You’ve heard it countless times: “if we make an exception for you, we will have to make it for everyone.” Maybe you’ve even said it to someone yourself.

The thinking behind this statement seems to be that making an exception to a rule somehow annuls the rule’s validity. Or that it will lead to a long, slippery, unstoppable slide into a do-whatever-you-want-to-do amorality, with exoneration for everyone and culpability for no one.

I like to think of it more as saving a place for grace and forgiveness in the midst of  holding people and societies accountable for their actions. That’s what transforms moral contexts into spiritual ones.

A little leeway every now and then, with respect both to moral and religious rules, surely can’t be a bad thing. Rules have a habit of surviving the situations which give rise to them, and may no longer be relevant to changing circumstances.

Punishing people for using marijuana for pain relief, by way of example, represents the worst side of an overly legalistic and moralistic mind-set. As does kicking people out of religious communities for not accepting uncritically everything those communities teach.

It is true that there are slippery slopes to navigate in moral and religious decision-making. One of them towers between holding people accountable and respecting some peoples’ incapacity to understand the consequences of their actions.

Most slippery slope arguments, however, ignore the fact that the slipperiest of all of them is the argument that the only way to avoid moral and religious lapses is to give no quarter to rule-violators, and never to entertain the possibility that any rule might ever need to be changed.

What’s slippery about this argument? Primarily this: it leads straightaway to a pitiless, merciless, inhumaneness to human beings who, when out of synch with others’ expectations, need compassion as much as they need correction, and understanding as much as a good talking-to.

Forgiveness is not permission, and it is not exoneration. It is mercy tendered in the face of culpability and destructive self-blame. It proceeds from a love that is respectful of the rules, even as it reveres the persons whose struggles to obey and/or to change them are sometimes agonizingly unsuccessful.

Jesus seemed to be into this way of thinking when he tossed out the idea that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

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People who disagree on matters of religious belief and action are finding it harder and harder not to get angrier and angrier with each other.

Is this just a sign of the times? Disagreements are turning into verbal warfare and worse on almost every subject these days. Can we reasonably expect things to be different when the subject is religion?

Maybe not. Even so, the idea of religion as a battlefield collides mightily with the hope that faith can be an instrument for peace.

I see no way of winning the peace in religious conflicts except by relinquishing battlefield imagery altogether. But then what?

For spiritual leaders across the ages and traditions, the path to the truths that really matter has always been the path of inward turning. This is not an easy path. Looking within ourselves leads inevitably to a painful discovery: the anger which contaminates serious spiritual inquiry is rooted in our own unacknowledged fears.

One fear is that our most ardently held beliefs might be wrong. Another is that our opponent already knows this about us.

Anger aroused by disagreements is at its height not when the other’s point of view seems the most flawed, but rather when it seems the most credible. That is when we begin distorting their point of view in as inflammatory a way as possible, and then pour character-assassination on the flames.

Modern psychology refers to this kind of behavior in terms of defense mechanisms and projection. Jesus spoke of it in a folksier way, contrasting the fixation on specks in others’ eyes with the ignoring of logs in our own. (Matthew 7:3)

Is there a way to break through the defensiveness and the fixation? Actually, there are at least two ways.

One is to get deeply enough into others’ religious traditions to experience in them the universality of the spiritual questions they seek to answer. Even as the answers keep us apart, the questions can bring us together.

The other is to declare a moratorium on blaming others for holding “wrong” opinions, and to face honestly our penchant for ignoring the truth the opinions may contain. Believers from very diverse theological orientations, and inquirers who may be skeptical of all of them, deserve to know that learning from one another is a sure way to experience the inner peace for which we most deeply yearn.

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In most religions, stories abound of gods and goddesses doing things that thoughtful believers and inquirers find morally repugnant and ethically indefensible.

