I love religion.
I love the holy texts, the rituals, the art, the histories, the practices, the mystical teachings and the sacred spaces. I love religion, while very aware of its obvious dangers and limitations, because for the last 15 years religion has provided insight, intellectual growth, friendships and inspiration that continue to transform my life for the better.
We all know that religion can be harsh and divisive, and these destructive qualities need to be brought in the light and confronted. I often wish, though, that those who have been hurt by, or are unshakably critical of, religion could see and feel my experience. This wish is not based on any desire to convince or convert, but to present another possibility that may expand the conversation.
Although I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who encouraged us in Judaism, until the age of 37, I wanted little to do with religion. Religion seemed to be no more than a crutch for those who are too afraid to face life directly, or a backwards tradition that had nothing to do with modern life. And I could not imagine how any intelligent adult could possibly believe in some kind of super-being who created everything, gave us texts, and cares about us in some way. I firmly believed that if only humanity could get past these ridiculous superstitions the world would be a much better place.
All this changed in a moment when suddenly, unexpectedly, and from a normal state of awareness, my defenses were stripped away and I was given a glimpse of the spiritual realm. Such moments are very difficult to describe, and always lose their reality to the limitation of language -- like reading about sex compared to having (great) sex. I can say, though, that what I experienced was beyond anything I could have conceived. In that moment I saw with microscopic clarity of vision, felt an unrestricted connection to others, and was surrounded by a loving embrace. And in that moment I received a message from a "voice" that spoke with endless compassion and wisdom. It said simply, "I love you, and you must change." I cried for the first time that I could remember, and audibly answered, "yes".
I now know this moment as grace -- the spontaneous, unwarranted, self-revelation of spirit: God's wake-up call.
No one could have been more shocked than I, and as much as I wondered if this was just a neurological malfunction or delusion, the experience started a process that changed me for the better. I began to see other people with more kindness and empathy, and for the first time felt that life has a purpose. And for this I was very grateful. It was no longer a question of whether God exists -- because I now saw that God is more than an invention to settle our fears and explain natural phenomena -- but an exploration of the nature of God as I experienced It; as something that is not in conflict with reason and science, but that actually enhances and clarifies existence.
In order to help understand this I started reading all kinds of spiritual books -- mostly non-religious -- and began to discover that my experience was by no means unique. Others had described similar encounters, and their description aligned almost exactly with mine, as though we were tourists who had visited the same lands. And I continued to have spontaneous mystical experiences, which encouraged me to continue my search.
I read holy books from many religions, and soon found wonderful writers who came from various traditions: Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Adin Steinsaltz, Elie Wiesel, Chasidic Masters, the Dalai Lama, Rumi, and commentators on the Mahabharata and Upanishads, to name a few. These writers presented spiritual practices and teachings that were nothing like the simple image that I had carried about religion. These were not about dogma and claims of exclusive truth, but something much richer and more complex. These authors searched and struggled to understand the mystery of creation, to celebrate the beauty of life in all its pain, and to tell us of our obligations to others.
I began to explore religion in a new light, and went to Buddhist meditation retreats, Catholic Masses, Evangelical healings, various yogas, and Jewish prayer services. These all expanded my sense of what religion is and what it can be. Judaism called to me most strongly, not because I found it "better" or "truer", but because it is the tradition in to which I was born, and it felt deeply familiar, even though I had never really known it.
I gradually discovered that religion is, in its essence, a compilation of experiences and teaching from those who have glimpsed the spiritual realm, have known of its transformative power, and have tried to communicate this to others so that we may be more fully alive. Religion is to the spirit what a gymnasium is to the body, and a school is to the mind. This does not mean that one needs religion to be spiritual -- just as one does not need to go to a gym to be physically fit -- and much of my spiritual practice is not specifically religious. But at its best religion sets out in a systematic way to help us nurture spirit and care for each other.
Of course religion has been hijacked for a variety of destructive reasons, and as I wrote earlier, this must be addressed directly. But much of the criticism of religion is simply not true. While religion is often pointed to as the cause of most wars, this is not statistically accurate. Greed and power are the cause of most wars. The vast majority of wars have not been overtly religious -- unless one claims that Nationalism, Communism or Nazism are religions, in which case the definition of "religion" becomes so distorted as to be meaningless. And, statistically, most religious people are not fundamentalists, and most recognize the validity of other traditions. I encourage those who are totally opposed to religion to look at it realistically and with an open mind.
The need to praise and to give thanks to something greater than our selves is a basic human impulse, and when done with clear intention and with a supportive community elevates us and makes our lives happier and more effective. Without this we can descend in to lives devoted only to filling personal desires. Religion proclaims that there is more to reality that our normal perceptions can recognize, that life is sacred, that we must love each others, and that gratitude is the highest state of being. For this reason it deserves my love.
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