As people are faced with crises from every angle, tossed into the midst of human-made tragedies and natural calamities, they ask, "Where is God?" As traditional securities crumble then do we agree with the famous quote of Nietzsche, "God is dead"?
Religion as a human panacea to comfort, explain and redeem has, in practice, dissipated lately. Theoretically many positive claims for religion are made but practically speaking, when all is said and done, there is an enormous void as evidenced by the great increase in desperation and fear. Even more surprising is the fact that for multitudes, who express belief in God, they do not necessarily find comfort or confidence when confronted with crises, big or small. Some find consolation and support from their faith but the majority becomes hopeless as I see in Greece at the moment. Most have not found the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.
Actually in Greece the people's deep gripe is much more with the hypocritical government and the sanctimonious church not really with the Godhead! The economic Epiphany of the Greek state has shocked its people. No enhancement of faith instead a great mistrust and despair is thriving. A Greek friend of mine when describing the religious and political systems of his country uttered,
Greece has become the land of heretics and lunatics. Heresy in the Church: hypocritical adherence to spiritual principles. Lunacy in the state: no vision and no care.
From politics I never did expect much but from a rich spiritual tradition I did. Why is it that religion appears so ineffectual at the time it is most needed?
Belief that does not create more trust and support could suggest a defunct God or, much more to the point, a defunct believer and a defunct system. Belief without coherent positive behaviour makes a belief in God irrelevant. There is so often a disconnection between peoples' stated belief and their "lived" life that many doubt the relevance of God in everyday life.
Did structured religion really become "the opium of the people" as Marx declared? It is an old statement, as is Nietzsche's, but nonetheless such statements trigger speculation. Although not an atheist I can understand how people might conclude that belief in God is rather nonsensical. Who can believe in a close-minded, parochial God, who threatens hell or some kind of punishment when a person does not comply? With time one realizes that maybe God is not like that but rather groups are projecting their own prejudices and mindsets onto their conjectured God. Often the term "God" can be manipulated and fabricated politically and socially to assert ascendency over others. The need to be dominant and control others is the greatest opium in the human character.
However opium is not only found in religion but in any system or lifestyle that atrophies the capacity to create and recreate, to think and rethink. Espousal of dogmatic, nepotistic creeds corrupts the integrity and esteem of both individual and society, fossilizing systems as we see in present-day southern Europe. History demonstrates this repeating phenomenon.
It seems only "awakened" people break though blind conformity and choose something far more authentic. These people are motivated by higher ideals, whether it is an honest love of God, selfless service of some kind or personal alignment to truth.
When one goes back in history and reads, for example, about the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition and other inquisitions, such as that against the Cathars in France, one asks: is this really connected with God? When one reads about Constantine the Great, who killed thousands of people and even his wife and son, one is baffled as to how he could have been canonized as spiritually great!
Isn't living the non-violent codes such as tolerance, acceptance, kindness the "true religion"? God's relevance is there isn't it? It is not really found in any particular labels. Each one will explain his or her own beliefs in their own terms and all are free and have the right to do so but humane behaviour is the ultimate measure of God's love and presence. Unfortunately since religion is often socialized and politicized, inevitably its spirituality is forgotten or made impotent by redundant formulas and practices that do not nourish the human spirit. Within such a necrotizing atmosphere obviously some people would feel God is dead. Labels cannot provide support any more, which is possibly why things, especially religion, are crumbling.
Of course no matter what we observe and know about religion still we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater as they say. The original spirit of religion has always had a profound relevancy.
Most religions affirm the dignity of the person by demonstrating the unique spirit within and a trusting, direct relationship with God. However when the original spiritual teachings gradually devolve into jumbled creeds, the respect for the individual and spiritual principles fade.
Structure and system, moving away from its basic purpose to facilitate the soul's well-being, became a mechanistic apparatus with rigid rules, superstitious rituals and routines that efface the uniqueness and freedom of the person. We see this in many institutionalized systems. In spite of the best of intentions institutions are made up of very different people so it is inevitable that the quality of understanding is very, very uneven.
At its best organized religion provides an assured space and a caring guidance to express and experience God on a deep level, both personally and collectively. At its worst it becomes a profane machine that controls or destroys anyone outside its orthodoxy because its beliefs are prescriptive. Any deviation by the individual automatically makes him or her enemy of the true faith; this mindset is the basis of persecution.
The Church in Greece names and shames anyone or anything that is not orthodox as a heretic. Actually anyone practising yoga or a different spirituality is openly branded a heretic. This was quite an amusing experience for me after having grown up in liberal Australia.
What is the emotional lack where difference cannot be embraced? If one really believes in God, then why not leave "being true" up to Him ? Meantime and more importantly, just let one keep peace, respect and happily coexist. Some religious communities did this as in Spain where Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted amicably for many centuries till Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand and the zealous Dominican monk Tomas de Torquemada wanted a pure Catholicism, thus justifying the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition. Can something pure be so violent?
