WHEN SPIRITUALITY WENT GLOBAL

Many religious believers around the world are absolutely certain that nothing was worth remembering for very long about humankind’s spiritual journey until Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad came along. My reading of history suggests otherwise.

For decades, I have been contemplating a very brief interval of historical time within which astonishingly powerful spiritual breakthroughs occurred, as if simultaneously, at widely separated points on the planet. Together, they have transformed human existence forever.

The interval I have in mind is the time between 590 and 530 B.C.E. It may have been a little longer; historians have slightly different opinions about the most important birth and death dates of the period. But it cannot have been very much longer.

Here is what holds my attention about these years: during them, the following spiritual leaders attained the height of their powers and influence: Zoroaster in Persia, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, and the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah in Babylonia.

And there is more: while these revered men were making their own monumental contributions to spirituality across the globe, a new philosophical spirit was emerging in Southern Italy (e.g., from Xenophanes and Pythagoras) and Asia Minor (Anaximander). In interestingly different ways, these philosophers challenged ancient Greek polytheism in light of rationally determined ideas about what is truly worthy of human devotion.

To me, this is a staggering sequence of historical convergences. It has made me wonder repeatedly whether we are looking at more than mere coincidence in their emergence.

Karl Jaspers, one of the last century’s most respected philosophers, had a captivating way of referring to this era in human history. In one of his most enthralling books, The Origin and Goal of History, he called it the time when the axis of the spiritual world underwent a permanent and transformational shift. Karen Armstrong makes considerable use of Jasper’s notion in many of her own, much respected writings.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all present their respective messages within historical contexts. Past events and personages pave the way for the life, teachings, and impact of their own especially revered men of God. Each of their efforts, though, eventually ends up the same way, by pronouncing its own story to be the only story worth honoring. Puzzlingly, though, each also proclaims God to be the Lord of all history and not just of a part of it.

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THE BRAIN, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND GOD

How does the brain form consciousness?

Note the form of this question. Neuroscientists aren’t asking whether the brain does it; they take this for granted. They only want to know how.

And this is what makes their work a major challenge to faith. For if consciousness is only a by-product of brain functioning, can it make sense to believe in a Divine consciousness? In a God “mindful” of human beings?

Not without asking what sort of brain the Divine must have, and neither scientists nor theologians show much interest in pursuing this matter (pun intended) further. Except, perhaps, in the direction of imagining something like a computer whose power is on an order of magnitude approaching infinity.

But the trouble with this analogy will always be that it cannot tell us who programmed the computer’s Artificial Intelligence originally.

It may be that, from a faith perspective, neuroscience’s brain-consciousness challenge should simply be declared beyond the pale of intelligible discourse. And then, that all parties return immediately to fine-tuning the mind-body problem on a purely human scale.

Contrary to the materialistic view of modern science, the question still remains of how to explain the very real interactions between purely physical and purely mental phenomena. Or in the phrasing of the founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, between material and thinking substances.

From the perspective of faith, the even more important question remains of how to discern divine influences on turning mentally-formed moral choices into physically embodied moral actions.

But the question of the formation of consciousness itself also remains, for consciousness transcends both brain and mind. In human beings, it is at the very least the body’s awareness of itself, and the mind’s reflection upon both itself and its embodied condition.

What might consciousness be like in God? Even if this is truly beyond reason to determine, as I strongly suspect it is, it still may be possible to imagine at least some of its contents. As for instance, God’s appreciation of his work as the world’s creator and sustainer. And even more, God’s hopes for the world’s future.

Or in the phrasing of the Priestly writer in the Old Testament, and God saw all that he had made, and it was good.

As science continues to ask how the brain forms consciousness, perhaps faith will find it equally interesting to ask how consciousness forms the brain.

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HOLY AND UNHOLY FEAR

Surely it is time to get beyond extolling a god who, above all else, has to be feared. But coming to terms with this kind of deity has a long history, and letting go is not easy.

 In ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome, religion rarely rose above a sense of apprehensiveness toward the sacred powers believed to control human destiny. In a word, the Holy was something to be appeased more than loved.

Israel’s efforts to offer an alternative frequently faltered. The God she worshipped was too often that jealous god who condemns to the third and fourth generation the children of all who disrespect him (Exodus 20:5). This was the Lord toward whom fear, wrongly understood, was thought to be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).  

And much of the history of both Christianity and Islam is the history of badly handling the terror of being found wanting in the eyes of such a god. Both religions all too easily displace it onto people declared to be hated by God even more than he hates their oppressors. Today’s ISIS tirades, along with their Western anti-Muslim counterparts, are only the latest chapters in sordid stories of spiritual derangement.

