LOVE ALMIGHTY AND PAIN UNCEASING

Can there be a good reason why some people live in constant pain and others escape most forms of it altogether?

For many faith traditions, there is a reason, but not a good one: pain is a necessary punishment for offending or disobeying Deity. Those who experience it very intensely and/or for very long are simply getting what they deserve for how they have chosen to live their lives.

Compared with this outrageously condemnatory perspective, the view of modern medical science on chronic pain, based on empirical knowledge rather than faulty theology, almost overflows with understanding and empathy.

Pain, physicians tell us, is not always a bad thing. The capacity to feel it when we inadvertently touch a pan of boiling water, or stupidly exercise too long at the gym, is what keeps us from bringing even greater harm to ourselves.

But physicians also acknowledge that the pain some people endure seems wholly disproportionate to any good that can possibly come from it. And to make matters even worse, some painful conditions offer up neither a cause nor a cure.

Fortunately, there is now available a considerable variety of medications which, if not capable of eliminating pain completely, can make it at least manageable. And because there is, it is difficult to understand why so many medical practitioners seem so indecisive about making effective use of them.

More often than not, their stated concern is to minimize the possibility that a patient will become addicted to “pain killers.” This is a legitimate concern. But what if the killer is the pain itself?

From the standpoint of medical practice, the primary purpose of alleviating pain is to make it easier for people to get more enjoyment out of the life they have ahead of them, however long or short it may be. From the perspective of faith, there is more involved.

Certainly it is a worthy goal of physicians to help their patients enjoy life more. But it is also a worthy goal to help people make the kind of difference in other peoples’ lives that God enjoins all of us to do. When pain gets in the way of both endeavors, and when it can be reduced, it is a good thing to expend every effort to reduce it.

Medications can help, as can the compassion of understanding friends and caregivers. Staying other-centered may help even more.

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CAN GOD BE RIGHTEOUS WITHOUT BEING WRATHFUL?

Psychology tells us that children do what others expect of them largely from fear of what will happen if they don’t. Religion adds that if humans’ displeasure is not enough, an angry God’s just might be.

As children grow up, both kinds of fears should give way to less childish thinking and acting, both moral and spiritual. It’s too bad that too many adults aren’t that grown-up yet.

With both their children and the Deity, their relationships remain contaminated by chronic apprehensiveness. A he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake… mentality that isn’t fair to anyone, even Santa Claus.

By contrast, a grown-up mentality focuses on doing the right thing for its own sake, and not to avoid others’ displeasure or win their favor. Its idea of being good is for goodness’ sake, and not for the sake of reward.

And hoping that others will follow the example because they see its intrinsic rightness and goodness, not because they are looking to escape a wrath to come, either in this life or the next.

When expectations — other peoples’ and Deity’s — take the form of laws and commands, they do, or at least should, generate awareness that consequences follow from not acting in accordance with them. But must the consequences be thought of only in terms of punishments? And must their imposition always be administered out of a sense of righteous outrage and wrath?

In the spheres of family rules and civil/criminal law codes, perhaps so. Many believe that in these arenas of human life, fear of other’s disappointment and anger isn’t as powerful an inhibitor of bad behavior as fear of the punishment itself.

And in the religious sphere, things seem not to be all that different. There, the consequences of defying the divine will in this life are proclaimed to extend through all eternity. When God’s righteousness is mocked, it turns into wrath, and those upon whom the divine wrath turns are doomed to everlasting misery.

At least, that is the message of a childish faith. But for those who grasp the importance of putting away childish things, the divine righteousness has to mean something else. It has to include a patient love which never gives up hope that human beings will come to do good and great things simply because that is what they are meant to do.

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IS THE WILL OF GOD ALWAYS THE SAME?

Most serious students of human behavior agree that moral codes are fashioned by human societies under the pressure of changing circumstances and new challenges. Times change, and so do concepts of what actions are and are not morally praiseworthy.

For many people of faith, though, this way of looking at morality is downright wrong. Typically, two assumptions form the basis of their criticism.

The first is that valid moral laws are divinely and not humanly ordained. The second is that they express the unchangeable will of Deity for human beings at all times and everywhere.

Are the differences between these two outlooks reconcilable? I think so, primarily because both rest upon a confusion which should not be as difficult to resolve as many seem to believe it is.

The confusion comes from blurring the distinction between (a) conforming to the moral rules of a particular society, and (b) respecting the reasons for striving to be moral in the first place. In the order of importance, (b) always transcends (a). Moral rules (as in Do this, not that) may and do change across time, but the reasons for having rules at all do not.

The main reason for seeking an understanding of what is genuinely — and not just conventionally — right and wrong is that it is part of the very essence of being human to do so.

To be sure, the process begins with acknowledging and conforming to a moral code taken pretty much at face value. But then, for thoughtful people at least, the questions must come.

