HOW NOT TO HONOR A RELIGION’S FOUNDER

For all of their differences, many of the world’s religions share at least two important beliefs about their respective founders.

The first belief is that he experienced a uniquely transforming relationship with the Sacred. Whether it was to Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad, the Sacred became present in such a way as to leave no doubt about its existence, nature, and power.

The second belief is that in order to believe their messages wholeheartedly, faith-seekers must experience for themselves what those founders experienced. Its corollary is that when they do experience it, they will no longer want to do anything other than believe, follow, and serve. Anxious searching for ultimate truth gives way to a calm certainty that one has found it.

Both of these beliefs are powerfully captivating. But in them there is also a profoundly difficult problem which cannot be avoided. The problem is that the founders described their encounters with the Sacred, and the Sacred itself, very differently.

Can all of their descriptions be equally representative of what Sacred Reality most essentially is? If not, then which is the truer one? And how would we know?

One way to answer this question is to double down on one’s own religion and to dismiss experiences celebrated in all the others as either misguided or delusional. Another way is to let ongoing traditions about its founder take the place of the founder’s own experiences and beliefs.

There is a better way than either of these. It consists in honoring the unique glimpses into the Sacred that each religious founder’s experiences contain.

The honoring is like relishing a prism’s breaking up of sunlight into the colors of the visible spectrum, while praising the magnificence and the warmth of the sunlight itself. Or it is like becoming attuned to the Sacred’s sounds and silences, and taking delight in being surrounded by both.

Seeking the kind of faith that makes these things possible is very different from striving to be more and more like a particular religion’s founder. Just as it is very different from giving unquestioning loyalty to religious traditions and those who hand them on.

It is, instead, a trusting that the sacred is not only something to be sought, but also something by whom we have already been found. A trusting that we will understand to the extent that we are willing to be embraced.

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BELIEVING WITHOUT SEEING

In religious circles, it’s a familiar story. A proud skeptic, profligate, or atheist all of a sudden sees the light and the room erupts with shouts of praise, thanksgiving, and renewed confidence in the power of the Holy.

In the midst of the uplift, however, for more than a few the feeling of awe is mixed with jealousy and resentment. Along with a sense of having been denied something important. And of guilt over having the mixed feelings in the first place.

When a prodigal son or daughter finally comes to God, not everyone is in a cheering mood.

The spoilers may be loyal members of a faith-community who never doubted either the power or the holiness of the Sacred, but have yet to be acknowledged for their quiet trust and service. Or struggling members longing for an explosion of light and meaning in their lives, but finding only darkness and meaninglessness.

It can be hard to celebrate when the least spiritual among them are moved to the head of the procession without seeming to expend any effort. Are there no laws of moral and spiritual equity at all?

To the always faithful, the message of this story seems to be that loyalty isn’t enough; only being born again counts. To the not yet faithful, it seems to be that honest seeking doesn’t cut it with God; only blatant waywardness does.

“Seeing the light” is a powerful image with which to describe what coming to faith can be like. It suggests that faith is more than a state of awareness to be reached on our own. It is also a state of being-illumined, for which we can only wait. Like the dawn, it comes to us on its own terms.

Our story conveys well the sense of “amazing grace” by which lost sinners are found. But it does not convey well that being loyal, and waiting, are just as much acts of faith as is rejoicing over a dramatic experience of “seeing.”

For this, another story is needed. Perhaps the story of Thomas, who would not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he saw him for himself.

Jesus took Thomas seriously enough to make a special appearance just to him. But then he told Thomas that people who believed without seeing were just as blessed as those who believed on the basis of it.

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DO PEOPLE WEAR SHOES IN HEAVEN?

Recently, a chaplain friend called to tell me about his visit with a little girl dying from an uncontrollable infection. He could hardly get the words out.

When I get my new shoes in heaven, she asked him, will somebody help me tie my laces?

Her words came back to me as this Easter approached, and have had me thinking all over again about two universal visions of the afterlife. One emphasizes the resurrection of the body, the other the liberation of the soul from the body.

Every major world religion affirms versions of both, and struggles with at least three questions about each. One is: what will the journey be like from this life to the next?

