On the face of it, religious beliefs look very much like assertions of fact. Take, for example, the belief that the universe was created in six days.

However, when we assert something as fact we must offer relevant data and good reasons if others are to trust what we say. And I can’t do either for this particular assertion.

Nor can I do this for other cherished religious beliefs, such as:

  • Our ancestors in heaven hear our prayers;
  • The Holy Land is God’s gift to the Jews;
  • Enlightenment breaks the chain of rebirth;
  • Jesus was raised from the dead by God;
  • Those who do not submit to Allah will suffer eternal fire.

It’s not that these beliefs are untrue or unworthy of affirmation. It’s that they can’t be true or worthy in a factual sense of these words.

None of them describes events that in principle were and are open to direct observation. All of them offer, instead, an inspiring combination of wishing, hoping, and interpreting life experiences in the light of both.

It is a fact that people wish and hope for things, and that religious beliefs give especially powerful expression to our deepest wishes and highest hopes. But while we can observe the wishing and hoping, in ourselves and others, we can’t observe the “for What” of both.

We might have observed, for example, the Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment experience. But we could not have observed his transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. We might have observed Jesus alive and revisiting his followers after his crucifixion. But we could not have observed God’s bringing him back from death.

Religious traditions foster a great deal of confusion about all this. Typically, they demand the kind of assent to their basic teachings that is appropriate only to beliefs that are demonstrably true on the basis of universal experience and reasoning.

With their demands usually come escalating threats of punishments, in this life and beyond, for not believing what they believe believers ought to believe as established fact. The threats leave no room for people who simply don’t “see” what they are supposed to “see.”

But what they are supposed to see isn’t something to be “seen” at all. In every religion, the challenge of faith is to believe without seeing, and not to feel the worse for doing so.

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Of all the controversies roiling religious communities today, one of the most vexing is over the role of beliefs in the life of faith.

Many believers are holding onto traditional teachings as the only way they know to take a stand against relativists and pluralists everywhere. Others insist that non-negotiable beliefs are the principal source of divisiveness in the world, and weaken the credibility of all belief-systems, religious or not.

Adding to this unhelpful debate among religious believers is the substitution of labels for careful thinking. Self-proclaimed “conservatives” gloat that their own fellowships, unquestioningly loyal to their scriptures, creeds, and moral codes, can only prosper while those of the “liberals,” who believe anything they want, can only decline.

In turn, liberals fulminate against the oppressiveness of tradition as such and, substituting relevance and activism for sound theology, summarily dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded, mean-spirited enemies of authentic faith.

Beliefs do and should matter to any religious community. They are really, really important. But not so important as to undermine respecting and caring for the people who hold them, even and especially when others’ beliefs are seriously at odds with one’s own.

When beliefs become more important than the believers who hold them, at least three things tend to get lost sight of with respect to the beliefs themselves.

The first is that the most carefully considered and passionately held religious beliefs are only partial views of the sacred realities to which they point. A big reason why this is so is: us. We believe what we want to believe more often than we believe what we know we ought to believe.

The second is that what any religious community considers the vital center of its beliefs means different things at different times to the different people who share its common history. In every religion there are many traditions. One thing this means is that there are many ways to be a believer on any religion’s own terms.

And the third is that for personal faith to thrive, faith communities must respect both the God-given right of people to ask probing questions about core beliefs and the fact that there is a vital center of belief to be discovered on the far side of all genuine questioning and doubting.

From religious communities whose members see these things clearly, hardly anyone could wish to disaffiliate.

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For some people, religion isn’t something that can become unhealthy. It’s something that is unhealthy, all the time. Freud’s classic statement on the subject was that religion is a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Many mental health professionals still agree with him.

To me, this perspective is something of a caricature, but one which nevertheless contains important truths. There is in fact a lot that is unhealthy about religious beliefs and practices, as well as with the inner life that they seek to shape.

Religious beliefs are unhealthy — in the sense that they are no longer good for us — when we ask no questions about and brook no criticism of them. The beliefs may be true in themselves, but being close-minded about them is injurious to genuine growth in faith.

More than remaining just unhealthy influences, religious beliefs become downright malignant when they are gathered into a belief-system whose principal tenet is that no other belief-system, religious or otherwise, has any truth in it at all. Those who do this kind of gathering are not only obsessional; they are delusional.