Why this rule? Why this code? Why 613 moral laws? Aren’t two enough? And aren’t these two (as in Love God, and others as your neighbors) more like general principles than specific rules?

It may be that the search for overarching ethical principles to guide us is determined by genetic coding just as much as is the imposing of parochial moral codes to bind us. But I wonder. Living ethically just doesn’t seem to have the survival value that living conventionally does.

Striving to be ethical and not just moral is more like preparing for life that will be far more encompassing and lasting than the life we now know.

God clearly has changed his mind about enforcing every jot and tittle of old rules. But not about our making sacrifices for others’ good.

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DO DIVINE WORDS NEED HUMAN INTERPRETING?

Sometimes the best place to express a strong conviction is on a bumper sticker. Here is one that offered a complete theology to drivers waiting for a stoplight to change: God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

That God “says” things is an important symbol in many religions, East and West. As a symbol, however, it refers not only to his words, but also to what he intends by them, for different people at different times and in different circumstances.

Remembering the words is easy. Grasping their intention is not.

Is this a problem for faith? For religious institutions and authorities, the usual answer to this question is: Of course not. What God means is whatever we determine that he means, and we can tell you what that is whenever the words themselves don’t.

Less abruptly stated, their point is that religious traditions are based on what was told to their founders by prophets and sages — and maybe even angels. And that through them, God spoke with a clarity beyond any possibility of being misunderstood, ever.

It is the very simplicity of this way of thinking that makes it so attractive. It relieves people of having to figure so many things out for themselves in the spiritual realm. And it encourages returning, over and over again, to the divine words themselves, e.g.: Let there be light; Behold, I am making all things new.

If only these words, and many others like them in religious scriptures, meant the same thing in every tradition which makes use of them. By way of examples, the “light” that God is said to have called into being is not only Jesus of Nazareth, and newness of life comes not only from the forgiveness of sins.

The history of the world’s religions makes plain that their most profoundly inspiring words and images can and do mean profoundly different things to different people. How could it be otherwise? The words and the images are the spiritual currency of finite, fallible beings and as such, can never adequately express the overwhelming fullness of what is truly divine.

Without listening for and rejoicing in his words, there will be nothing heard from God at all. But without interpreting and sharing their meaning as well, there will be little understanding of what we are to believe and do to honor him here and now.

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WHAT THE AFTERLIFE CANNOT BE LIKE

What happens to us after we die? The most sensible answer to this question — the one that relies most on sensory evidence — is that we return to the dust from which our atoms have come.

This answer may be sensible, but it has not been universally satisfying. Neither, however, are many of religion’s alternatives.

Consider, for example, the depressing depictions of an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth governed by impersonal karmic laws whose accumulating demands are for all practical purposes impossible to satisfy.

Or the terrifying prophecies of world destruction at the hand of an enraged deity and agonies to be suffered in everlasting fire.

It takes a poignantly incomplete understanding of the Sacred to find any real satisfaction in images like these. They offer no hope whatever that wrongful actions and attitudes might be redeemable through the grace, mercy, and love which flow from what is truly divine.

By its very definition, “afterlife” is a state of being which is beyond ordinary sensibilities. Most people who believe in it do so on the basis of wishes, intimations, and intuitions whose truth cannot be determined on the basis of sense experience alone.

But if afterlife is the provision of a sacred order of things truly deserving of human exalting, it is something truly worth hoping for rather than fearing. Whatever knowledge we may claim to have of it, though, must include at least two acknowledgements that might be unsettling.

The first is that we are not yet fit to experience the fullness of its benefits. The second is that to become so, more than one mortal life may be necessary, either here or somewhere between here and heaven.

Just as the truth of beliefs about afterlife, it would seem, must rest somewhere between the sensible and the unsatisfying.

To the silenced denizens of a shadowy Underworld and the screaming souls in a flaming Hell, it surely would be better to have no afterlife at all.

In other words, there is a moral dimension to human destiny: the morally deficient can expect their experiences in the next life to be lacking much of what those with moral integrity will enjoy. And that is the unsatisfying part of believing in it.

But the satisfying part is their promise of a blessed afterlife to those spiritually and morally ready to receive it.

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THE SPIRITUAL POWER OF HERESIES

Religious institutions always need an infusion of unorthodox ideas. Even if the unseen spiritual world is everlastingly the same, the faiths which express it cannot be.

New challenges make old doctrines — well, just old. And when they do, even a heresy or two may not be all that bad.

The American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that wherever there is a dogma, there is a heretic (= one who holds an unaccepted religious opinion) around the corner or in his grave. One thing he meant was that deviations from their teachings can get religious institutions riled up enough to declare them settled and binding forever.

But if dogma is a response to heresy, it also one of heresy’s creators. Dogmas produce heretics by stifling inquiry to such an extent that the divine spirit eventually breaks out in protest.