What kinds of things? Well, for one, demanding peoples’ loyalty while remaining indifferent to their suffering. Or inflicting punishments all out of proportion to offenses. Or regarding human beings’ bodies, possessions, relationships, and hopes theirs for the taking.

It gets worse. In many religious scriptures, behaviors like these are expressly condemned by the very laws handed down by the deities who so flagrantly disregard them.

Even this isn’t the end of the matter. Along with images of divine profligacy, religious traditions proffer theological rationalizations even more problematic than the stories which contain them.

The most offensive of these rationalizations is the teaching that divine beings’ holiness puts them above the obligations that their rules impose on everyone else. Otherwise expressed: human beings answer to God, but God answers to no one and to no rule, not even a rule of His own making.

What is wrong with this teaching is that it confuses divine holiness with divine power. It is the religious version of the ancient moral dictum reiterated by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that “Might makes right.”

For many people, the idea of God is all about power, and only a God who has and/or controls all of it is worth glorifying. Instead of heightening a sense of God’s gloriousness, however, this idea weakens it.

It weakens it even to the point of bringing suffering people to stop believing in God altogether. How? By forcing them to conclude that though the God they thought they knew has the power to eliminate their suffering, God clearly refuses to use it in their case. Better no God than a God like this.

But power is not the defining character of divinity. Goodness is. A goodness sufficient to warrant trust that the “counsels” of truly divine beings are truly righteous. A goodness so central to the very essence of God as to bind God to the same rules which bind others.

The idea of divine holiness is not rooted in some vague sense of an incomprehensible Otherness beyond all ethical principles and human visions of a truly moral order. It expresses, rather, very concrete experiences of the possibility of being perfected by a Goodness which may be even greater than Being itself.

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Having relegated us to cosmic insignificance, astrophysicists now force us to deal with a question that cannot be comfortable even to them.

The question is: Could it be that humans on this planet are the only beings in the universe who are conscious of it at all?

Believing that there is a God who is mindful of the universe, and of our mindfulness of it, can offer solace in the midst of struggling with a question like this. But not enough to overcome fully the dreadful awareness that the “it” may be just that — a mindless matrix of matter infinitely extended in space and time to which nothing can ever matter, even itself.

Is it any wonder, then, that we crave assurance that we are not alone in the universe? And that with our own solar system incapable of satisfying our craving, we go to such great lengths to find even the minutest hints of human-like life beyond it?

It has been exciting to follow NASA’s Kepler Mission and its recent discovery of Kepler 452b. This is a planet beyond our solar system — 1400 light-years beyond, to be more exact — that appears to bear a greater similarity to earth than does any other exoplanet currently under investigation. “Similarity” here refers, most importantly, to the possibility of the planet’s supporting life.

There is of course much, much more to unearth about Kepler 452b, if I may extend the referent of this word for the moment, before we dare even to begin entertaining hypotheses — including strategies for calculating probabilities — about what and perhaps who we may find there. But for now, the planet is offering hope, and we owe it one for doing so.

A wonderful thing about hope is that it holds up so well in the midst of turbulent uncertainty. One hope aroused by Kepler 452b, and discoveries like it, is the hope of making contact with higher beings who can teach us how to act more intelligently than we have managed to act thus far in our history as homo sapiens. Sapientia doesn’t mean being a sap.

My hope is a little different. It is for a renewed sense that in every galaxy life forms are stirring, consciousness is emerging, and that the whole universe is becoming aware of itself as and in the mind of God.

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A substantial majority of people in our society say that they believe in God. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the God they believe in is directly involved in human affairs or remote from them altogether. Either way, the object of belief still seems to be the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the theistic religions.

But believing that such a being exists is one thing. Trusting with one’s whole heart in such a being is another. To be sure, faith does involve believing something. But it is much more besides. “Trust” says it better than “belief” does.

Many people find it easier to put their trust in a God who is near at hand and in control than in a God who is far off and indifferent. But not everyone does. Recently, a friend of mine put it this way: as mucked up as our world is, I’m more comfortable believing in a God who has nothing to do with it than a God who’s supposed to be in charge of it.

