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The Promise of a New Era in Our Conversation About Faith

Posted: 03/ 7/11 09:40 PM ET

In 1953, Professor C.D. Broad of Cambridge University published a paper titled "The Argument From Religious Experience." Broad, who was not a religious man, responded to Bertrand Russell's challenge to philosophically prove the existence of God, and in his paper he evaluated beliefs from different world religions and cultures, concluding, "The claim by any particular religion or sect to have complete or final truth seems to me to be too ridiculous to be worth a moment's consideration. But the opposite extreme of holding that the whole religious experience of mankind is a gigantic system of pure delusion seems to me to be almost (though not as quite) farfetched."

After 58 years and numerous other attempts, Broad's conclusion seems to me to be the most mature and reasonable assessment that I have come across. In essence, he makes the concession that he doesn't, and can't, know the answer, but he does know that it is not found in the claims of exclusive ownership of absolute knowledge, whether by dogmatic religion or the categorical dismissal of faith.

We tend to be drawn to such binary ("yes" or "no") answers because as a culture we are still in the grip of the Age of Reason, born in the 17th century as a reaction to, and maturing of, the Age of Faith, proclaiming that the scientific method of direct observation, measurement and quantifiable, reproducible, consistent results is the surest, and for many the only, way of knowing. And whether we are conscious of this or not, most of us automatically believe that tangible, physical proof is the exclusive road to knowledge. The Postmodern response that there can be no absolute truth because there are fundamental dimensions of reality that are completely unavailable to, or inconsistent with, our senses, and that we all observe the world in the subjective light of our individual perspectives and cultures is, ironically, just as categorical and extreme as what it seeks to overthrow, in its absolute rejection of the possibility of knowing.

We learn through experience, though, that our existence, and the universe in which we live, are much, much more complex than any single approach can ever encompass, and that we have a wide variety of ways to know our reality, each adding something vital to our comprehension. We know things through our bodies, our emotions, our intellect and our spirit, and the information gathered in each way is essentially different in nature and purpose, each with its own inherent limitation. The following is a general -- and far from complete -- outline:

• We know about such physical objects as airplanes and atoms, and such phenomenon as gravity and electromagnetism, through the observation and measurement of our senses. This is the realm of Science, which is manifest as Technology. Our knowing is limited in this way by the constraints of our physical ability to perceive and measure information, and the capacity of our intellect to comprehend it.

• We know about such non-physical concepts as Justice and Freedom primarily through the exploration and judgments of our minds. This is the realm of Philosophy and Ethics, which is manifest as laws and societal guiding principles. Our knowing in this way is limited by the parameters of our moral development and our capability for abstraction.

• We know about such experiences as Beauty and Love through the response of our emotions and sense of empathy: This is the realm of Philosophy and Aesthetics, and is manifest as the Arts. Our knowing in this way is limited by the sensitivity and maturity of our feelings, and by our communication skills.

• We can know of the existence of a spiritual reality through the awakening of intuition and the visions of mystical experiences. This is the realm of Theology and Mysticism. Our knowing is limited in this way by the strength of our connection to the divine, by acts of grace and the resistance of the ego to surrender control to spirit.

For those who are afraid of living in the existential uncertainty of life and the possibility that some dearly held beliefs may not be completely true -- or may even be fabrications -- this may feel like impending death and the end of the world, so they dig in even deeper to defend their certainty. Defending one's claim to absolute truth, though, is simply a power play of the ego's urge to be safe and always stems from insecurity, not strength. This manifests as polarization, factionalism and demonization of those that we deem wrong. "I'd rather kill you than re-examine my beliefs" is the battle cry of these fearful, pathetic relics, who refuse to acknowledge other ways of knowing and being, and see any way that differs from theirs as a threat.

Extremist divisions are becoming more apparent and more painful to us now because as a species we are ready to eject the childish posture of needing to be right. In this way, Professor Broad's conclusion anticipated the new era in to which we are now struggling to emerge. This new era will be an age of reconciliation and wholeness in which we will understand that we are not faced with such stark either/or choices as intellect vs. spirit, observing vs. intuiting, all-right vs. all-wrong, but that we were given a myriad of faculties because they all serve an essential purpose in allowing us to live fully and freely, and they are therefore all inherently good.

Imagine a time in which, instead of outmaneuvering the opponent, the "winner" of a debate is the one who most expands his position based on contact with the other, or the one that can most fully articulate and comprehend the position of the "adversary." And imagine a time in which we do not need to be right or prove the other wrong in order to feel safe, but when we can be completely open and courageously vulnerable to ourselves and to others, in honest exploration of the infinite glory of being human. This is the new era in to which we must bravely travel, which is our birthright as embodied spirit.