The process is subtle but diabolically effective. It begins with a noble affirmation, such as “The Buddha experienced enlightenment about all things spiritual.” Then, the affirmation becomes “Only the Buddha is the truly Enlightened One.” The Buddha himself would have agreed with the first statement, but not the second.

Religious practices become unhealthy — in the sense that they lead both our feelings and our actions astray — when we engage in them for no reason other than we have been told to do so by religious leaders whose authority we do not question.

They become malignant when they take a form deliberately designed to inflict suffering in the service of the religion itself. Some examples: securing conformity to devotional and moral rules by threats of excommunication and damnation; propagating the religion by forced conversion of conquered people; slaughtering those deemed to be infidels.

The inner life that is produced by unhealthy religious beliefs and practices pales by comparison with a truly authentic spirituality. The signs of its unhealthiness are hard to miss: slavish conformity; defensiveness; anxiety masked by false confidence; guilt; shame; joylessness. It’s hard to be around spiritually unhealthy people for very long and have much regard for the religion that has made them so.

Faith-seekers deserve so much more from religion.

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Very young children believe that rules for living originate from an unseen order of things, and that they hover over us threateningly, with no let-up. Violators of them can expect severe punishments which bear little discernable relationship to the nature of the violations themselves.

Later on, children typically look upon rules as either created or negotiated by people like themselves. Punishments for breaking them should be appropriate to the intention of and the harm caused by the particular violation. Kids grow up!

Would that it were so with the religions which seek to serve them. Even today, a great deal of what passes for religion amounts to little more than coercing peoples’ assent by scaring them to death.

The scare tactics take this form: Unless you do/don’t do … then something very, very bad will happen to you. Just what this “something” is becomes a major part of the teachings of every religion. Here are a few images of “It”:

Experiencing poverty, disease, infirmity, failure, and hopelessness in this life;

Being re-born at a lower rung on the social or even biological hierarchy;

Burning in the flames of hell forever;

Dissolving into the Nothingness from which we have come.

One way to look at these notions is as attempts to clarify the “unseen order” of the very young child’s world-view. The best indicator that this is so is their lack of clarity about how general punishments like these are warranted in every case of individual wrongdoing in widely different circumstances.

Consider an illustration from my own religious tradition, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole populations of these two cities, the story goes, were destroyed by fire because some of the men in Sodom committed homosexual acts. The offenses allegedly committed in Gomorrah are not defined at all.

Homosexuality aside, did the wives and children of these men deserve this fate? Little children might think so. But when grown-ups do, it is appropriate to call their thinking not child-like, but downright childish.

Human development theorists generally agree that doing and not doing things for the sake of avoiding punishment represents only the first step in the process of moral growth. Religious leaders should know, too, that the fear of the Ultimate is not the basis of wisdom. It is only a first step in a developing understanding what wisdom most truly is.

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A common perception about religious believers is that they think they have an edge over people who try to face life’s challenges without faith and on their own. There are at least two realities about faith that this perception ignores.

One is that even the most conscientious believers have questions and doubts about their faith from time to time. The other is that people with faith and people without it share a common yearning for a transforming relationship with an ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning

And so, neither believers nor non-believers who are struggling with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt need criticism or rejection for asking hard questions about what they have been taught to believe and do. What they do need is encouragement to pursue truth, no matter where the pursuit may lead them.

It is painful to be in the throes of radical questioning and doubting in matters of faith. What makes the pain worse is being exhorted to let go of the questioning and doubting, trust what religious authorities teach about God, the world, and human destiny, and leave it at that.

In centuries past, exhortation was an important instrument for keeping members of religious communities mindful of how different they were from the unsaved. The approach succeeded because the premise on which it rested, the supremacy of the religious community/institution over its individual members, was taken for granted — if not always enthusiastically — by almost everyone.

This premise can no longer be taken for granted by anyone who believes that individual conscience is deserving of respect, even when it turns negative toward the realm of the sacred. The more plausible premise is that we should pay homage to a belief about the sacred only in the light of personal experience and reasoned judgment.

There is one important role that exhortation does play in the nurturing of religious feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. It is to discourage our minds’ becoming malleable to any and every Transcendence-affirming and Transcendence-denying belief tossed to and fro on the winds of an uncritically relativistic and pluralistic culture.

Even in this process, however, reproof-oriented exhortations are not likely to work nearly as well as can (1) good listening, (2) questions offered in an inquiring rather than judgmental spirit, and (3) strong encouragement of honest seeking. Taking faith on faith does not make for mature faith.

