Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why I am not anti-religious

(A summary of some discussions I've had recently on this topic)

I see religion is the shared, ritualistic experience of spirituality and the collected insights of a culture's attempts to deal with existential concerns. In traditional societies religions weren't separate from other spheres of life and in fact offered a blue print for living a full and meaningful life. They still do for billions of people.

If this is true, then we should hope that the basic insights of religions will be more or less the same since we are all human. (In fact, a series of meetings of representatives of various religions called the Snowmass Conference came up with a list of commonalities.) There is more to religion than doctrine, dogma, and blind faith. These things are pushed by some to try to preserve the teachings of a tradition so that they will be accurately and completely passed on from one generation to the next. But there is also the long history of people arguing for the spirit of tradition over the letter of tradition, just as people also argue over the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. This just how humans behave. The question is how to strike the right balance of structure and flexibility.

What each tradition offers (including the newer ones) is a unique story that speaks to certain people, echoing their pain, their joy, their confusion, and their hopes. Each story paints a picture and offers a path leading to surrender and transformation, complete with rituals to commemorate and reaffirm one's journey. Each tradition offers a common history and presents a vision of the future that resonates with those who embrace it. Each tradition challenges preconceptions, egos, and a self-centered view in its own way. Each tradition provides a complete working system that can assist us to see and fully embrace its received wisdom, like having a coach and teammates working toward a goal, to encourage or carry us when we are tired and when we stumble.

I have found that the reason so many things good or bad are associated with religion is that it is a fundamental structural aspect of most societies - in other words, everything by default has some religious significance. Religion is used to address the existential issues people face and in each society it lays out a map for how to live a complete life. In fact, in most cultures there isn't a separate category "religion" apart from the rest of life. It is simply a part of the whole. Hence cultural and societal values are officially accepted and made part of tradition by being incorporated into religion.

It's also why people do certain things "in the name of religion" - because they are seeking to legitimize their actions. Yet that alone doesn’t obviate the value of our spiritual impulses or religious institutions. Religions aren't just philosophies or social groups. They are living traditions. No one can be debated into understanding that. It would be foolish to try. But the truths and practices which are purely about getting closer to appreciating the Divine have been effective for thousands of years. They have molded and nourished the very saints and gurus whose spiritual wisdom many revere.

I think that sacred texts contain vital wisdom, even for those who are not religious or consider themselves non-religious. Every culture from every society has a collection of stories and rituals that address fundamental existential needs, and hence religion influences more than just those who participate in them. Their orientation towards existence and symbolism influences the basic assumptions and perspectives of everyone in the culture, even though these influences are often and may not officially labeled as religious. (I am not just talking about obvious influences, but ontological orientations of which we are not usually conscious until we encounter significantly different perspectives.) Western civilization has a debt to ancient Greece, Judaism, and Christianity, plain and simple. Hence understanding religion helps us understand ourselves in a secular sense, even if one sees no further use for it.

I see the Bible as part of an ongoing story of (a portion of) humanity's efforts to know themselves and to know God, which includes insights from when they are actually in tune with God (embracing and supporting all) and from when they are following an idol that allows them to continue in their delusion of superiority, of personal gain at the harm of another. I view the Bible and other sacred texts are about timeless insights into the human condition and helping to reveal a path to God. This path also can be found running through Buddhist sutras, through the Hindu Upanishads, etc, etc. We are already a part of God and God's creation, which can never be separated. We are just ignorant, deluded, sinful. We forget who and what we are and settle for something less. The path isn't a path to God so much as a path to remembering/awakening to God, and this path runs through the heart.

As an example, the resurrection is also part of a larger story representing our struggles with our limitations, our struggles with God, the importance of surrender of the ego in our liberation, etc. There is more to most Biblical stories than whether they are historically verifiable. They open us up to ahistorical truths about ourselves, timeless truths that need to be part of a story, not an instruction manual. I trust in the resurrection because I see it happening in the lives of people, Christian or otherwise. Those who have died to the self, who have stopped struggling with their egos, and who have been reborn to something greater than they were before - more generous, humble, confident, and optimistic. Whether they believe in God or call God by another name or no name, they are open to the Spirit. It doesn't matter to me whether we could go back in time and find an empty tomb. The basic truth of the resurrection story has been demonstrated to me. A similar understanding underpins my views on related topics such as the divinity of Jesus.

Faith is not oppressive – a blinder to the mind or a weight in the heart. It is a living energy, liberating and opening us to our fullest potential.

Jesus, the Buddha, and others tried to liberate the people of their day from overly rigid and judgmental religious customs and thinking. Prophets such as Micah proclaimed that the institutionalized religious elite and powerful rulers would be held to account for how they treated to poor and oppressed. Many of the founders and major representatives of various religions spoke of the Divine as caring for and being accessible to all, not just for the powerful and the rich. Various Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Jains, etc have followed these teachings and dedicated their lives to the compassionate service of others, even unto the death, sometimes at the hands of the less tolerant members of their religion.

Yet religion can also be used for division and oppression. One view is that humans from their earliest days would have had societies and beliefs that were tribal in nature, which is speculated to have included a distrust of those who looked, dressed, or spoke differently. These so-called "tribal" instincts are further speculated by some to still be with us today. Even if you discount that story of why we might be that way, how many of us deny that in fact we do have those tendencies? The desire to be better than others, to be more loved or to belong more than others, to possess more than others, and to distrust people who seem too different from us. Is it any wonder then that religions would acquire teachings and beliefs that cater to such instincts?

Every religion, overtly theistic or otherwise, has two major threads running through it. On the one hand we see those who claim to have experienced something Greater, vastly so, than themselves, and whose response is to see all humans as their beloved brothers and sisters. They speak of God as beyond comprehension but experienced as infinite wisdom and love. As Julian of Norwich said of how she felt in such rapture: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." On the other hand, we also see another thread, in which God favors one group over another, in which God appears to order atrocities along tribal lines, and which punishment and judgment are emphasized as part of God's righteousness.

Those who (primarily) follow the thread of "God is love"/"faith, charity, hope" etc are going to tend to see and use their religion as a unifying force. Their faith focuses on giving out of acceptance and forgiveness, seeing God/Jesus/Buddha/etc in everyone they meet. Those who (primarily) follow the thread of "God is righteous"/"salvation is for the few" are going to tend to see and use their religion as a divisive force. They want to separate themselves from evil influences and those who would corrupt them, to keep to what they believe is holy, and emphasize ideas like strict obedience and separating wheat from chaff.

Of course, most (theistic) religious people are complex, being human after all, and may swing from one end to the other during a lifetime or even a single day. Yet for thousands of years, both threads have been woven into religions because they reflect the internal conflict and confusion in the human heart. Spirituality provides an exterior reflection of what is happening in the heart and religion is the institutionalization of that spirituality, reflecting the history of our existential concerns and how we have attempted to reconcile them. Hence (theistic) religion can be both divisive and unifying because of the human capacity for intolerance and acceptance, for justice and retribution and for compassion and forgiveness. The paradox in religion, then, is simply a mirror of the paradox of the human heart - our collective hopes, fears, and dreams.

To me the relevant question is which path we are going to choose and which one do we want to be representative of our reality. I believe there is only one path, the path of God, in which salvation cannot be bargained or excluded by or from anyone. The other option(s) are false choice reflecting our inability to fully trust in God and to love one another without compromise. That's what the hope is all about, as well as the part where people go out and serve to make it happen. That's what counts, and that's what I'm concerned with.

Added: If you were looking for or would like to read discussion about the objections raised by the New Atheists, I would recommend starting with this book. (6/21/09)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...