" -- includes atheists, agnostics, and secular persons. However, the biggest subset is people who believe in God and may even pray. They simply don't identify with a tradition.
These people -- who are described as "spiritual but not religious" -- find their own paths. They may have had a negative experience at church but still believe, or they may not have been raised with anything. What unites the spiritual but not religious is a desire to encounter the sacred on each individual's own terms. (As with anything having to do with religion, how seriously one pursues this desire varies from person to person.) But in general, this process is disconnected from a church or other community.
Even in a city as religious as Tulsa, the trend is moving away from church. One pastor of a large downtown church recently said that only about a quarter of the total members of his congregation come to service on a given Sunday. Mortality also takes its toll on such congregations. "We average about two funerals a week," this pastor said.
Some nones note the community and sense of belonging that religion can bring. But many simply don't feel the need for it. Tiffany Phillips, a Tulsa none in her early thirties, wrote in a Facebook post, "My spirituality is very wide, but quite personal. Frankly, there just isn't a church that it fits with."
Others, however, find that leaving religion behind entails a loss of community. Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior pastor at All Souls Unitarian Church, wrote in an email that some nones -- atheists, agnostics, and what Lavanhar called humanists -- need a sense of belonging as well. That is, they may not be "inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by scripture, but they have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning, and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage, and death," he wrote.
That leaves a certain gap of service for those who are doing it on their own. Unlike Krigel, who finds meaning in his Judaism, nones don't have any particular tradition to latch on to. The response among some religious organizations -- particularly Christians -- is to change marketing strategies.
City Church, a non-denominational church on Brookside, serves as a prime example. A modern, sleek website (citychurchtulsa.com) advertises a community "committed to helping people take the next step on their spiritual journey." However, a closer look reveals a church still committed to core tenets of evangelical Protestantism -- inerrancy of Scripture and the existence of Heaven and Hell among the more controversial.
Other organizations hold classes on prayer and meditation. One goal here -- again, particularly among Christians -- may be to generate converts. But others simply try to help people in need of help, whether or not they come to believe.
In other words, classes like those held at some religious organizations help people engage religious traditions without any pressure to sign up. The intent is to teach people tricks to encounter the Divine so they don't have to reinvent the wheel.
This may be why some religious organizations are opening up to those who want to engage the traditions without joining.
B'Nai Emunah Synagogue
Krigel, for example, explicitly isn't out to make converts. "I'm kind of looking at ... developing contemplative practice," he said. "Prayer reminds us that there's more than just ourselves, whether we believe in God or not."
He holds meditation classes early Tuesday mornings at B'Nai Emunah; he and fellow practitioners are silent for 10 or 20 minutes. Frequently meditations start from a passage in Scripture. "When we read the stories in the Holy Bible, the characters are not just characters or personalities, but people connected to us."
Krigel invites practitioners to imagine themselves as characters from Bible stories. Consider for example the story of Abraham. Krigel said he invites students to "think about Abraham's journey of faith and my own journey of faith" and how Abraham's trust in God wavered, changed, or grew stronger at various times, say during his journey to Canaan or the sacrifice of Isaac.
But it doesn't end with imagining oneself as Abraham. These meditation classes ask students to bring a personal touch to the Bible stories. For example, one might ask how one would have reconciled God's promise of uncountable descendants with the command to sacrifice one's only son. "By bringing in the personal experience," Krigel said, his goal is "to make prayer relevant."
Jewish tradition enables this meditation to take place. "The contribution that Judaism can make is that one person can change the world," Krigel said. "The Jews aren't chosen because they are better. They are chosen to remind others that they are chosen too."
Traditions "remind" people to "be their best self," he added. In other words, tradition provides people with a jumping off point and an end goal for the spiritual life, even if one doesn't agree with every single conclusion. "I think it's healthy to read the text ... it means wrestling with it ... following the direction of the text," he said.
Krigel doesn't consider following tradition confining or dogmatic. "If there was a printer ... when Moses got the revelation on Sinai, that printer would still be printing," he said. Both the text and personal engagement with the text are necessary for spiritual growth to take place. Each individual can learn from what others have experienced while adding his or her own understanding to the tradition.
What's important is that tradition "links back to the sources" to help an individual on his or her personal journey, Krigel said.
Krigel also believes Judaism can contribute to anyone's spiritual growth because it emphasizes "action in this world," he said. There is little emphasis on Heaven or Hell. "What happens in this world is what matters," he said emphatically. Studies like the ones he leads are only valuable insofar as they generate moral actions on the part of those who undertake them.
He echoed Rabbi Akiva, who held that "study is greater than action because it leads to action," according to the Babylonian Talmud. Krigel emphasized that study which does not lead to action is worthless.
