So, which is more valuable, the wine or the bottle it’s in?

In most cases, of course, the wine is more precious than the bottle.

Many people these days say that they are spiritual but not religious.  I take that statement to mean that they are tired of religion giving them bottles—empty bottles full of hot air, as it were—when what they really thirst for is some good wine.  Hey, even some Carlo Rossi Burgundy would be better than empty bottles.  It’s like tuning on to a TV program which bills itself as a gourmet wine show, and all they argue about is whether green bottles are better than brown ones.  The Germans would defend the use of brown bottles and the French would contend that green ones are better.

Clearly, the wine is more precious than the bottle.

The bottle, however, is vitally important, because without it, we lose the wine.  Common, ordinary glass, though worth far less than what it holds, is still essential.

The analogy, to me, is that spirituality is like the wine, and religion or, more specifically, doctrine can be compared to the bottle.  So when my friends say they are spiritual but not religious, I can empathize with them, especially if their religious experiences have been limited to bottles, and cracked ones at that.  No wonder they are thirsty for some good fruit of the vine.

The problem is that without an adequate bottle, the wine spills all over the place and gets contaminated or downright toxic, or else foreign substances get in and taint the good wine inside.

To switch analogies, a game without rules and referees to enforce them always seems to eventually degenerate into chaos.  The action on the field is what we come for—either to play or to watch—but rules and usually referees to enforce those rules are usually necessary.  Now if the referees are incompetent or corrupt, we are back to the analogy of cracked bottles trying to deliver good wine. 

Though not of greatest importance, bottles and rules are necessary.

Another analogy.  An American visited a village out in the African bush and noticed that as the sun went down the headman closed and locked the gate which was the only way to get in and out of the walled compound.  So the American asked, “Why do you imprison your people every night by locking the gate?”  The headman shook his head and replied, “We don’t lock the gate to keep our people in.  We lock it to keep the lions out.”

Still another analogy.  When we tell our children to not do drugs or abstain from promiscuous sex or to avoid junk food, they may well feel like we are trying to limit their freedom.  And of course we are, because human history is in many ways summarized by my grandma’s aphorism, “So soon we get old; so late we get smart.”

That said, there’s good doctrine and there’s bad doctrine.  There is doctrine that protects us from folly and there’s doctrine that imprisons. 

The choice is not to throw religion away in the search for spirituality, but to look for the doctrine which protects the integrity and character of the spirituality which quenches the thirsty spirit.

I have a friend who keeps looking for God “outside the box.”  I can understand that attitude if the doctrinal box she was given as a child was valued more than whatever treasure it was supposed to hold.  On the other hand, I went camping on my honeymoon in 1971 and in the cooler we kept some left over wedding cake.  If I had known better—so soon we get old, so late. . .—I would have put the cooler in the trunk of my car, but I left it out on the picnic table, unprotected.  Sure enough, while we were sleeping, the raccoons crept into our campsite, opened the cooler and made off with our wedding cake!  Boxes, walls, bottles and doctrine are important.