Category Archives: religion

Religious Experience

 

As I said before,  I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. This reminds me of what Nietzsche said, “You repay a teacher badly if you always remain the pupil.”

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself.  He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself or the experience would not be genuine. That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.

Carl Jung said that religion was invented by man as self-defence against divine experience.  That sounds shocking.  And it is. Divine experience is hard.  We have to be strong to take it.  As Robertson Davies once said, “most of us are absolutely terrified of a genuine religious experience.”  We would not know what to do with it.

We can have a religious experience anywhere. Even in a church or synagogue, though I would suggest there are much better places, like a forest or a bog. Unfortunately too few of them are experienced in institutional churches these days.  Too often religion interferes with the experience rather than facilitating it. That we have to guard against.

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The Religion of Pi

 

In that wonderful book, Life with Pi, Pi is a young Indian boy, the son of a zoo keeper. He ends up on a small boat sailing the ocean with a Tiger, zebra, orangutang and a hyena. An unlikely combination to say the least . Pi says that before the book is over he will make us believe in God.

Pi is many things but today I want to emphasize that he was a syncretist. That is a person who tries to combine different beliefs often by blending them, or merging them, into one. This word is often used in religion. Some people don’t see religions as opposing each other, but rather as different views of the same truth. Fundamentalists usually have great difficulty with this. They see their own religion as superior, and the rest as inferior others. Syncretism is inclusive, or what I have called expansive. It is the religion I prefer.

Pi said, “I am a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim.”  All at the same time! He had no thought that only 1 religion could show the way. He had a lot to learn from many of them. Why exclude any? Pi even said, “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith.”

Pi had a father who saw himself as “part of the New India–rich, modern, and as secular as ice cream.” He did not have a religious bone in his body. He was strictly business. “Spiritual worry was alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being.” Reminds me of Mennonites.

His mother on the other hand was neutral on the subject of religion. She had a Hindu upbringing and a Baptist education, and according to Pi this cancelled both out leaving her “serenely impious.” That is the best kind.

Pi is puzzled by those who think they have to defend God. “As if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.” What a poor conception of God.  Yet the fanatics of fundamentalism take exactly that position. These people forget the Golden Rule. Their empathy has been shredded by false religion. According to Pi,

“These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, (Indian coins) walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, ‘Business as usual.”  But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily; they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.”

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out.  The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defence, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.

Does this not sound a lot like the Old Testament prophets?

Pi also saw the same source for his ideas: “an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.”

I actually think the word “love” is a bit strong. I prefer something easier–fellow feeling or empathy or compassion. Seeing oneself in the other.  It is harder to love the other, but it is enoughto see oneself in the other. And that makes all the difference.

In a real sense such a person is “saved.”

Buddhism: A Better Way

 

I recommend a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha.  I love good small books.

I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. That is unlike almost all religious leaders.

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself. He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself, or the experience would not be genuine.  That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.  He could not tell us how to find it. That was our job.

Only then would each of us could become a Buddha.  That is what enlightenment is.  One becomes a Buddha.  For the same reason one should not revere the man, the Buddha, it was rather his teaching, the dhamma (or sometimes dharma)that was important.  The word is used in multiple Indian religions. In Buddhism, dharma means something like  “cosmic law and order” but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.  Reverence for the man would just interfere with one’s ability to experience the truth.

Similarly, one would not be able to get any help from the gods. Unlike other religious groups again, the Buddhist cannot expect any supernatural help to achieve enlightenment. Buddha believed that these truths embedded in existence were entirely naturalto human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker free from distraction.  Buddha therefore refused to make belief in a Supreme Being part of the creed.  One could believe in that if one chose, but it was not a necessary part of the enlightenment.

One of the beautiful aspects of Buddhism that really attracts me is this expansiveness or inclusiveness.  It is willing to accept that there is more than one way to enlightenment.  To someone brought up in the Christian religion that seems impossible. The Buddha just says how heachieved it. There might be other ways.  It is up to each of us to achieve and experience the way on our own.  If belief in a Supreme Being helps us to experience enlightenment so much the better for us.  If it is not necessary that is all right too.