Fearing God is most typically associated with awareness of wrongdoing and anticipation of punishment. What makes it rise to the level of terror is the degree of the guilt feelings which accompany acknowledging the wrongdoing. When the guilt and/or the fear reach intolerable levels, the result is usually some form of spiritual flagellation, either of oneself or of others upon whom one’s own defects are projected.

But the Wisdom figure of the Book of Proverbs spoke of the fear of God in very different terms than these. The words cited above are only half of the text. The second half was this: … and knowledge of the Most Holy One is understanding. Understanding. Not terror, not guilt, not hate, but rather compassion, hope, and a sense of universal fellowship — religion at its best and not its worst.

Among people of wisdom, the fear of God is a profound acknowledgment of and respect for the fundamental difference between God and human beings — all human beings — in the order of Being and Value. It is a sense of profound awe in God’s presence. And of relief that the world’s future does not depend on only the likes of us.

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BELIEVING IS SEEING

Most people know that eventually, if not now, they will need well-crafted lenses to keep in focus what they want to see in the visible world. Not everyone knows, however, that they will need carefully formulated beliefs to bring into view the unseen, sacred world.

 One of the Western world’s greatest philosophers, Baruch Spinoza, understood both. He ground lenses for a living, and he saw an absolutely essential connection between the work of his hands and the works of his mind.

Spinoza’s principal belief came to be that all things, visible and invisible, are in reality attributes of one and only one substance, God. And on the basis of this single, overarching belief, Spinoza derived all the rest of his philosophical system. In believing this to be true, he saw everything else in its completeness.

Anselm of Canterbury saw the things of God by means of a little different belief. It was the belief that a supremely perfect being cannot be thought not to be. But like Spinoza, he understood that if our beliefs are ground accurately enough by our thinking, we can by means of them see into even the deepest nature of reality.

 Lenses and beliefs have a lot in common. Both have a value that is instrumental and not intrinsic. Their reasons for being have to do with the purposes they serve, not their own form and appearance. Like lenses, beliefs are meant to be looked through and not at.

Further, both lenses and beliefs must be properly fitted to each individual user. People’s vision requirements vary greatly. And no matter how widely and thoroughly held a particular belief may be in a religious community, not every member will come to understand the religion’s message more definitively by means of it.

For example, the minds of some believers can absorb truth only from very concrete images, e.g. of human-like gods with human-like feelings, most especially of jealousy and rage. To see by means of them, their beliefs must be very concrete, as in: anthropomorphic.

For others, however, only abstract concepts and beliefs will suffice, e.g. of a being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, supremely perfect.

These differences show why debating which beliefs are and are not orthodox is like wrangling over which frames make for a prettier set of eyeglasses. It is like admiring a particular belief more than the God reflected in it.

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OUT OF DATE TRADITIONS AND UP TO DATE FAITH

One reason religious institutions have difficulty maintaining credibility is that the questions put to them often have no precedent in their traditions. Questions such as:

  • Should historical research alone determine for faith whether Jesus, or the Buddha, or Muhammad believed that the end of the world is near, or that homosexuals are abominations in God’s sight, or that abortion is murder?
  • Does God still intend that husbands and wives should “be fruitful and multiply”? If so, by how much?
  • Do sexually abused wives and daughters have a religious obligation to honor their marital vows and filial loyalty? If so, for how long?
  • Is human evolution in divine hands alone, or can medical science and technology be given roles to play in it?

One of my favorites for fellow Christian theologians is: Is Jesus’ atonement for others’ sins applicable throughout the universe or just to people on our own planet?

History has constantly demanded from every religion fresh interpretations and applications of its respective message. New societies, cultures, and even civilizations have their own ways of looking at things, which religious institutions eventually must accommodate. Unfortunately, the accommodating usually comes grudgingly and late.

Believers deserve better. As do increasing numbers of inquirers who, no longer finding credible many of the forms in which religious traditions continue to present their messages, question whether faith itself is any longer a possibility.

There is much about religion that comes down to little more than staggeringly large and detailed systems of rules, laws, and obligations which stifle spiritual growth and well-being almost as a matter of principle. Recasting the best while letting go of the worst in them is needed in every generation.

Vital faith communities must keep on discovering new ways to express the beliefs, patterns of devotion, and principles for action that give energy and meaning to their fellowships. The rationale for saying this is not theological. Rather, it is historical.