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All of the world’s great religions teach that suffering is a constant and major challenge to faith. The Buddha put it strikingly: human existence in the world is suffering. And faith should offer a way out of it.

For some, the way out begins with an explanation for why people suffer. But some explanations can make suffering even worse, and block from the start any hope of getting beyond it.

Consider this explanation: suffering is a necessary part of a sacred order according to which human misdeeds must be atoned for. The suffering is part of the atoning.

Supposedly, the harshness of this view can be offset by trusting that each person’s suffering is precisely and fairly proportioned to the actions which make it necessary. Experience, however, teaches otherwise.

Just as it calls into question the rightness of the belief that it is not only one’s own actions for which suffering atones. Sometimes the atoning has to be for others’ actions as well. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:2) But is this what a truly divine being would, or even could, decree?

Perhaps the single greatest difficulty with believing suffering to be the deserved punishment for wrongdoing is its assumptions about what or who is arranging things this way. For a major tradition in ancient Hinduism, the ordering principle is an implacable and impersonal system of unchangeable laws. For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is the unchangeable will of God.

These two ways of thinking may not be all that different. Many theistic believers talk of the laws of God as if they were something that bind God as much as they do everything else. As in the doctrine of Jesus’ atonement for the world’s sins: there is no room in it for grace and mercy. There is only a price to be paid for human wrongdoing that not even God can cancel.

The best response to suffering that faith has to offer is not one which focuses on the uses that the Sacred makes of it. It is one which focuses on the comfort that the presence of the Sacred brings to the coping with it.

Suffering is universal, unequally distributed, and incapable of being relieved by explanations. In the midst of it, what people most need is compassion, human and divine.

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The logic of believing seems simple enough. Beliefs are either true or false. We should stand up for those that are true and walk away from those that aren’t. And we should learn how to distinguish the one from the other.

The last part of this formula is the one that presents the difficulty, particularly when beliefs are about values (e.g., beauty and goodness) rather than about facts (e.g., velocity and position).

And about spiritual realities rather than physical ones. We pretty much know how to tell what is true about stones, salamanders, and stars. But about the winds of the Spirit, the will of Deity, and the wonders of Heaven?

Religions tend to finesse this difficulty altogether, simply by stipulating as true their own traditions and as false those of the other religions. With no discussion allowed.

Worse still, most narrow the truth still further to their own intra-religious traditions. Being just a Muslim is not enough; one must be either Sunni or Shiite. Christians are either Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant (but which denomination?); Buddhists either Lesser or Greater Vehicle; Jews either Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

It is common in religion for its leaders to insist that believing unquestioningly their teachings about sacred things is a crucial test of faith. If we so believe, we have faith; if we are in any way reserved in our believing, we do not.

In order to pass this test, though, we must turn a blind eye to one of the most obvious facts about every religious tradition: its understanding of the Divine is only one of many. If we are to find meaning and truth in any of them, it will be because we bring reason and experience to the task, and because we open ourselves to learning as much from other believers and inquirers as they will allow.

For many people, faith has become something like what the White Queen told Alice: believing in six impossible things before breakfast. Except that instead of six, only one would have been necessary to sustain Lewis Carroll’s point, the impossibility of believing that only one understanding of divine reality is true.

What is especially illuminating about the White Queen’s throw-away line is her reference to believing this way “in her youth.” So do many, in their own. But then, hopefully, they grow up.

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We do not typically expect religions’ most inspiring beliefs to be stumbling blocks to faith. But sometimes they become just this.

An example from my own tradition is a teaching of Jesus about prayer: “Whatever you pray for in faith you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22) What once may have been a three point sermon about it went this way: “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” (7:7)

In either form, this teaching is inspiring because of the hope it engenders. It is a stumbling block because it doesn’t always seem to deliver on its promise.

For some, the root of the failure is with the promise itself. Answered prayer is by definition a miracle, and a miracle is by definition impossible. Why? Because we live in a law-governed universe. Either there is no God in it at all, or if there is, he should not have to work miracles because he has already arranged things so as to make them unnecessary.

The issue of praying for something, however, is more complicated than this. The problem is not that the prayers simply can’t get answered. It is that although many of them don’t get answered, others do, and there is no way of accounting for the difference.

