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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In the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews, at 12:2, this catchy characterization is reserved for only one man in the whole of human history, Jesus. Might it be applicable to other religious founders as well?

For many Christians, a question like this should never be asked. Faith in Jesus’ God is the only true faith, and that is that. But “that” is precisely what binds the idea of faith itself so tightly that not even the winds of the Spirit can open it up.

What won Jesus the accolade was the courage with which he endured humiliation, pain, and death on a cross as, his followers came to believe, an atonement for humankind’s sins. The perfect (=complete) faith to which his life gave witness was a faith whose principle theme was self-emptying for others.

But the New Testament Book of Acts hints at a more inclusive perspective than this, inclusive in the sense that faith is all that Jesus represented it to be, but more besides.

There, St. Paul speaks of a God who has never left human beings, anywhere, without a witness to Himself (14:16). For Paul, the “clues” were nature’s bounties. But to the author of Hebrews, they are that “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) all the way from Abel to the prophets.

Surely, though, the list must reach both backward and forward in time to many other pioneers of faith. Abraham and Moses remain prominent on my own, but so do the Buddha and Muhammad.

In Abraham, faith came to completion in the form of trusting a divine summons enough to leave a comfortable life in secure surroundings for a long journey to an unknown place and at an unknown cost.

It did so in Moses in the form of obeying laws the full implications of which he could not possibly have anticipated as relayed them in God’s own name.

It did so in the Buddha in the form of relinquishing all forms of craving and of showing compassion for all who were not ready to do either.

It did so in Muhammad in the form of cherishing every moment in which he only had to listen for and to his God’s always surprising self-revelations.

And maybe in us it will do so in the form of humble acknowledgement that no one way of expressing faith can ever be adequate to its Source and End.

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In the Old Testament, there is a horrific image of a valley filled with nothing but dry bones. Next to it is a transporting image of God’s breathing new life into them. The people of Israel, whose bones they are, will live again. But not until … (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Christianity recasts this vision in terms of a coming resurrection of Jesus’ true followers when he returns to earth on “the last day.” When that will occur, however, no one knows.

The proper response of believers to these prophecies is gratitude and hope. Along with respect for God’s sovereignty over death and life.

Even so, there is something troubling about this way of looking at the human future.  What makes it so is the “nothing” it envisions between our death and eventual transfiguration.

This nothing is the nothing which will remain of what makes human beings distinctively human. To the atoms from which all have come, all will return. Until God re-fashions us.

What makes this idea of nothingness especially troubling is that it conflicts with another important idea of faith: that we should be, with God’s help to be sure, making ourselves either fit for a better life or less deserving of a worse one.

In this life, our bodily nature constantly struggles with desires which seduce us into believing that happiness consists in satisfying more and more of them. But our spiritual nature is constantly striving to break the hold that physical things and our desires for them have on us.

For most, this inner struggle — what Islam has meant by the true jihad — is only partially successful. And so, at life’s end, although we may yearn for a higher order of reality which only the soul can understand, we still remain unwilling fully to relinquish earth’s hold on us.

But what if our destiny is precisely to transform for all eternity the unwillingness by the yearning? And what if it includes sufficient time to accomplish it, even beyond our present life?

It may be that there must be a time of punishment for the harm which our self-centered actions have inflicted on both ourselves and others. But surely there will also be a time for discerning how to bring the desires which have fueled them into line with higher spiritual aspirations.

When in this life the quest for such discernment begins, the next life begins too.

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What most prevents us from experiencing eternal blessedness? For the world’s religions, the answer to this question is: us.

We do this to ourselves by resisting the sacred order of things and following instead “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” For most, the consequence is the deformation of the future into an extended period of wholly deserved and often frightful punishments.

During an Easter worship service last week, two gloriously sung choral Hallelujahs got me to thinking about Christianity’s own — and troubling — slant on gaining an eternal life worth striving for. In the form that the Apostle Paul expressed it, death and a miserable afterlife are the wages not only of sin, but of the refusal to trust that our sins have already been forgiven.

Unfortunately, Paul did not stop there. He went on to say that eternal damnation awaits those who will not believe that one man’s divinely ordained suffering on a cross was a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole of humanity.

By all that is reasonable, the wider view of the world’s religions makes more sense than Paul’s distinctively Christian view does. But by all that is morally sensible, that wider view also lacks a crucial reference to what is absolutely central to Christianity’s. The wider view makes no room for divine grace and mercy.

