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On Literalism, and Being Religious in the Age of Dawkins

[Slightly tweaked and re-posted. Because it was on my mind to write this, and then I realized I had already …]

I have always been religious, and I have never been a literalist. Since I can remember, I’ve always known that truth is not always about historic facts, miracles not about physical laws, and religion not about absolute beliefs. At the heart of the religious and spiritual quest are questions, not answers. The point of a religious or spiritual practice is to give time and thought to the questions.

It was quite a shock to my system when I went to university and realized that not everyone felt that way. On the one hand, I met religious literalists who believed, for example, that the Bible was literally true and that anyone who did not believe in Christianity was condemned. On the other hand, I met those who believed all religious or spiritual belief was ignorant, ill-informed, and a major source of the world’s problems.

That was 20-odd years ago, and the divide seemed to have only widened since. The religious conservatives get louder and more strident, the atheists and intellectuals more dismissive and condescending. The middle is a decidedly uncomfortable place to sit because both sides seem to be staring, eyebrows raised, wondering how you could possibly believe as you do and why won’t you get off the fence already.

As a reasonably well-educated person, I find it fairly easy to deal with the criticism from the ‘right’. After all, I know for sure that the Bible was written by flawed humans over centuries and in many different contexts. I know it’s been translated time and again, rendering much of its original intention obscure to the average reader anyway. I know that religion is a human construct often misused to control and abuse. I know the Earth is billions, not thousands of years old. I know atheists aren’t going to Hell and lucky accidents of birth and baptism do not determine our eternal fate.

The other side, however, is a little trickier to deal with. The Dawkins of the world, first of all, are way, WAY smarter than me. They understand the inner workings of the physical universe in a way I can only begin to appreciate. Furthermore, much of what they say is true and unassailable (e.g. the points above). And they are absolutely correct to say that there is no ultimate proof for religious or spiritual conviction. I can’t argue with that; I’ve ceased to try. In fact, for a long while I tried to accept that I had lost the fight and let the whole religious/spiritual nonsense go.

But here’s the thing – I think that some of us are just wired for religious or spiritual belief. Religion is a part of human culture and an expression of human consciousness, in much the same way that art, or music, or poetry, is. And, like art or music or poetry, there are some of us who are just compelled to express ourselves using that medium. Not all of us, but some. And I’m one of them. I can’t shake it off even when I try. And for me it’s not a matter of wishful thinking, because I am often so utterly unconvinced on a rational and intellectual level, that its frankly not getting me anywhere in that capacity anyway.

In the same way that Lord Byron  might say his love “walks in beauty like the night” (an utterly meaningless statement if we really analyze it – it’s nonsensical), I feel like the world emanates from the Divine. Yes, I understand that this may actually be just the human capacity for awe at work, no supernatural explanation needed (indeed, my personal religion is not dependent on the supernatural at all), in much the same way I understand that Lord Byron probably felt as he did about his love due to some combination of cultural influence and hormones. Both would be more accurate descriptions, and both would profoundly miss the point.

So, from my perspective, religious fundamentalists and atheistic rationalists both make the same error – they try to apply a literalistic approach to something that is not about literalism at all. Rather, it’s about a flawed, linguistically-limited, utterly human mode of expression that is as imperfect, yet potentially valuable, as its oh-so-human source.

That’s what I think anyway – that’s what it is to me. I hold out hope the discourse around this stuff will become a little less strident and a little less dismissive. That’s my prayer. And you can interpret that word however you like.

SpiritSites – mikemchargue.com

My day wouldn’t be complete without at least one trip down the rabbithole of the online world of spirit. There are so many seekers out there with a diversity of belief that is not well-represented by the current narrative of skeptical intellectual vs. ignorant literalist. As I’ve written before, it’s not easy to live in the middle ground of faith and doubt, but when I look, I realize I’m definitely not alone there.