It is little wonder, therefore, that both believers and inquirers alike sometimes dismiss the “ask, and you will receive” idea as grounded only in a wishing that is best relinquished. If there is any connection at all between a prayer and its outcome, it is coincidence only.

With this reasoning itself, it is difficult to quarrel. But spiritual realities do not always tuck themselves neatly into tight logical systems.

More frequently, they make their appearance through experiences that evoke wonder more than understanding, questions more than certainty, and humility more than assurance. Answered prayer is one of those experiences.

Sometimes, but not always, we do experience a happening not just as a happening, but as an answer enshrouded in mystery. We do not choose to look at it “as if” it were an answer; it chooses to come to us as the answer. Blowing in the wind of the Spirit.

The problem, though, is that in the activity of praying, the experience of particular outcomes sometimes includes the experience of the outcomes as answers, and not just coincidental occurrences.

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Of all the books about the human condition written over the past century, one of the most insightful is still Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. The title is especially worth thinking about.

For Jung, psychology and psychiatry encompassed nothing less than everything that philosophy and religion together have had to say for millennia about human nature. Traditionally, it was summed up under the headings of healing the meaning-bereft and the sin-sick soul.

Today, practitioners in both fields talk instead about maladjusted behavior and disordered minds. The soul has been downsized to the status of an adaptive mechanism whose occasional distresses are remediable through medications and adapting better to other peoples’ expectations.

Malaise at a deeper level, as in the sense of losing one’s very soul, is from this diminished perspective merely the result of grandiose illusions about human possibilities. It is the inevitable consequence of hoping for too much. If we will just bring our hopes down enough, we will feel much better.

Well, not really. The “disabling distress” which psychiatry now regards as the principal differentiator of mental disorder is in fact something absolutely essential to our becoming the human beings that we are meant to be. It isn’t something to be treated. It’s something to be encouraged.

Why? Because it can activate the deeper capacities of our souls to take notice of and to struggle with the fundamental questions of human existence in the world. It can evoke that inchoate — some would say innate — grasp that things are not yet as they are meant to be and that human beings have a major role to play in making them better.

In that grasp, old things pass away, and all things can become new.

Are we really, then, losing a sense of what the soul really is? Not wholly, but almost. Soul-activated living means more than feeling better about adjusting only tolerably well in the here and now, and swallowing pills when we don’t.

It is about searching for the ultimate source(s) of being, power, value, meaning, and destiny. It is about seeing things whole and being whole as if for the first time. It is about yearning for a relationship with an unseen, purposive and ultimately beneficent order and never being the same again.

For the souls of all who so seek, and see, and yearn, it is well.

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In more ways than one, the universe has become a cold, dark place.

One way has been through ever more precise observations: the universe is cold and dark. Stunning pictures of merging galaxies notwithstanding, there is vastly more space out there than heat and light generating matter can ever fill up.

Another way is through ever more restrictive theorizing: the universe is just there, and that’s the end of it. The question of why it is there, and for what or whom, scientific method no longer permits us even to ask.

It was not always like this. For civilizations’ greatest minds, there was, in and between all things, an underlying orderliness and predictability, and an overarching purposiveness.

Plato and Aristotle thought of purpose as a drive in everything toward a perfection of being which only something conscious of the process can appreciate. Faith thinks of the drive as something which a Supremely Perfect Being wants to guide.

At its most far-reaching, in contrast with its most technologically-fixated, science gets closer to this way looking at the universe than many scientists themselves seem willing to admit. As a Nobel Laureate physicist once said to me, “only those lacking in self-reflection fail to make room for final causation.”

He knew better than most of us can that the method of inquiry upon which science depends determines in advance what we will and will not see in and about the universe.

The world of the scientist is a world of matter in motion “out there,” observed disinterestedly — that is to say, “objectively” — by people carefully trained to deform the deepest promptings of the soul into the narrowest of contingent hypotheses. It is a world which dismisses passion for the observing, and awe in the presence of the Observed, as irrelevant to, rather than inspiring of, the pursuit of truth.

But it is just this sense of passion and awe that needs accounting for. How is it, and why is it, that it exists at all?

How and why is there in us an unconquerable inner sense that it matters, and matters greatly, to seek an understanding of things? That there is a purpose for doing so which far transcends merely mastering environments, terrestrial and celestial, for our own ends?

Maybe it is because this is what in us most resembles the Purposer himself.

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