It may be counter-intuitive to think that a God could truly be God who isn’t in control of everything. After all, more than a few believers ask, if he isn’t, what do we need him for?

For others, however, the more cogent question is: if God is in control of everything, what does he need us for? The answer to this question that makes the most sense to me is: for running the show here as best we can while God is off starting up new worlds for others to run, also in his absence.

But this kind of sense doesn’t lead to faith; it leads away from it.

Tradition to the contrary notwithstanding, “being in control of everything” isn’t much by way of describing a God worth glorifying. “Sharing power, out of love” just might be. As might be the idea of a God whose power is sufficient to sustain a world in which everything is bound and knitted together in love.

The corollary of this latter idea, though, is that not even God can keep things together where there is no love. Or: where the only love that exists is God’s, the things formed by it cannot last.

Surrendering control, in the name of love: perhaps this is what being God is really all about.

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Modern culture poses many challenges to people seeking a credible spirituality. Of them, two are proving especially difficult to overcome.

The first is that, as currently practiced, religion too often hinders rather than helps individual maturation, social well-being, and the transcending of tribal mentality. For example, when one religion teaches that other religions are worthy only of condemnation.

The second challenge is that faith too often substitutes clinging to childish fantasies for finding out what is truly worthy of human beings’ ultimate devotion. As in, by soothing oneself with the idea of a life to come surrounded only by people already known and loved.

Might it be, after all, that faith does little more than keep unrealistic hopes alive, despite ever-increasing evidence that they have no evidence to support them? Or that its practice depends upon a willful confusing of wishful images with reality-based perceptions?

It is true that our first images, ideas, and beliefs about sacred things are shaped almost entirely by what we want and need from those who offer them to us, and that the trust we place in them is inseparable from the trust we place in their mediators. And it is true that, throughout their lives, many people choose simply to take authorities’ words for it on matters of faith, because thinking for themselves arouses too much anxiety.

But the real hindrances to genuine spirituality are not institutional religion and idiosyncratic faith per se, but rather the traditions and practices which bind people to childish and unexamined forms of faith. Just as human beings are meant to mature, faith is meant to mature.

How? Well, for starters:

(1) Through prayerful inquiry which is bold enough to ask even about the meaning of prayer itself.

(2) Through allowing reason to do its proper work of bringing out the differences between wanting something to be true and wanting something to be genuinely worth wanting.

And (3) through remaining open to revelatory experiences which complement the dictates of conscience and the demands of logic.

The real challenge to faith is to align images of the heavenly things we most wish for with ideas of a Sacred Reality most worthy of being glorified. It is to reconcile our most cherished religious beliefs with the most profound thinking about the Ultimate which earnest seekers have found in the world’s major religions across centuries and millennia.

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Not without thinking hard about what a God should be like, if there is one. Not without giving up being angry that there isn’t. And not without giving up hope that there still might be.

Not everyone meets the first of these conditions. And those who don’t, don’t really have a right to an opinion on the matter. This does not mean, of course, that they will refrain from offering any on the subject.

But for those who do meet this condition, it may be harder than they expected to let go of both yearning for and believing in God.

It is certainly harder to stop being angry about having to do either. Consider, by way of illustration, just a few of many I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it-anymore statements from my classes, counseling sessions, coffee-hour conversations, and from books by admired and respected authors:

  • I stopped praying a long time ago after it finally dawned on me that I never got any sign that anyone was listening;
  • It just didn’t make sense to me anymore that I had to get God to love me by always believing and doing only the right things;
  • The God I wanted so much to believe in was never there for me when I needed him;
  • This God you talk about must have grander things to take care of than paying any attention to someone like me;
  • Here’s the long and the short of it: God is simply someone I’m going to have to learn to do without, whether I want to or not.