What is pure? Often people connect it to truth. However can truth be encapsulated in a doctrine that ostracises all sense of humaneness? Truth comes from one's way of living: the visible coherence between spiritual belief and humane behaviour. A book, although it can be greatly valuable and certainly useful, gives one a compass, but it is not the destination in itself. It is not a matter of quoting the book but living it.
One does not need to fight, downgrade nor exclude anyone on the journey. Of course in certain parts of the world there is much more tolerance about this, but in other parts far, far less. Sometimes even within a tolerant country there are the fanatics. Fanatics are so self-obsessed with an idea of being right that they have obliterated love from their interactions with fellow human beings. Actually they will even justify the use of violence, verbal or physical or both, as holy, necessary and God-inspired!
The need to be more humane started with the Renaissance .It sliced open the clogged arteries of Human Thought. It was an urgently-needed gasp of air. Renaissance Europe created its new breath from the minds of mainly the ancient Greek thinkers and, to a far lesser extent, the ancient Romans. Here in Athens seeing the chaos escalates one feels that Greece but also Europe definitely needs a second Renaissance. Maybe take a renewed look at Plato, dialogue like Socrates or imbibe the teachings of Christ in their original spirit.
In medieval Italy those rejuvenators of thought had to be very careful because the ecclesiastical establishment of that time barbarously condemned them as heretics, which happened to the Italian monk Giordano Bruno. Influenced by Renaissance thought his creative freshness and questioning made him the target of the Inquisition. Accused of heresy he was burnt at the stake. His statue, located on the site of his execution, stands in Campo di Fiori in Rome. I saw it this spring and noticed how the sculptor poignantly captured the recalcitrant spirit of this philosopher. The statue stands opposite the Vatican and you can feel how Bruno epitomizes the eternal and open defiance of any institution that tries to nullify an individual's right to think differently.
I am told there is an annual commemoration on his execution day 17 February for atheists and freethinkers. His final words were, "In me was what was possible that no future century will be able to deny to me ... that I did not fear death, that I did not submit, my face firm to anyone of my breed; that I preferred a courageous death to a fearful life."
However, with time Renaissance thought tended to go to the other extreme in making everything human-centered. For some reason people tend to swing from one extreme to another rather than maintain an integrated balance.
Simone Weil, French socialist and mystic who died in 1942 wrote: "Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty and equality are of infinitive value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace."
Grace, abstract as it may sound, is relevant in human life. Grace is an unconditional energy from an Unconditional Source of Being (God) that enters human consciousness releasing the creative uniqueness of the individual. The person soars beyond personal and societal limitations and pioneers new horizons. All have access to this grace; it is not the prerogative of a group. It's a democratic energy. Receiving it primarily depends on the honesty of intention not on a privileged label.
Grace is God's loving energy. The evidence of truly being a recipient of grace is the feeling of inclusivity, of connectedness; no brutal eliminations. Usually when anyone has deviated from the norm they are ostracised, not just socially but also existentially. For example, we are told certain types of people go to hell eternally. Hell is a convenient place where non-conforming individuals are disposed of. It is a method to spook people into compliance. The uglier and more agonizing it is depicted the more fear-driven compliance is assured. These days many people could not care less either about hell or heaven. They quite rightly reject this set of rewards and punishments as a kind of "divine nepotism" that at times cajole, at other times, harass them.
Those who think they have superior positions because of revelations, become exclusive about their status and feel the right to convert or condemn. Revelations are very real. They certainly do happen but the proof of any genuine revelation is the feeling of equality and acceptance that such an individual or group feels towards others. When we know who we are, when that uniqueness is expressed, then we can complement our differences to make up the whole. No need to compete.
Not all plants in a garden are roses no matter how beautiful roses are. All plants have their specialness, all are valued and all contribute. The truth of whether God has a sustainable relevance in our life is certainly expressed by a behaviour where the codes of civility and inclusivity are lived. It has nothing to do with parading a pack of sanctimonious beliefs. All beliefs need to be revised and re-examined otherwise they lose their freshness but most importantly, they lose their relevance to daily life.
To hear the challenges of others, to filter and see if there is any truth in what they say is the genesis of knowledge. The trap is to easily brand a person, an idea, a group as the "enemy" simply because they challenge us to examine where we stand and because they challenge us to rethink what we vehemently adhere to as an "infallible belief". All things are open to enquiry, adjustment and enrichment.
Socrates' final words to those who condemned him convey a timeless truth:
"For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the rebuker censoring your lives, you are mistaken, that is not a way of escape which is neither possible nor honourable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others but to be improving yourselves".