Another is: how long will it take?

And along with these, there is the still more vexing question: what will happen to our bodies along the way?

The little girl of my friend’s story believes that hers will remain intact, and God bless her for her hope. And for everybody who has ever sung the spiritual which gives fuller expression to it. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, Gonna shout all over God’s heaven.

For me, though, it’s very hard to believe that my slowly deteriorating body is any more fit for heaven than my slow to develop character is. On the latter, there is still so much to do and so little time left in which to do it.

And as for the too, too solid flesh better resolved into a dew, whatever may replace it will have to be very, very different from the star stuff to which its atoms eventually must return. As presently constituted, the human body just isn’t an adequate vehicle for the eternal life of truly spirit-filled people.

In the New Testament, there are all kinds of hints that this was so for the earliest followers of Jesus. Perhaps the most powerful is in John’s Gospel, at 20:17. There, the risen Jesus enjoins Mary not to touch him, for he is on his way to an altogether different kind of existence in an altogether different kind of body.

Paul called it a “spiritual body,” fully aware that the phrase itself conveyed very little about it. How could it be otherwise? The difference between our essence and the vessel which contains it is an infinite difference. Thank God.

 

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BEING RELIGIOUS AND BEING SPIRITUAL: BRIDGING THE DIFFERENCES

One sure way to turn an enlightening conversation into an overheated one is to introduce religion or politics into it. Rather than bringing people together for a common purpose, both tend to push people apart — and keep them there.

I’ve lost a lot of hope that anything will be done about this in the realm of politics. But I still have hope in the power of our spiritual nature to create unity in spite of religious differences, trust in spite of religious ideology, and community in spite of religious self-aggrandizement.

For this to happen, though, our spirituality must be ready to assert itself against the divisiveness of both religious affiliation and religious disaffiliation. Will we allow it to happen?

Traditionally, being religious has meant honoring the Sacred by conforming to the beliefs, devotional practices, and moral teachings of a respected tradition (e.g. Judaism). As often as not, it also has included commitment to a more particular tradition within the encompassing one (e.g. Orthodox as opposed to Reformed Judaism).

A key element in most religious traditions — some would say the defining element — is pledging loyalty to the tradition, its institutions, and its leaders with a minimum of questioning. Today, however, increasing numbers of people are holding to a very different conviction.

For them, honoring what is truly sacred means not conforming to religious traditions and practices unless their worthiness can be demonstrated on their own merits. This conviction is close to the very heart of the distinction between religion and spirituality.

Traditionally, being spiritual has meant seeking and dwelling in immediate experience of the Sacred, and viewing everything in the everyday world in the light of the experience(s). Today, it also means letting conformism give way to fresh disclosures of the Divine Spirit, even and especially when they challenge our most cherished religious beliefs, practices, and doubts.

From the perspective of spirituality, the problem with religion is its unwillingness to loosen the binding it inflicts upon people in the interest of ensuring uniformity. From the perspective of religion, the problem with spirituality is its inability to soften the terrifying falls to earth which so often follow its blissful soaring toward heaven.

But soar we must, and not always from the alone to the Alone. Sometimes, we soar best in the company of those who believe the most earnestly, but never blindly, in religious traditions and community.

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IS VENGEANCE A DIVINE PREROGATIVE?

There has to be a better way of dealing with being wronged than the way of swift and merciless payback. The impulse to retaliate blocks honest assessment of whether a particular feeling of being wronged has any basis in fact. And retaliating mercilessly only escalates the enmity.

One thing that keeps the revenge-motive alive and well in the human heart is, of all things, religion. What I have in mind here is the belief that God is a jealous God who demands from everyone, without having to earn it, unconditional loyalty.

The God of this belief is a God who is as intolerant of being “disrespected” as modern-day gang members are. He exacts the same kinds of tribute for disrespect that they do. Worse still, he often fails to discern rightly who is and is not worthy of his own respect and good will.