It is, however, this same moral sensibility that makes the idea of a crucifixion as an atonement both unbelievable and outrageous. God is more than capable of forgiving every person’s sins, even mine, without having to conscript anyone else to pay the price for them.

Both of the Hallelujahs which made Easter come alive for me this year — Beethoven’s and then Handel’s — are nevertheless held captive by, and re-present just this hard to fathom and narrowly Pauline view of Jesus’ redemptive work. In each, however, is also a far nobler idea.

In Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” the idea first comes in the disciples’ rebuke of Peter for raging against Jesus’ foes: Did not our Master say: Forgive and love each other; let good for ill repay. A little further on it is expressed more pointedly: Love those who hate you.  

Eternal blessedness is the outcome of just this kind of love. Hell itself is confounded by it, and ultimately will be transformed by it.

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One thing that makes human societies so fragile is their members’ caring too little about others and too much about themselves. And as a result, their losing respect for both.

It is no wonder, then, that rage over feeling “disrespected” is one of the greatest threats to social order and to spiritual energy systems in every cultural epoch.

What is it that makes anyone worthy of another’s respect in the first place? A much cherished answer to this question is: a certain kind of character. But what kind? Is faith relevant to its development?

For today’s globally-oriented societies, character is measured in two primary ways:

in terms of courage to face down opponents, and

in terms of mental acuity to outwit them when overpowering them is not possible.

What this means is that the larger portion of every human society, powerless and untrained in the uses of cunning, can only remain bereft of opportunities for earning others’ respect.

And that other praiseworthy character traits — e.g. honesty, fairness, moderation, rationality, trustworthiness, integrity, and empathy — will be overwhelmed by the delusion that power and shrewdness are all that anyone needs in order to be thought well of.

In other words, the earth shall not be inherited by the meek.

The deeper truth about character is that it is, at the very least, all of these character-istics and not just some of them. The excesses to which developing only some of them devolves are best avoided by cultivating all of them together.

Another way of putting this truth — both parts of it — is to say that good character is the work of the soul. Bad character is the evidence of a corrupted and even a lost soul.

At the very least, the soul is what differentiates living from non-living beings, and in human beings it is that part of the body which coordinates physical processes — e.g. breathing, metabolism, self-movement, reproduction — with mental ones — e.g. observation, rational thinking, deciding.

But it is so much more besides. More especially, it is the valuing part of our humanness. It is what drives us to seek a perfection within us and others that is truly worthy of praise — ours, theirs, and God’s.

For faith traditions the world over, only two words are needed to define just what that perfection is: compassion and love.

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Eventually if not sooner, every religious believer must find a way to deal with two especially difficult demands: to take more things on faith and do more things on orders than seem credible or necessary.

It would be one thing if the demands were merely for the sake of keeping traditions alive and holding institutions together. It is quite another to be told that fulfilling them is the only way of connecting with Sacred Reality at all.

In my own faith tradition, there is a hymn whose refrain expresses this idea especially succinctly:

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

One of the hymn’s verses anticipates the refrain this way: For the favor he shows and the joy he bestows are for them who will … you get the idea.

There are two issues for faith here that are worth thinking about. The first is about a conviction that religious traditions and institutions cannot seem to get beyond: a relationship with the Sacred, whether it is with Brahman, Yahweh, God, Allah, the World-Soul, or Whatever/Whomever, is something which must be earned, over and over again. There is no other way to a blissful or a restful eternity.

What makes this an issue is that it implies that the Sacred embraces humanity only conditionally, if and only if human beings make themselves worthy of it. Religious leaders and institutions embrace people this way all the time. But the God I know embraces very differently: lovingly, patiently, and with hopes instead of conditions.

Trusting and obeying are not what we have to do in order to experience a transforming relationship with such a Being. They are what we choose to do in grateful response to a relationship already offered and joyfully entered.

The second faith-issue with trust and obey language is the confusion it can generate about the object of both. Religious communities make many demands. And fulfilling the demands that make sense is an essential part of maintaining a sense of unity within the fellowship. The emphasis here, though, is on the words “that make sense.”

The issue arises when a community begins presenting itself as the ultimate definer of divine expectations and actions. The inevitable corollary is that its members’ own spiritual experiences get overwhelmed by pre-conceived notions about how the Spirit should show up in them.

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