I found this post, by a blogger named Mike McHargue, to be particularly helpful. In it, he describes his “axioms of faith”, which basically means the absolute minimum he knows to be objectively true about various aspects of his faith. For a “spiritual skeptic” such as himself (and others like him – me, for example), these axioms provide a stable, rational ground from which to explore their personal experiences of faith and spirituality. For example, he shares:

Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.

In other words, if this is all that faith is, it still represents a potentially valuable and enriching avenue for exploring my human experience. For me, this is steady ground, a way for me to continue my faith explorations without constantly fearing I’m living in the realm of wish-fulfillment and self-delusion. This may be a starting point or as far as it goes – it doesn’t matter. It’s a worthy place, and that I find very reassuring.

I’m not familiar with a lot of Mike McHargue’s work, but I’m looking forward to exploring it. I believe he was inspired by Rob Bell, another Christian writer who is exploring the space between modern knowledge and faith.

What spiritual websites do you love to visit?

 

Perennial Favorites – Thich Nhat Hahn’s Going Home – Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

Thich.jpgIt’s a funny thing that one of the key figures who has enabled me to stay Christian is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, but there it is. Truth transcends theology, and wisdom doesn’t recognize the boundaries of denomination. To my mind, Thich Nhat Hahn’s simple,  penetrating words resound with both.

In this book, actually a series of talks given in 1995, the monk who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by one of the greatest Christians in modern history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., explores some of the key concepts of Christianity and how they relate to concepts in Buddhism. Without reducing everything to ‘the same old, same old’, he expands the possibilities for different symbols and concepts, by exploring the connections and parallels between Christian and Buddhist thought.

The Big Idea

While I don’t know that there is a central thesis to this book per se, to me the big idea is this -to whatever degree Christianity is pointing to ultimate reality, and to whatever degree Buddhism is pointing to ultimate reality, they are pointing to one ultimate reality. Assuming we accept that our grasp of the ultimate is imperfect and incomplete (the only rational position for a human brain to take, in my opinion), why not enrich your perspective by borrowing the lens of another faith or philosophy, to see what fresh insights you might find, and what aspect of the ultimate they might be grasping better that you are?

One example of a concept he explores is the concept of God itself. Christianity popularly (but by no means exclusively) offers anthropomorphic images for God (“Our Father”), leading to debate and confusion about the nature of God. Is God real or not? “Whether God is a person or not a person, that is the question for many people”. (pg 12, paperback version). Indeed, for those of us caught between our religious faith on the one hand, and our rational understanding of the world on the other, it’s less a question than a torment.

In response, Thich Nhat Hahn offers this thought:

When we ask, “Is God a person or is God not a person,” we get lost. In fact, God is not a person, and God is not a non-person. There is a German theologian who expresses this very beautifully: “God is not a person, but not less than a person.” It is a very Zen-like statement. Why do we have to imprison God in one of these two notions: person and non-person? Do you really need to define God like that? (pg. 12, paperback version).

With these simple words, Thich breaks open the question of God in a way that is fresh and expansive (and in a way  I personally had not considered until I read this book). I love that he does so with help from a theologian, suggesting that he is as open to having his understanding enriched by Christian thought as he is keen to offer Buddhist enrichment to Christians.

 

What I Like About It

As I’ve talked about in a previous post, it is not mentally easy to be a person of religious inclination in the rational/secular age. The camps of religious-literalist and rational-literalist are loud and well-established, and neither likes to concede any reasonable middle ground, leaving the non-literal religious among us with little place to stand. In this book, literalism is not the question at all -what a relief! Concepts are explored through metaphor – not apologetically, but as an assumed matter of necessity – since the Ultimate by definition must be beyond words and concepts anyway. Rather than taking sides in a dualistic battle, dualism itself is challenged (as we saw in the ‘God in not a person and non less than a person’ example above).