Just think of how many “heretics” there are in the world relative to dogmas such as these: the Buddha lives on in a Pure Land beyond this world; Jesus alone among human beings is divine; the Quran is a perfect transcription of perfectly remembered angelic messages.

It isn’t heretical to suggest that all of these statements have been undergoing serious rethinking for millennia. And that the rethinking has been helpful, even necessary, to a growing faith.

Out of it has emerged alternative opinions such as these: Even though the Buddha no longer has existence at all, his teachings have saving power for everyone who follows them; Jesus resembles God more closely than any other human being ever will; Muhammad’s recitations of angelic messages were sufficient even if not infallible.

From the perspective of dogma-preoccupied religious communities, statements like these latter are simply deviant, and as such, false. But from the perspective of inquirers for whom truth is not reducible to verbal formulas, opinions unacceptable to some often contain as much of it as those accepted by more.

A heresy is not a false belief. Nor is it one that is merely unacceptable to people whose opinions somehow count more than anybody else’s. It is only an opinion that they do not in fact accept.

Heresies offer different perspectives on the Sacred that deserve consideration alongside the “approved” opinions. They are “yes, but …” responses to dogmas, as variations are to a musical theme. Sacred truth comes to us both in them and in their opposites.

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IS THIS THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE UNIVERSES?

Then, there was Light. And the Bang, and the Expanding. But what happened before the “Then?”

For some time now, physicists have been telling their story of the universe all the way back to a bare one ten million, trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second from the beginning. They call the gap from there to the beginning the “Planck era.” Impressive.

But even more so is new data that makes possible more reasonable speculations about what happened during the Planck era itself. For me, the most breathtaking of these speculations is the suggestion that “in the beginning” there came into being more than just our own universe.

It is as if that single (?) primordial event (explosion?) sent the space, time, causalities, and substances it threw off into many different dimensions at the same (moment?). The result was a multitude of universes, possibly an infinite number of them, layered in different space/time configurations.

Clearly, language has come close to the end of its tether in these current attempts at describing the origins of things. If by “universe” we already mean all there is, can it make any sense to apply the word to more than one “All”?

Perhaps it can. All the experts now seem willing to try.

Actually, once I talked myself into believing that I know what “infinite” can mean, the multiverse hypothesis didn’t seem all that daunting. I came upon it first while reading the 1709 essay on God’s righteousness and justice (Theodicy) by the philosopher Leibniz, the famous Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s Candide.

Leibniz conjectured that our universe is one of an infinity of possible universes held resplendently in the divine mind before it was removed from the realm of abstract possibility and made the only actual universe. All the others remain only possible universes that God elected not to make actual. They continue to exist in God’s mind, but nowhere else.

If Leibniz were alive today, I think he might revise his original theory. Now, he might say, the Actualizer of our own universe is actualizing every possible universe also. And further, in all of those other universes there just might be beings with the same curiosity and wonder about theirs that we have about our own.

What end might all of these universes, and not just one of them, serve? Perhaps the infinite expansion of glorifying the infiniteness of their Creator.

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WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THE SOUL?

To the eyes of many, not where it used to be.

One indication is what the “psyche” part of psychology has come to mean. It no longer refers to the soul. Instead, it has to do with observable behavior. Our souls are in our actions, exposed for all to assess, whether we (wherever else “we” might be) like it or not.

And the “psyche” part of psychiatry has been reduced to brain functioning, viewable almost as easily as what we do “out there” is viewable. All we need are brain scans.

Not too long ago, the soul was believed to be somewhere far more mysterious than in our behavior and in our brains. Deep, deep within us, maybe even deeper than our unconscious. And better viewed by opening up our dreams rather than our heads.

Paradoxically, the soul is also something high above us, at least from a symbolic perspective. It is our connection with an unseen spiritual order in which space, time, causality, and substance operate according to very different rules then they do in the world we know. Or think we know.

Just what connections the soul has with the body at all was once a matter of considerable discussion and debate. Everybody agreed that, for human beings at least, the body needs a soul to be a human organism. Now, only people of faith believe this. Most people of science do not.

Faith’s conviction in this regard, though, brings on still more questions. Does a particular soul need a particular kind of body — male or female perhaps? — to be the soul that it is? If not, where, then, in this or some other world(s) might that soul’s home truly be?

Or are souls individual at all? Might they be parts or aspects of a single, all-encompassing Soul of and in everything else?

Many thoughtful people I know regard asking questions like these as evidence of a mind in riot rather than rational mode. But I like to think of it as the best way to begin recovering the reality, power, and goodness of the soul as people once knew and loved it.

And to experience all over again a sense of trust and confidence that the endeavor is both worthy of engagement and fruitful in outcome. For where questions about the soul begin, there the soul most truly is.

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FAITH, FACTS AND BELIEFS

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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GETTING BELIEFS OUT OF THE WAY OF FAITH

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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