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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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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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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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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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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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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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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At their most mature, faith communities share their deepest convictions about the Sacred, the world, and human destiny with humility and a sense of gratitude. At their worst, they impose their convictions with arrogance and a sense of superiority.

To date, I have met more of the latter than I have the former. And the experience invariably makes me wonder whether faith-seekers would be better off working out their core beliefs on their own.

The game of our-truths-are-better-than-your-truths is one that thoughtful people eventually quit playing, even though religious institutions don’t. The resulting chasm between lonely inquirers and arm-in-arm believers threatens to swallow up the idea of truth itself.

On one side of the chasm are despairing seekers for whom only “my” truth has come to count as truth. On the other side are ideology promoters for whom only unquestionable dogma does.

Is there a way around this chasm? A starting point might be a reminder that truth at the expense of community can save us only partially, and community at the expense of truth may not save us at all.

One time during my seminary teaching years, I brought to chapel with me a guest lecturer who has just finished working over a traditional confession of faith in my theology class. On our way out of the classroom, one of my students said to him, it’s really hard to deal with everything being so up for grabs.

As it happened that morning, the worship service’s Confession of Faith was the very one my friend had just demolished. And yet, there he was, belting it out with greater gusto than anyone around us. Several students and I confronted him about it afterward at coffee hour.

His reply to us went this way: Ever since I became a citizen, one of my greatest joys has been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. For me, affirming a creed is something like that: a thoughtful but not blind declaration of loyalty.

Standing up for a religious belief is not always about putting forward an objective truth. Sometimes, it can be about letting members of a group know that we’re in the struggle for authentic faith together.

Standing up for what one believes can take real courage. Berating others for no longer standing with us may not be. Unless beliefs themselves are expressions of loyalty as well as of truth.

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The most frequent complaint that I hear from people who have left their churches is about the hypocrisy they found in them. A less frequent complaint is that the church’s moral teaching is handed down in the form of unchangeable rules that admit of no questioning.

This latter complaint contains a lot worth thinking about. In order to have legitimate force, parochial moral rules must be examinable in the light of ethical principles of universal scope.

One time-honored ethical principle is that the ultimate end of all moral behavior is happiness, and that the best way to reach that end is by way of becoming virtuous.

Everybody understands the first part of this proposition. It’s the second part that modern society is confused about. Wealth, power, fame, and pleasure don’t add up to happiness. Becoming a certain kind of person does.

Not enough people seem to believe this anymore, however, and that is the primary reason why so many people are so unhappy. At least, this is how most of the genuinely happy among them see things.

From Plato and Aristotle all the way through Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas, human life at its best has been consistently characterized as a state of completeness (or, “perfection”) and as a process of achieving it (as in “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Mt. 5:48]). The process hinges on developing certain dispositions or habits, which to the ancients meant virtues or excellences of character.

Four virtues in particular came to be viewed as indispensable to the attainment of happiness: moderating our cravings (temperance); staying on task in the face of fear (courage); taking delight in the contemplation of truth (wisdom); and treating people fairly (justice). These four became the cardinal (from the word for “hinge”) virtues upon which all other virtues — such as honesty, fidelity, service, and leadership — turn.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why defining morality in terms of unquestioning obedience to a set of imposed rules has become so problematic for so many people. Obedience of this sort may make us compliant, but it will make us neither good nor happy.

Pursuing happiness in the right way is not a matter of pleasing those who make the rules. It is a matter of honoring an ever-deepening fear of losing the best of ourselves if we stop.

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Most modern societies believe that the delivery of better living through science offsets the over-promising of scientific researchers themselves. So why do so many religious communities seem so indifferent and even hostile toward the science itself?

I think the answer lies in an inadequately unexamined religious attitude. One way of describing it is in terms of an anxious respectfulness toward whatever is believed to be a sacred reality. The emphasis here falls on the word, “anxious.”

The carefulness includes maintaining a self-protective distance from the Sacred (as in sitting toward the back in a half empty sanctuary), as a dutifulness bordering on compulsiveness, and as a refusal to question anything about what is regarded as the divinely ordained order of things.

With a religious outlook like this, modern science can only be viewed as edging closer to blasphemy with every hypothesis it puts forward for investigation, even when an investigation fails to confirm it. As one sweat-soaked preacher I heard as a youth put it: “friends, science is the work of the devil.”

Alongside this ancient religious attitude, however, is a very different one. This one is at the same time older, more modern, and wiser. It is an attitude of joyful participation with the Spirit of Life in bringing and sustaining human order out of chaos. It includes a sense that the human environing world is not a fixed order, but rather one that changes constantly, partly because of how we interact with it.

A test case for the comparing of these two attitudes is the ever-present challenge that diseases and infirmities present to human well-being. One way that this challenge was addressed within the framework of the first attitude was to re-iterate that all suffering is divine punishment for sin, those of the afflicted person and those of his/her blood kin.

The way this challenge is met by the second attitude is to seek to overcome suffering with the help of every human and divine power available, in a joint venture of making the human body a healthier habitat for all the generations to come.

Once upon a time, Jesus healed a man born blind by spitting on the ground, making a paste with the spittle, and slathering it on the man’s eyes. Today, gene therapists are injecting genes directly into the eyes in hopes of achieving the same result. Now that’s attitude for you.

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