It is based on the fact that things have rarely turned out the ways that religions have expected they would and that religious communities have been adjusting to this fact ever since — not always for the better. For instance, what follower of Jesus or Muhammad in their own time would have anticipated that Christians and Muslims, in the name of creating a universal fellowship, would still be squabbling about who their leaders’ rightful successors are?

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EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND FAITH: ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

On the basis of evidence and reason, it’s hard to understand the continuing debate on evolution. The belief that humans have evolved from less complex species of living beings is neither a deception of the devil nor “just” a theory. Its basis is a careful recounting of available facts.

From the perspective of faith, of course, it can be distressing to contemplate that we represent only a late appearing species on a planet densely populated for billions of years with organisms all originating in a murk of randomness. And that life may be only a matter of mutating genes, natural selection, complexity without design, and a relentless focus on just surviving and replicating.

Many religious believers, therefore, too eagerly take any perceived weakness in evolutionary theory as a decisive refutation of the theory as a whole. One undeniable weakness is the fact that evolutionary hypotheses are based on data from only a fraction of the species of living beings existing on just our own planet.

Facts do have a habit of changing, though, and they most certainly could change as biologists continue to discover more forms of life — on other planets, too — than are presently catalogued. But for now, what we have to go on is explained more than tolerably well by affirming rather than denying evolutionary theory.

What isn’t explained so well, though, is a universal yearning for a sense of meaning which it is a principal aim of evolutionary biologists to dismiss altogether. For them, the capacity to yearn for it is not merely another gene-prescribed trait among all the others which enhance adaptability to environmental challenges. It is more likely the work of aberrant genes which eventually will be modified or replaced altogether.

The really serious question for faith to ask of evolutionary biologists is not how they can possibly deny the all too evident signs of purposive design in the world. Rather, it is why they seem so willing to deny the purposiveness of thinking in general, especially when it leads to enraptured wonder as an end in itself.

Some really big ideas have been making their way through human consciousness in the modern era. One is that the back story of human history is a Universal Spirit’s coming to awareness of itself under the conditions of space and time. And there is nothing aberrant about it.

 

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THE ROAD TO SALVATION IS PAVED WITH GOOD QUESTIONS

Is it possible to distinguish on our own what is true from what is false in faith? If the founders of some of the world’s major religions are any indication, the answer to this question has to be a grateful Yes.

All of them — Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad — did it by questioning the very foundations of the traditions into which they had been born, with transformational effects. And they showed no reticence in acknowledging and struggling with the questions that others constantly asked them.

What helped them do it so effectively was a deep sense of having been given insight into the sacred not of their own making. But — and this makes for a paradox of the first order — the insight could not have come to them had they not already been asking the questions they could not help asking.

It seems easier, however, for a religion’s founder to keep the questioning going than it does for the religion’s followers. Religious traditions become hostages to the institutions which are created to serve them. Their leaders quickly forget how important the questioning of traditions is to building a credible and a transforming personal faith.

Most especially the questioning of whether their founder’s message is getting transmitted in forms which adequately serve the cause of human good here and now.

Every believer has both the right and the responsibility to ask and pursue every earnest question he or she may have about what people should believe and do in the name of faith. Even so, uncertainty and doubt about what we have been taught to believe and do can seriously impair the ability to give ourselves wholly to a joy-filled relationship with God and with those who share a common faith.

To an honest confrontation with this unnerving possibility, there are two typical responses, one healthy and the other not.

The unhealthy response is to cling unquestioningly either to a religion’s authoritative teachings or to a sceptic’s doubts of any religion’s authoritativeness. And to try to snuff out the inner light that is a sign of the Sacred in all of us.

The healthy response is to articulate confidently the foundations of one’s religion with clarity and conviction, while treating the uncertainty and doubts of sincere inquirers, including our own, respectfully and caringly.

And to have enough courage to keep on asking questions.

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WHEN IMAGES OF GOD GO TERRIBLY WRONG

If it is true that no one ever sees God directly, then a lot about faith has to be left to the imagination. In order for faith to enliven the soul as well as enlighten the mind, it must have inspiring images at its disposal.

And it does, in spite of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’s insistence that it shouldn’t. To them, God long ago condemned celebrating imagination alongside of belief and taking as much satisfaction in creativity as from obedience.

The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits regarding anything carved or sculpted out of wood, stone, or metal as a representation (pesel) of God. And also anything looked at in the skies and beyond (temunah).

No explanation is given of why creating images like these was of such concern to God. The Third Commandment prohibits worshipping them, but this is not the same thing as prohibiting them altogether.

