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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The religiously correct definition of Yahweh/Elohim/Abba/God/Allah goes something like this: the one supremely perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, unchangeable creator and sustainer of all things. It takes a lot of work to understand this, and even more to believe it.

Which is why for many, believers and unbelievers alike, it is easier to hold onto simpler ideas of the divine from childhood, demand that the true God conform to them, and throw tantrums when he does not. As in, for instance, the perennial outrage over his “making” the innocent to suffer.

(Just why this outrage isn’t as grown-up as many insist — e.g., the “new atheists” — will have to be a subject for another time.)

Close to the simplest of these simpler ideas of the Sacred is the idea of a cosmic caregiver whose primary work in the created order is to satisfy peoples’ needs and wants without their having to do anything themselves about them at all.

This idea contains truly enormous generative power. Here are only some of its offspring:

  • the idea of a god who knows our every action but keeps track only of the good ones;
  • who does not play favorites — except in our case;
  • who assures us that there is a good purpose for everything that happens to us;
  • who proportions answers to prayer to the sincerity of beliefs;
  • who unfailingly dispenses just deserts to the unjust — and unmerited grace to us;
  • who favors one religion over all the others — ours;
  • who reveals himself so clearly that only infidels can fail to understand him;
  • and more besides.

From a grown-up standpoint, these ideas point to a childish, wish-dependent faith and not a maturing, wisdom-centered one. And yet, they have all managed to turn up in the most advanced of the world’s religions, to the great consternation of their more thoughtful and genuinely spiritual members.

Clearly, whether we are believers or unbelievers, inquirers or avoiders, once saved or never saved, we are not always as grown-up in our attitudes toward religion and faith as we may like to think we are.

Among religion’s greatest contributions are ideas of the Sacred that arouse neither the primal fears nor the primal wants of childhood, but grown-up hopes for a better world shared by the creator of its possibilities, who is the world’s everlasting companion in making them real.

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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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Thoughtful interpreters of religious ideas have always understood the fear of God to mean an attitude close to respect and even awe, e.g., “the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7) But many believers — and even more non-believers — see it differently. Before God, human beings should quake in terror and tremble in despair.

Their thinking raises two questions which deserve serious attention: where does an idea like this come from, and why should anyone take it seriously?

A not so serious but widespread answer to both questions is that the idea comes from seductive and smarmy religious leaders. Their strategy has always been to frighten people into believing and doing what they say as the only way of avoiding punishment and winning favor from the God they claim to represent.

Underlying the tactics of both the avoiding and the appeasing is the idea of a deity who is (1) jealous and protective of his own prerogatives, (2) enraged when questioned about the fairness of his laws and the integrity of his actions, (3) naive about the limits of his power, and (4) resentful of anyone who does not feel better about him than he has ever been able to feel about himself. In other words, a very small-g god. Like his small-p prophets.

Surely this idea cannot be accounted for merely by wildly exaggerating the power of false prophets over anxious followers too lazy to think for themselves. After all, one must respond to manipulation to be manipulated, and manipulators can succeed only by bringing to the surface something of what victims already believe about themselves and live in dread of being punished for.

The dread is accentuated when the gods called up by spiritual Tricksters are presented as unpredictable in meting out judgment, for example, by destroying whole communities (e.g., Sodom) for the sins of only a few (homosexuals?) of its members. Or for no offenses discernible at all to justify it, such as Gomorrah.

People enslaved by this idea of God still fail to understand how early it began to change, in Israel’s history, in still-Homeric Greece, and in the high religions of Asia. Then and now, power glorifies the Sacred less than goodness does. God rules, but with fairness rather than caprice, and mercy rather than threats. And faith in such a God gains its strength through love rather than fear.

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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 examined 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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Once, and only once, my father shared with me what he thought faith is. “It’s believing,” he said, “that there is a Supreme Being.”

I never could draw him out further. Perhaps that was for the best. The little that he left me on the subject forced me to think more about it on my own.

The biggest impression that my father’s all too brief statement made on me was that it had to have come from somewhere besides the church. He had given up on organized religion long before he helped bring me into the world.

Dad’s deeply personal profession of faith, almost like a sigh too deep for words, presented two challenges to my search for a credible faith of my own.

One challenge was having to acknowledge respectfully his negativity toward the church at the very time that the church was becoming important in my own spiritual growth.

The second challenge was having to admit that my church-rejecting father was absolutely certain about the one belief I was the most uncertain about, even with my stepped-up church-going. He was wholly unimpressed with my philosophical and scientific “arguments” against the existence of God.

It would take a while before I could become as unimpressed with them as he was. And as church-goers tend to be.

For many of the latter, though, all that needs to be said is that the church has been teaching people what to believe for two thousand years and that people struggling with doubts about God should simply set them aside and come to Jesus. For me, the doubts had to be resolved first.

I still admire the ease with which my father rested his single faith conviction on common sense and intuition, not on religious traditions and intuitions. His was a very personal, but not a religious faith. In his eyes, “religious” faith was believing what others believed, just because they believed it.

