Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Believing in God isn't the same as believing in God--being open to truths of religion & spirituality

Estonian Roerich SocietyImage via Wikipedia
There is a difference between direct, first-hand experience and second or third or fourth hand knowledge. In the West, and perhaps the world, religion is now a matter of second-hand knowledge. Faith mostly means trusting the sources for this second-hand knowledge. Do you believe God is ____________? Unless you are a very rare bird whatever you used to fill in the blank ("not real", "love", "my Father", "the same as shunyata", etc) is based on second-hand knowledge. It is based on theology, philosophy, social psychology, cultural influence, and a host of other factors which we mistake for direct, first-hand experience. Our view fits our needs and our value system, including our epistemology (i.e. how we know what we think we know). We may even talk about our personal experiences (or lack thereof) with God, but these too can readily be inspired or interpreted by our second-hand sources.

Now this may sound like an argument for atheism, but I've included it in the list of views of God based on second-hand knowledge as well as agnosticism or whatever else one want to identify as or with. Because like all phenomena we want to put God, and heaven, and nirvana and the rest in labeled box with a proper name and a list of qualities or properties. Even those who may have had a glimpse of a deeper truth or reality beyond their second-hand world are at severe risk of then folding it back into a box, pigeon holing their experience and turning it into an idol. Even calling God ineffable is reducing God to something we can wrap our heads around, a concept to accept or reject. The same is true for our sacred texts and symbols as well, which are even more vulnerable.

One part of us wants certainty, clearly defined phenomena contained in rational and readily described categories, things which are uniform and predictable and easily subjected to the grossest forms of empirical verification, phrased in math and historical statements; the other allows for ambiguity, creativity, and paradox, engenders humility and wonder, allows for things beyond our ability to fully grasp, pin down, or control, phrased in metaphor and poetic language. The former tendency has become dominant in (Western) religion. We want to know, in specific terms, who God is/what God is/what God is like. We want to similar know what the Buddha meant when he held up a flower. We want to know with the same specificity and certainty what we are supposed to get out of the image of a crucifix, or contemplating a koan, or receiving the Eucharist. We want to know, we want to know, we want to know.

 This desire to know is partly tied up in our desire to know the worth of a thing so that we might possess it. If this or that religious or spiritual term, symbol, story or what not can't give me A, B, C, if it can't affirm or refute my need for X, Y, Z then what good is it? You there, tell me, what does it mean? What is it good for? What can it do for me? What does it cost? Thus our second-hand opinion is formed. Oh, that's what God is about? OK, no thank you. Oh, is that the significance of the crucifixion? Well, I need that! Hmm, what can I do with a koan? Oh, alright, if it doesn't take too long. And when we actually do decide it's worth inspecting one or more of these things more closely, we are still using this second-hand information as the basis for interpreting what we encounter.

Now, don't get me wrong, on some level this is proper and necessary. Tradition and community can do a lot for us in terms of support and direction. But these are still secondary. And for a variety of reasons we may be unwilling, even after we have been helped along by tradition and community, to start looking without the blinders, to start exploring without the training wheels. We don't want to be inconsiderate, or disruptive, or too forward. We don't want to be too different, to be called heretical or apostate. We follow the tendency for certainty and consensus and feel good about the outcome. But we're really not so great at the other tendency, toward allowing ambiguity and the corresponding space in which we can live into the truths of these spiritual and religious inheritances. Must there be one way or a single best way at all times to react to and gain insight from a sacred text or story? To relate to God (or whatever we use as the reference to ultimate reality)? Can we fully benefit from any of these beliefs if we grasp them so tightly we cannot consider any other way to appreciate them? Must we have such certainty about God or what happens when our bodies die?

Many of us seem to prefer the presumed safety of contraction over the perceived risk of expansion. The familiarity of the launching pad to the unknown depths.  This is our collective dilemma, whether we call ourselves secular, spiritual or religious.
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