It is difficult to take seriously the notion that carvings or sculptures or paintings or drawings — or cartoons — can undermine faith. But mental images may be another story.

Here is one that the world definitely would be better off without. At Exodus 17:4 appears an image of God resolving “to blot out all memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And with him, the people he ruled.

For what reason? The historical answer is because the tribal king’s warriors may have attacked the once wandering Hebrews for, perhaps inadvertently, invading territory his tribe had occupied for centuries. The theological answer is that their attacks got in the way of a divine plan to create a community that would be more favored than any other, forever.

Neither answer yields an image of a god that could possibly represent a being truly worthy of utmost devotion. And yet the image, along with many others like it in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, persists and continues to create its own brand of discord in the search for a credible faith.

But the solution to this challenge is not to excise mental images altogether. It is to confront terrible images with comforting and uplifting ones.

My own most comforting one is an image of God’s suffering the pain of every human being even more than each of its sufferers do. My most uplifting one is of God’s imaging us as one day loving the world as much as he always has.

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HOW NOT TO GET LOST ON THE WAY TO HEAVEN

Where do people go to heal from the abuses that sick churches inflict upon them to save their souls? More than a few go to seminary.

Many of own my students, at least, have told me very disturbing things about growing up in their churches, beginning with stories about being judged mercilessly. They asked too many questions, expressed too many doubts, and failed to live up to their (imperfect) elders’ ideas about what a true believer should be like.

Worst of all, it seemed to their fellow believers, they entertained the possibility that people of other faiths might be loved by God just as much as they were.

By the time these beaten-up students got to my seminary, they were wondering whether they would ever fully recover from their churches’ mistreatment. But they were also hoping that learning more about what religion is at its best would help.

It did help. But it also made their pain worse. It made the incongruities all the more apparent between what their churches stood for and how their churches acted.

One thing, they learned well: if there is in fact only one way toward a transforming relationship with God, as John 14:6 says there is, that way is nevertheless very different from what it has often been understood to be.

The first step on this better way is to leave the judging of others to an Authority more perfect than human beings can ever be. The next steps are toward grace-filled, uncompromising loving and serving without conditions, especially of people who do not love us and who do not serve anybody but themselves.

More and more people today are rejecting the idea that there is one and only one way to salvation. And they are discovering that acknowledging other ways of being religious does not have to diminish confidence in their own way. It only indicates a greater humility about the capacity of any one religion or religious group to discern the mind and will of God for everyone else.

It is not what a religious tradition affirms that can make believers’ lives miserable. It is what that tradition requires them to deny. Honoring Jesus more than Moses and Muhammad, or more than the Brahmins, the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tsu, does not have to mean loving less those who know enough to honor them all.

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PUTTING CONTROVERSIES ASIDE FOR THE SAKE OF FAITH

Every religion contains diverse understandings of both the personhood and the message of its founder. This should in no way, however, undermine the integrity and rejoicing with which each religion offers its understandings to the world.

Buddhism, for example, includes portraits of a man utterly subordinating himself to teaching a path to liberation from an endless cycle of rebirth. But its traditions also include images of a land of pure bliss accessed merely by calling upon the name of a divine Buddha who now lives there.

Christianity includes portraits both of a Jesus who was primarily a wise teacher and of a Jesus who was an apocalypse-fixated exorcist and wonder-worker. And it also includes images of a Jesus who possessed before all worlds complete identity with God.

Islam includes traditions about Allah’s one prophet as a self-righteous, sword-wielding purveyor of conquering unbelievers by force. But it also includes descriptions of The Prophet as a self-effacing, loving man who suffered insults with compassion and understanding.

A welcome conclusion to be drawn from facts like these is that religious believers understand the message of their religions in very different ways, not just one. And given the persistence of diverse understandings like these in every religion across vast stretches of time, they should not be forced into any single mold for shaping the faith of any religion.

There is as much pluralistic thinking within each religion as there is between all the religions together. And this is a good thing. Why? Because it is an elegant reminder that faith at its deepest level is not primarily a holding onto beliefs, whether of their particular religion’s founder or not. It is a living out of what is essential to all religion: putting others’ condition and needs ahead of one’s own.

Faithful people make their impression on the world less by what they say about their respective religion and more by their willingness to sacrifice their own well-being for others’, gratefully and compassionately. Their concern is less with holding fast to tradition than it is to holding up the poor, the sick, the dying, the helpless, and the hopeless at whatever place and on whatever road they may be.

When they do this understandingly, they know that what they are doing is a sign pointing beyond themselves to the Sacred Reality that embraces all generations in love.

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