I could not agree with my father, however, that personal faith and religious faith are so different that choosing one faith precludes making room for the other. Even so, there is still a lot of him in me. As it was for him, for me the personal deserves priority over the religious.

And so it did for Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. Their faith is still more important than the religions which honor it.

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I used to think that referring to psychiatrists as shrinks reflected disrespect based on ignorance. And now?

Well, consider for a moment the root word, psyche. It means “soul.” It does not mean what modern psychiatry means by it: “mind.”

The soul is our humanness at its most grounded, like roots reaching deep into the earth, making stable growth possible. But it is also our humanness at its most upward-surging, like branches reaching toward the clouds, making discontent inevitable with conventionality, conviviality, and compliance.

If our atoms are the stuff of stars, our souls are the stuff that aspirations are made on.

This is what most modern psychologies miss, as they reduce the psyche to a cache of mental disorders and a syllabus of disapproved behaviors. Across the centuries, philosophers and spiritual leaders have known better.

They have known that the psyche cannot rest content until it finds its rest — and here the symbols spin in many different directions — in the cessation of the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth; or in being embraced by what is Good, Beautiful, and True; or in union with God in a kingdom which has no end; or in a peace which passes understanding, free from inner turmoil and from apprehensiveness about the future; or in a joy beyond all capacity for utterance …

And they have also known that there is no way to such rest except through the dark forest of fear, lust, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame that will submit readily neither to repression, medication,  nor good intentions. We come out of this forest — a kind of madness — either changed creatures or not at all.

But must we make our way through it all on our own? The Buddha did. But Socrates had his daimon, and the Psalmist walked through his own valley of the shadow of death with the assurance of a Divine Presence near.

Perhaps we do or do not seek a companion in the dark forest on the basis of what we already expect to find on the far side, e.g., nothingness; or the communion of saints; or a making ready for yet another life journey; or …

One thing has become very clear to me about soul-shepherding. It is that for it to work, the shepherd must become more like a shaman than a shrink.

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Recently, the eminent astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, revealed as if for the first time that believing in God serves no useful purpose. His reason for saying so was that appealing to science is a better way of explaining things than appealing to God is.

As a religious believer, I know I am supposed to quake at pronouncements like this from people who know a lot more facts than I do about the universe. And then defend the faith with every theological resource I can either find or make up. If faith can’t illumine the how and the why of things, Hawking teases, why bother with it at all?

Here are two reasons why.

First, faith is a matter of trusting in spite of explanations more than it is a believing on the basis of them.

It is true that every religion has its tales to tell about the origins and operations of things, and that the best of them offer captivating images of how an unseen ordering is at the heart of the whole process. As explanations, however, most of them require a sacrifice of the intellect that thoughtful people cannot make.

What myths do best is not to tell us the meaning of things, but rather to express our yearning for it. They are not about what is and why, but rather what is worthy of our highest hopes and striving. They do not picture what is out there so much as they express what is deepest within us, affixed to our wishes, moral sense, and sighs too deep for words.

And second, science is a matter of describing how things happen within the universe more than it is an explaining of the universe itself.

It is true that talking about what might be going on out there — literally, “cosmology” — is exciting. When the talk turns to explanations, however — to “cosmogony” — things become murkier. The explanations are as many, varied, and insusceptible to proof as myths are.

What cosmology does best is not to tell us where it all came from, but to express our yearning for grounding in it. It is not about what happened back then, but about what and whom we should trust to make things happen next. They do not picture origins so much as destinies, ours more than the cosmos’, and God’s more than both.

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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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What makes it hard for serious religious dialogue to get anywhere is that people who engage in it often take two things for granted that they shouldn’t. The first is that the only way to understand core religious beliefs is as assertions of fact about a higher order of being than ours. The second is that theirs is the only religion whose core beliefs are true.

With regard to the first, core religious beliefs do look very much like claims to truth about ultimate reality. Among other things, they purport to describe important intersections between this world and a greater one, e.g., the creation of the universe in six days; the bliss of Enlightenment; Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem; the final battle between the forces of darkness and light, etc.

The problem is that no one religion makes even this limited list of core beliefs its own. Each agrees with some and denies the truth of others on it, without giving earnest seekers a clear empirical path toward determining the truth of any of them.

And because it does this, each religion inevitably draws its followers into irresolvable wrangles with other religions’ followers about whose beliefs express final truths and whose do not. There is no way out of this morass as long as a religion equates a transforming personal faith with asserting the “right” things about ultimate reality.

There is a way out, however. It begins with the realization that every religion systematically overlooks an important fact not only about its own beliefs, but about every other religion’s beliefs as well.

The fact is this: while thoughtful followers may assent outwardly to their religion’s core beliefs, they are always interpreting and re-interpreting inwardly just what those beliefs will and will not mean for them personally. In other words, they don’t take the “official” versions of a religion’s core beliefs at face value.

One reason they do not is that they know just how fluid and changeable the understanding of core religious beliefs can be. Even the understanding of those beliefs as final declarations about reality.

Understood this way, core religious beliefs merely get in the way of diligent seeking, together, for truth. What doesn’t get in the way is understanding them as expressions of longing, hope, and a commitment to love one another, no matter what.

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