The question Krigel asks his meditation students is: "How can I see myself in this story?" But that doesn't work if one isn't familiar with the story to begin with. Tradition is obviously valuable to Krigel -- after all, he changed his name -- but it's a starting point, not the end.
He emphasized that Judaism isn't the only path to spiritual development. "I am called to be Jewish; you are called to be Roman Catholic," he said after I told him my own faith. He simply believes that engaging with spiritual traditions can lead to spiritual growth. He mentioned Camp Anytown, a summer camp sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice in which teenagers of multiple faiths learn from each other. "I think that should be mandatory for all students in Tulsa, Union, and Jenks Public Schools," he said.
What's most important to Krigel is that spiritual growth takes place. "One of my favorite parts of the synagogue is called the Unfinished Wall," he said. "It's not like the painters forgot to finish. It was left that way on purpose to remind us of our responsibility to heal the world."
While Krigel is undoubtedly steeped in his own tradition, he also believes that other traditions are valuable as well. It perhaps isn't surprising, then, that others have taken that idea one step further. The Church of Holistic Science, which has been in operation since 1980, is explicitly dedicated to using multiple traditions to promote spiritual growth. "We allow people to explore other faiths and other traditions," said David Kazmierzak, one of the church's ministers.
Kazmierzak is one of those very interesting people you don't expect to meet in Tulsa, but do with surprising regularity. A Bartlesville native of Polish ancestry, he makes his primary living playing the violin with the Bartlesville Philharmonic and other groups. He was in India for a time studying Sikhism, a religion founded in Punjab in the 15th century. For 16 years, he was the head of an ashram -- a kind of Hindu meditation house -- in New Orleans.
The rationale behind the Church of Holistic Science -- and its amalgamation of traditions -- is to help people realize that "we are one," Kazmierzak said. "It may sound like hippie dreams ... but it's true."
The Church of Holistic Science sits in a bookstore containing writings from "all positive religions ... and the positive side of each religion," Kazmierzak said. Qurans, Bibles, and astrology books are all available to be read. He believes this "gives the power back to the individual. ... We are responsible for our own salvation."
According to Michelle Johnson, who attends the church, all the great religions "come down to the same thing." Exploring various traditions allow one to take the good bits from each and leave the bad bits aside.
For this reason, the church has two services each Sunday. One is Christian-themed while the other is based on Eastern religions. The Christian service opens with a passage -- usually from the New Testament -- followed by a brief talk from the minister and then discussion by the congregation. "We dig at the real meaning," Johnson said. "We don't read it literally, but read it metaphorically, symbolically."
The Eastern service, which Kazmierzak leads, opens with music and meditation, and it includes a sermon drawing from a wide variety of traditions.
Members of the Church of Holistic Science hold that each tradition has its own vocabulary to describe experiences of the divine. No vocabulary is better or worse than another: the most important thing for a spiritual seeker is to find a vocabulary that speaks to himself or herself. Thus, Kazmierzak sees no contradiction in helping people connect to their "own Christ-consciousness or own Buddha-nature."
Each tradition, in Kazmierzak's view, simply provides tools to help that happen. Speaking specifically of Hindu-style meditation, he said, "It of itself is a technique to help the mind center for devotion." That is, which technique an individual uses is less important than the reaching the goal, which is achieving -- or, perhaps better, realizing -- the unity of "body, mind, and spirit," Kazmierzak said.
Even though the Church of Holistic Science views the use of tradition as secondary, members still respect ancient uses. They utilize -- or mix and match -- other traditions rather than develop their own. Other than performing weddings, the church doesn't have its own life cycle services. "We don't do baptisms or anything like that," Johnson said. Rather, members can utilize such services from other traditions if they feel so led.
While this may seem very different from the respect for his own tradition that Krigel expressed, the two approaches are not entirely dissimilar. Krigel and Kazmierzak both utilize and teach meditation for "quieting the mind and connecting the spirit," as the Church of Holistic Science bulletin says. Both would say that this connectivity is more important than an individual's actual theological beliefs.
Obviously many people won't agree that theological beliefs are unimportant. Alex Carroll, an aspiring monk for the Roman Catholic Church, certainly thinks that belief is extremely important.
Carroll, 25, was raised in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). When he was in high school, he began doing research on the Catholic Church "basically so I could disprove it," he said. He wound up so impressed he joined in 2007. "I realized, this is wonderful and I should do it."
But even he acknowledged that one does not need to accept the truth claims of the Bible or the Catholic Church to profit spiritually from them. He said that many people have a "natural spirituality" that they can tap into without knowing it. Carroll said that ultimately these things will lead back to a Christian -- and specifically Catholic -- conception of God, but he believes that God reaches out to people in many different ways. "You may not be able to name it Jesus or Holy Spirit, but we can still be in conversation or relationship," he said.