There is an Old Testament passage, in 2 Samuel 22, which expresses perfectly this perfectly terrible belief. In delivering David from his enemies, it says, the whole earth shook from God’s anger. Smoke poured from his nostrils and fire from his mouth. Everything on earth was darkened. Lightning, hail, and burning coals pummeled David‘s enemies, all because God “delighted” in David and repayed him for his “righteousnness.”

The larger story of David in the Bible is the story of a man who was about as “righteous” as members of today’s drug cartels. Clearly, something has gone very, very wrong in the theistic religions’ depiction of God as a licensor of vengeance. (22:40)

What I think went wrong was the casting of God’s image in the likeness of the worst rather than the best that is in our own. For people looking for an excuse to act vengefully toward others, there is hardly a better one available than the claim that God does it too, and in spades.

For people earnestly seeking a God worthy of devotion, however, images of a furious God taking vengeance on anyone who displeases him are not only off-putting, but blasphemous as well. A God who is less praiseworthy than the best among us is no God at all.

The truly worthy God of these same theistic religions is the God who eventually changed his own mind and heart about vengeance. Only mortals, he came to see, come to each other all the time with threats. (Hosea 11: 9)

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WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WHEN YOU CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE?

A lot of readers have asked me this question lately. They’ve also shared with me two answers to it that they have found especially unhelpful.

One answer goes like this: pray harder for the wisdom to understand the belief in question, and the strength never to doubt it. My own experience with this approach is that it frequently yields a troublesome result. To the extent that the first part of the prayer is answered, to that extent the second is not.

Let me illustrate. Once upon a time I had a hard time understanding what it meant to say that Moses wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I prayed for understanding, and the understanding I got convinced me even more how dubious this belief really is.

A Muslim friend recently shared a similar difficulty. His was with the belief that Allah’s angel dictated the Qu’ran to Muhammad in perfect Arabic. The better he understood the belief, the more he doubted it.

The second answer comes in the form of an injunction: stop calling yourself a believer, because you don’t believe … (fill in your own least favorite doctrine here.)

I do think I would have to stop calling myself a Christian if I thought deep-down that there never was a Jesus, or that the real Jesus was a self-centered glory-hound. But would I if I thought he didn’t believe himself to be God? Well, I do think this, and I’m still calling myself a Christian anyway. Not as good a one as I would like to be, but not because I don’t believe all the things I’m told to believe.

In every religion, which beliefs are necessary for remaining in the fold and which are not has always been a matter for debate. A belief essential for one generation — papal infallibility, for example — may not be for the next.

So what, then, do we do about all the beliefs we can’t believe and our quest for beliefs in which we can believe? One thing is to seek out people who make room for questioning and doubting while striving to live out everything they do believe as authentically as they can.

The other is to stop believing that we have to believe everything in a religion in order to have a vital faith.

 

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IF FAITH IS THE ANSWER, WHAT ARE THE QUESTIONS?

At a critical time in my search for a credible faith, I came across the writings of Paul Tillich. I have never been the same since, because they gave me an answer to a question that I have never been able to stop asking.

The question is: May we question even the most sacred declarations of faith? Tillich’s response was: genuine faith respects the questions as much as it does the answers it tries to give them.

Actually, Tillich put his response a little more abstractly, as theologians tend to do. But this is the heart of it: at its deepest level, our personal faith is best understood as an answer to the questions which make an ultimate difference to us.

For me, what this has meant is that faith involves both trusting in answers and letting things matter enough to ask more questions. Faith’s answers to our questions will change. And our questioning will persist for as long as our humanness does.

More than once, Tillich summed up the questions that were most important to him this way:

(1) Is death truly the end for us?

(2) Is forgiveness of our sins and faults really possible? And

(3) Does existence itself have any meaning?

My questions have always been a little different from Tillich’s, but the most basic ones are three in number, like his were. Ministers just can’t break out of three-point approaches to things, it would seem.

Maybe, however, I’ve extricated my personal faith at least a little from this kind of bondage to triads. For one thing, I have questions about a lot more religious beliefs than just three. And for another, even these three really come down to ways of asking only one really big question. Its subject still is God:

Do we have good reasons to believe that there is a God at all?

Is that God truly good?

Does that God have anything important in mind for human beings in the grand scheme of things?

