In my last blog, I wrote about the extreme positions that surround many conversations about religion and God. I noted the obvious dangers inherent in such extreme positions, which humanity has witnessed in devastating effect, from the insane massacre of innocents by religious fundamentalists who believe that they are acting on behalf of divine instructions, to the systematic slaughter of millions by regimes that were militantly opposed to religion. (Note: to make the argument, which I've heard many times, that communism, fascism, and Nazism are somehow also "religions" is to say that any human endeavor that includes an organization and common behavioral system is a "religion", and to excuse the atrocities of extreme atheism.)
Recently there have been many books and public debates about religion and God which seek to present the absurdity of the opponent's position. I suspect, though, that few people are convinced, converted, or even prompted to rethink a position based on these debates. Much of the deadlock, I've discovered, stems from a very simplistic, linear, and limited view of the process that is thought to bring people to a religion and to God. This view sees the process as something like this:
1. A person locks in to a religion, usually based on family of birth, and the needs for certainty and the safety of a community.
2. The religion contains holy documents, telling the person what to believe, what is true and what is not, and the nature of God. The person then accepts the teachings of that religion as true, and those of others as false.
3. The person now "believes" in God based on the positions espoused in the doctrines of this particular religious system, and rejects doctrines from other religions.
4. Questioning of these doctrines is discouraged, because questioning may uncover inconsistencies or errors, which could lead to abandonment of the religion, and thereby abandonment of a belief in God.
This is, in fact, a process that many travel and, as critics of religion rightly point out, is a process that can lead to dangerous fundamentalism, because it is founded on the thin thread of something that can be objectively disproved, - the literal authenticity and accuracy of a religion's documents and doctrines - creating great insecurity, and therefore increasing the need for certainty and safety. In order to avoid re-examining long held beliefs and risk alienation from his community, then, the person who travels this process may try to silence those who challenge his religion. This is the mechanism of extremism, which is always founded on insecurity. Or, if the person has the maturity and courage to examine the cracks in his religion's teachings, he may simply abandon religion and belief in God as archaic nonsense, and join the ranks of the critics and skeptics.
But, it seems that many (most?) of the critics and skeptics believe that this is the ONLY process in which one comes to God and religion. This process puts religion at the beginning, and sees the result as a "faith" based a particular belief in a particular deity, as revealed in particular documents.
There is a very different dynamic, though, that turns this process on its head, and instead of leading to fundamentalism or rejection, promotes dialogue, exploration, inclusivity, and growth. This alternative process - which has been travelled by all mystics, (both famous and anonymous), and by many people who follow a spiritual and religious practice as they quietly watch the extremist debate with dismay, amusement, and concern - can be described as follows:
1. A person has transformative experiences that expand his/her vision of reality and relationship to life. These experiences are at once unique, yet contain the common element of connection to unity - to the realization that everyone and everything emanates from the same source. These are experiences of Spirit; of the living presence of the Divine.
2. These experiences lead the person to seek an understanding of the encounter, ways to nurture and sustain the connection, and to others who have shared similar experiences.
3. This search will bring the person to the exploration of spiritual practices, and often, but not necessarily, to a particular religious tradition.
4. For this person, questioning is not only encouraged, but is, in fact, the very mechanism by which faith grows, in alignment with all other faculties and areas of knowledge.
This process begins with personal experience and the exploration of profound, essential questions. Instead of the need for certainty and conformity that marks the first process, this is a complex process that resists simple answers, and embraces intellectual exploration, disciplined practice, the support of a diverse community, and personal experiences. Because personal experiences are inherently subjective, and we all interpret such experiences based on our education, inclination, culture, and community, the conversation then is not one of debating institutional theories and doctrines, but is rooted in a living experience and inquiry.
The person who travels this process will be able to discriminate between the religious teachings that are aligned with his/her experience, and those that are created by the institution for power, conformity or control, and may adopt one religious tradition in order to develop a disciplined practice and be in a community of other seekers, but will recognize and appreciate the teachings of many traditions and many religious documents, without the need to defend one as the absolute truth.
From this perspective, we can clearly see the absurdity of attempting to limit, define, control, and divide God. And from this perspective, religion is known for what it is - a human institution containing the collection and transmission of spiritual experiences and practices to facilitate such experiences for others. By beginning with, and continually returning to, personal experience, the temptation to fundamentalism and extremism dissolves, and we can have honest, respectful conversations about the nature of God and religion free from dogma, accusations, and hatred.