Spiritual tradition is able to nurture that conversation, Carroll said. He recommended the Liturgy of the Hours -- sets of readings organized throughout the day. "You get real connected to scripture," he said. This is important because, as a "primary source of revelation," it forms a "guiding principle of one's life."
"There's a certain charm and depth to the words themselves," Carroll said of scripture and liturgy. In other words, engaging Catholic tradition helps Carroll figure out "where we are and where we're meant to be," he said.
Borrowing from other traditions can be valuable as well. Carroll specifically highlighted parallels to scriptural meditations like the kind Krigel leads. When asked what he thought of imagining himself as part of a Bible story, he said, "That's a common practice of Christians throughout the ages." Then he shrugged and said, "I don't know. We might have gotten it from the Jews."
Just as Krigel mentioned comparing Abraham's faith to one's own, Carroll said a Catholic might consider the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in which the Pharisee thanks God for being better than the tax collector while the tax collector himself only asks for God's mercy. Carroll said that picturing himself in that story might help him realize where he struggles in his own life. "I might think, oh crap I was just like the Pharisee, wasn't I?" he said.
Ultimately however, engagement with spiritual tradition helps members of various religions learn from insights (and mistakes) of those who have gone before them. Carroll said that being Catholic helps him "see how things have deviated at different points in history [as part of] a community that's seen it all."
While undoubtedly a Jew, a Catholic, and a Holistic Scientist would disagree on a great many issues -- including on whether objective truth matters in religion -- but none of them find their traditions confining. Far from it: traditions enable them to connect more deeply with the Divine than they would be able to do on their own. As Carroll put, religious tradition constantly brings a practitioner to the realization that "mankind and life are more than what we just see."
Far from being spiritual but not religious, these Tulsans show that religion can -- and perhaps should -- lead directly to spirituality.
Classes Engaging Spiritual Tradition.
All classes are free and open to the public, though some require registration. Summaries provided by organizations. Call these organization for more info.
B'Nai Emunah Synagogue
1719 S. Owasso Ave. 918-583-7121
Tefillah 1:1, 12pm
Examination and discussion of the prayers recited during the Shabbat morning service. Bring a vegetarian or dairy lunch!
Zen Judaism 7:15-8:05pm.
Meditation class held at the Charles Schusterman JCC 2021 E. 71st St.
Jewish Meditation Group, 6-7am.
Shabbat Service, 9am
Church of Holistic Science
1401 E. 15th St. 918-587-5877
Christian Service, 11:30am
Lunch and Fellowship, 12:15pm
Eastern Service, 1:30pm
Where East Meets West: The History of Religion and Civilization, 2:30pm.
Class led by Samir al-Hamed, the church's scholar in residence. He shares his studies on Mesopotamia in a lively, give-and-take, discussion format.
Meditation Class, 5:30pm. Focusing on quieting the mind and connecting the spirit
Women's Healing Night, 6-8pm.
Ladies can receive a free 15-minute massage and unlimited steam and sauna at Aquarian Age Massage, connected to the church.
Kundalini Yoga, 5:30pm.
Focusing on breathing and stretching to raise energy and awareness.
Men's Healing Night, 6-8pm.
Men can receive a free 15-minute massage and unlimited steam and sauna at Aquarian Age Massage, connected to the church.
Portrait Sketching Class, 3:30-4:30pm
Starting Feb. 2. Bring your own sketch paper and implements for drawing.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa Pastoral Study Institute
12300 E. 91st St, Broken Arrow. 918-307-4941
Tuesdays through Feb. 26
Carmelite Contemplation, 7-8:30pm.
This class consists of a video series by Fr. Thomas Dubay on contemplation, drawn from the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. Held at the Church of the Madalene, 3188 E. 22nd St.
January 28, Feb. 4 & 11
The Mystical Writings of Dionysus, 7-8:30pm. Though his writings were few, and his life was shrouded in mystery, he profoundly influenced the Middle Ages. Hailed by St. Bonaventure as the "prince of mystics," he is quoted in the writings of St. Thomas more than any other theologian.
Feb. 21, March 14, May 9
Thursday Literary Society, 7-8:30pm. Join us once a month for a discussion of these works of fiction largely written by Roman Catholics, and all dealing with the central themes of faith, the human condition, incarnation, sacrament, redemption, the struggle between good and evil, and sin and grace.
Feb. 25, March 4, 11, & 28
The Cloud of Unknowing, 7-8:30pm. This class will continue our more detailed examinations of some individual mystics of the Church by turning to the most important mystical treatise of the English Middle Ages.
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