The other thing I love about this book (and all Thich’s books, for this is not my only perennial favorite written by him) is his treatment of mindfulness. Because, although the concepts explored are rich and complex and deep, the practical action we are encouraged to take is simple (if not easy) – breathe. Be mindful. Touch each moment of this beautiful life as deeply as you possibly can. That is how we connect with God. This is how we connect with one another. That is how we can actually live our lives to the greatest effect. He seems to say that the highest philosophy is not nearly as important as the ability to drink a cup of tea, and really be drinking the tea. Whatever God is, that is where we touch him.

 

On Literalism, and Being Religious in the Age of Dawkins

I have always been religious, and I have never been a literalist. Since I can remember, I’ve always known that truth is not always about historic facts, miracles not about physical laws, and religion not about absolute beliefs. At the heart of the religious and spiritual quest are questions, not answers. The point of a religious or spiritual practice is to give time and thought to the questions.

It was quite a shock to my system when I went to university and realized that not everyone felt that way. On the one hand, I met religious literalists who believed, for example, that the Bible was literally true and that anyone who did not believe in Christianity was condemned. On the other hand, I met those who believed all religious or spiritual belief was ignorant, ill-informed, and a major source of the world’s problems.

That was 20-odd years ago, and the divide seemed to have only widened since. The religious conservatives get louder and more strident, the atheists and intellectuals more dismissive and condescending. The middle is a decidedly uncomfortable place to sit because both sides seem to be staring, eyebrows raised, wondering how you could possibly believe as you do and why won’t you get off the fence already.

As a reasonably well-educated person, I find it fairly easy to deal with the criticism on the ‘right’. After all, I know for sure that the Bible was written by flawed humans over centuries and in many different contexts. I know it’s been translated time and again, rendering much of its original intention obscure to the average reader anway. I know that religion is a human construct often misused to control and abuse. I know the Earth is billions, not thousands of years old. I know atheists aren’t going to Hell and lucky accidents of birth and baptism do not determine our eternal fate.

The other side, however, is a little trickier to deal with. The Dawkins of the world, first of all, are way, WAY smarter than me. They understand the inner workings of the physical universe in a way I can only begin to appreciate. Furthermore, much of what they say is true and unassailable (e.g. the points above). And they are absolutely correct to say that there is no ultimate proof for religious or spiritual conviction. I can’t argue with that; I’ve ceased to try. In fact, for a long while I tried to accept that I had lost the fight and let the whole religious/spiritual nonsense go.

But here’s the thing – I think that some of us are just wired for religious or spiritual belief. Religion is a part of human culture and an expression of human consciousness, in much the same way that art, or music, or poetry, is. And, like art or music or poetry, there are some of us who are just compelled to express ourselves using that medium. Not all of us, but some. And I’m one of them. I can’t shake it off even when I try. And for me it’s not a matter of wishful thinking, because I am so utterly unconvinced on any rational and intellectual level, that its frankly not getting me anywhere in that capacity anyway.

In the same way that Lord Byron  might say his love “walks in beauty like the night” (an utterly meaningless statement if we really analyze it – it’s nonsensical), I feel like the world emanates from the Divine and the Divine is immanent in the world. Yes, I understand that this is actually a natural human capacity for awe in combination with my upbringing in the Catholic church at work in my brain, no supernatural explanation needed (indeed, I don’t believe in the supernatural at all).  In the same way, I understand that Lord Byron probably felt as he did due to some combination of culture and hormones. Both are far more accurate explanations for the experiences – but both profoundly miss the point.

So, from my perspective, religious fundamentalists and atheistic rationalists make the same error – they apply a literalistic approach to something that is not about literalism at all. Rather, the religious or spiritual experience is about a flawed, linguistically-limited, utterly human mode of expression that is as imperfect, yet potentially meaningful, as its oh-so-human source.

That’s what I think anyway – that’s what it’s all about to me. That was a bit of a ramble! I hold out hope the discourse around this stuff will become a little less strident and a little less dismissive. That’s my prayer. And you can interpret that word however you like.