For many people, the only faith worth having is a proud faith that gives wholly convincing answers to life’s questions and inspires proclaiming those and only those answers boldly. But there is also a questioning faith whose source is wonder, whose energizing power is curiosity, and whose gift to the world is compassion in the absence of certainty.

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ONE GOD, BUT WHICH PROPHET?

Most faith traditions contain beliefs that once were at the very core of their teaching, but are no longer. Beliefs such as: God favors polygamy.

They also uphold beliefs deemed binding upon followers at all times and everywhere. Beliefs such as: To break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, obey the laws of karma.

It has long been a failing of many faith communities to confuse the first kind of beliefs with the second. They forget that, in the oft-quoted words of James Russell Lowell, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”

But what if Lowell’s pithy aphorism applied to the second kind as well? And especially to the idea that a religious doctrine can never be changed?

Consider, for example, the doctrine of the triune nature of God. This belief has been at the core of Christian teaching for over 1700 years. But there has been vastly more disagreement among Christians about its status and meaning than ecclesiastical pronouncements have ever admitted.

Acknowledging these disagreements can be especially important to overcoming a particularly dangerous division today, between Christians and Muslims.

For Christians, the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit subordinates the authority of every religious prophet — from Moses all the way to Muhammad — to Jesus. For Muslims, neither Jesus nor Muhammad was a god. Only God is.

Though Church Councils in the fourth century settled on the idea that Jesus Christ is one in essence with God, not all thoughtful Christians did. Many affirmed a likeness in being between Jesus and God that fell short of identity. They did so on the ground that God is one and as such is indivisible in nature.

Few Christians have ever fully understood the Trinitarian controversies in their fourth century context. And among those who have, there has never been agreement that the way the Councils resolved them was the best way. The truth is that one party to the early debates simply got more votes than the other, and then set out to silence the losers by anathematizing them.

What is especially “uncouth” about all this for our time is its leaving Christendom unable to provide the support that Islam needs as it seeks to reaffirm its own doctrinal core to the extremists in its own midst who need it so desperately. Both religions revere the one God that extremists in both know not.

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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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ARE THERE RELIGIOUS ISSUES THAT BELIEVERS SHOULD NEVER DISCUSS?

Recently, Pope Francis declared all over again that his church’s teaching against contraception is not open for discussion. He might have put it another way: there is no point in discussing the issue because the church will not change its position on it, period.

For decades, American Catholics have largely ignored Papal pronouncements on this subject. Even so, they have shown deep reverence toward their Popes, and now to Francis especially.

Maybe they are on to something. Maybe the way to deal with a religious pronouncement which lacks credibility — such as the prohibition of contraception, or of abortion following a rape, or of sex between consenting, loving homosexuals — is simply to pay the pronouncer homage outwardly and then ignore his pronouncements inwardly.

By means of such a strategy, both the incorrigibleness of highly controversial teachings and the demands of conscience would remain intact. And prohibiting further discussion of the matters in question would prevent even fleeting mention of the possibility that in each the integrity of personal faith can be at stake.

Or would it? Certainly not for religious authorities who continue to fulminate against even the slightest infractions of their institutions’ codes of conduct. And certainly not for women and men of faith for whom certain kinds of conduct, sexual in particular, should be beyond the purview of these institutions, as well as of the state, altogether.

Bad things can happen when discussion is ruled out by fiat. By way of further illustration, here is another religious issue, not as widely acknowledged as issues of sexual ethics are, but a more important one to a growing faith. It is at the heart of dialogues occurring all over the world between Christians and Muslims who are seeking common ground.

The issue is Christianity’s teaching that God is three-in-one and Islam’s that God is one and only one.

Staunchly Trinitarian theologians insist that the coming of Jesus Christ brought with it an utterly new and transformational understanding of God. Affirming this new understanding, they say, is a necessary condition for anyone’s claiming membership in the Christian community.

For Islamic theologians talk like this is, purely and simply, blasphemy.

No, but might we have reached a time for traditional Trinitarian teaching at least to be revisited? Not allowing a question like this even to be asked is no way to reconcile warring religious factions anywhere.

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