Each of these statements has a poignant story behind it — of struggle, conflict, crisis, rejection, dejection — but most especially of incompleteness. Even though their tellers sometimes bridle at the suggestion, their stories lack authentic endings.

Or at least, the kind of endings which elicit a sense of satisfaction and closure. Instead, both the statements and the stories always make me want to hear more. I want to know if they truly reflect the passing away of fear, anger, and sadness about giving up on God.

What I most usually find is that they don’t. Why? Perhaps because, as St. Augustine once wrote, the human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.

It’s almost as hard for us to give up on God as it is too hard for God to give up on us.

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Too often, “being religious” amounts to little more than being loyal to a particular religion’s institutions and traditions. And even worse, to those alone — other religions don’t count. Nor do those who subscribe to them.

There is an important fact left unaccounted for in an outlook like this. Human beings sought the Ultimate long before there were religions to tell them that there is an Ultimate worth seeking.

Once, it was possible to express this point by saying that human beings are by nature religious. Or more importantly, by saying that we cannot be fully human without honoring the religious yearnings that dwell in the deepest places of our souls.

For these convictions to be fully appreciated today, however, they will have to be given expression by means of some other word than “religion.”

It is not as if the word itself somehow belies our true nature. The problem is that it has become contaminated by the very institutions which define themselves by means of it.

The contamination begins with these institutions’ condemning people who find little in them by way of inspiration and nurture. With one voice, their leaders confidently proclaim, the problem is not with their particular institution. It is with the unfaithful who will not make themselves subservient to it.

We can be fully human without being religious, in these leaders’ sense of the word. But we cannot be fully human and deny something else in our nature, something more important than the need to identify with a particular religious organization or cult.

What that something is might be expressed this way: the need to seek connection with realities that are truly worthy of our highest devotion. In a word, it is a need to live by faith rather than by religion.

For increasing numbers of people, religion must offer more than the approval of peers who believe and do what they are told, ask no questions, and condemn all doubt. It must nurture faith: the capacity and the freedom to respond to what is of all-surpassing meaning, power, and value with gratitude and joy, on the basis of deliberation and choice, and not impulse or coercion.

Maybe someday the institutions and traditions of religion will get it right again and help us in just this way. For now, though, seeking faith will have to be enough. And it is.

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In politics, rational discussion may be an idea past its prime. Reasoning together about social issues has become more pretense than inquiry, and its end winning rather than discovering.

But what about in religion? After all, this invitation comes from the Bible (Isaiah 1:18), and the prophet who issued it did so not on behalf of himself, but of God.

There are other ways of translating his key word than by “reason.” “Talk things over,” for one. The prophet himself seems to have meant something like “argue it out.”

By whatever rendering, though, the invitation has a promising sound to it. It suggests that in matters of faith, disputes can and should be approached with an openness to others’ opinions and a hope for peaceable resolution. The idea is to resist the impulse to judge and condemn, and to respect disagreements about divine precepts as normal features of religious life.

Unhappily, however, this not what either Isaiah or his God seems to have had in mind. “Come now…” is not an invitation. It is a summons. And its aim is not to initiate a conversation. It is to convey a demand to accept the divine judgment that has already been passed on us.

There is no hint in this verse that God was envisioning anything like a real give and take. Or that he might have been genuinely open to considering that at least some of his peoples’ actions were not what they appeared to be. Or that it could have been helpful to listen to what they had to say before passing judgment on them.

One of the biggest problems with religion is that it all too often posits a God who is beyond being reasoned with on human terms. We can reason with each other, but with God we are to succumb numbly to his defining our reality on his own terms exclusively.

That doesn’t make for much of an invitation to genuine dialogue. If God has already judged us to be in the wrong, what is there to talk about at all?

But what if God’s mind were not as closed as Isaiah thought it was? What if God genuinely expects to learn more about us by listening to us? Particularly when we question whether his threats are the best way to make us better people.

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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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