 

Perennial Favorites – Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love

A Return to Love
My well-worn, well-loved copy of “A Return to Love”, beside my morning coffee!

I love exploring new thoughts and ideas, but there are a few books which pull me back time and time again, and which inspire new and deeper thoughts and ideas every time I read them. My favorite and most well-read (and well-worn!) of these books is Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.  I discovered this book on my mom’s bookshelf in the early 1990s, when I was in high school, and have read it many, many times since then.

Marianne Williamson is a spiritual author and teacher who was propelled to fame by Oprah Winfrey. Her teachings are based on her practice of The Course in Miracles, which is described on the back cover of Williamson’s book as “a self study program of spiritual psychotherapy”. I have tried to study the Course; however, I find the language to be a little abstruse for my personal taste and understanding (to the point where I spend too much time trying to reinterpret what is being said, and not enough time absorbing it). However, you don’t have to have studied the Course to understand A Return to Love‘s message and be inspired by it.

The Big Idea

The big idea in Williamson’s book is that there are two states of being – that of love, and that of fear. That which is not love is fear – whether it is manifesting as anger, anxiety, sadness, or any other state. Fear is described as a sort of darkness – less a thing in and of itself as an absence of something – as darkness is an absence of light, so fear is an absence of love. Love, then (Marianne uses the term “God” interchangeably; however, if that term does not work for your personal path, you could certainly stick with “Love”) becomes both life’s goal and it’s compass – the path we must take, and the destination, all in one.

What I Like About It

Although she breaks it down further into relationships, the body, work and more, the overarching message of “surrendering to God” (giving up thoughts of fear and intending thoughts of love) is both profound and practical – profound in that it is amazing to ponder the possibilities of a world where love truly reigned supreme; practical in that the principle can be applied to so many of the mundane areas of our lives. What we choose to eat, how we choose to behave, who we choose to associate with, how we choose to invest our time – these can all be guided by the principle of Love.

She also avoids the oversimplification and self-focus that can sometimes be found in ‘new age’ or ‘new thought’ writing because she believes in the interconnectedness of all people. For example, she talks about how loveless thinking can impact our health; however, she does not then conclude that a person experiencing illness was unloving in some way. Here is an example:

Let’s say an innocent child dies of environmentally-based cancer. How was lovelessness the problem here? The loveless thinking was not necessarily in the child, but in the many of us who, over the years, lived without reverence for the environment …. Our loving thoughts affect people and situations we never even dream of, and so do our mistakes. (pg. 225, A Return to Love [paperback version]

In affirming this interconnection, we are empowered but also given responsibility for the well-being of humanity, each making our own contribution to the balance of Love in the world.

The book is not perfect – no book is. All spiritual writing is going to present one slant, one sliver, one version of the Truth (whatever that is – if someone claims to have it – RUN). This one, though, I have found infinitely inspiring and helpful for close to 25 years now. I don’t doubt it will keep a central place on my shelf for 25 more.

Have you read A Return to Love? What did you think? What are your spiritual perennial favorites?

 

 

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

For as long as I can remember, reading has been my spiritual practice. My earliest memories of spiritual reading are in the pews of the catholic church I was raised in, flipping through kids Bible story books and the weekly missal. As I grew, my spiritual reading repertoire expanded to include new age reads (Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life was one of the first), textbooks about Buddhism, the Bible, and beyond.

Over the years I have dabbled in other spiritual practices – prayer, meditation, yoga, going to church. All of these are wonderful, but none come as naturally to me as listening to the words of someone wiser speak from the pages of a book. Usually my book choices are liberal or “progressive” Christian in nature, but many are Buddhist, secular, New Age, evangelical and other categories. Wisdom speaks with many voices; I enjoy listening to all of them.

I hope this blog will become my spiritual reading journal, strengthening this path that comes so naturally to me. And I hope some of you might join me!

Helena