What the seeker sought was peace free from all the travails of life. As a result “the new religion sought inner depth rather than magical control. The Absolute could be found in everything, including oneself.  Buddha was within each of us, all we had to do was find it in ourselves.  As a result, again, unlike many less congenial religions there was therefore no need for a priestly elite.  We are expected to experience the enlightenment directly, without an intermediary.  In fact, that is the onlyway one can experience it.

Prior to Buddha the religions of India were generally extremely ascetic.  One was expected to renounce all pleasure and desire.  In fact according to some sects one was expected to seek out suffering and pain to help achieve enlightenment.  While Buddha realized that often in life we were distracted by our desires and our search for personal pleasures, he did not preach asceticism.  That too could become a distraction.  Instead he advocated a middle way between the two extremes.  We must be free from domination in order to find enlightenment. We have to be truly free.

What the enlightened one would have to achieve would be a genuine compassion for others.  Complete fellow feeling for all creatures of the earth, not just humans. Selfishness would have to be overcome. Concern for others required in other words a complete subjection to the Golden rule.  “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  This is exactly what I have been saying about religions.Especially for laymen who had not experienced yoga training one could not expect that they lay aside all concern for themselves. I would suggest it is impossible in event and not desirable.   However they would be expected not to be imprisoned by self interest.  One would be expected to have genuine fellow feeling for others.  One would have to have the ability to empathize and sympathize with the plight of all other creatures.

To me this is a very congenial religion.

Islam

Let me confess at the outset: I don’t know much about Islam. But I read a book by Wade Davis that had a very interesting story about Islam based on his personal experience. It was not based on versions of Islam from its competitors–the worst possible source for information.

After 9/11 Davis wanted to do a story for an American audience on Islam. He felt they had to understand Islam, before they saw Islam as the “infinite other”. To do that he travelled to Timbuktu a port on the southern side of the Sea of Sand that is the Western Sahara. Timbuktu is a remarkable place. At a time when London and Paris were mud hovels Timbuktu had 25,000 University students!

As Davis explained on the CBC show Ideas in 2018,

“The only reason the ancient knowledge of the ancient Greeks survived to inspire the Renaissance was because it was kept alive in the knowledge of the Great Islamic scholars of places like Timbuktu, Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. There was a trade of knowledge up the traditional route. Remember that until the discovery of the New World 2/3 of Europe’s gold came from West Africa overland 52 days across the Sahara and that was the route we decided to follow to an ancient Salt Mine called Pudeni where the salt was not just a condiment, but profoundly curative. Salt that at one day traded ounce for ounce for gold in that west African trade.”

 

This was an important journey for young men. If they did not complete the journey to the mine they were not allowed to marry. The people believed that the desert honed their senses and in that way they became open to the grace of Allah. The mine itself was a 1,000 km north and they had to travel with a heavily armed escort, which seemed to grow in size everyday.

At the mine Davis met a man who was chronologically younger than him, but physically much older. He was worn out from working in the mine. He was there to pay off a debt he incurred to save the life of a young daughter.  He would have to work in the mine for the rest of his life in order to pay off that debt to a merchant in a form of indentured servitude. He was virtually a slave.  Even in summer he worked when it got so hot in the mine it was said the heat would melt sand. In the 800-year history of the mine he was the only one who had to work summers. It broke his spirit. His entire debt was less than the cost of a dinner for 3 in Toronto so Davis paid it for him, but he never learned whether or not the man found his way back to his family or not.

A little further south Davis encountered a caravan going north. There were 8 young men with 15 camels that consisted of all the wealth of the families. It took 40 days to get to the mine and they had no margin of error. They were completely out of food and down to their last half litre of water and 250 miles from the nearest well. Without food a person can last for up to 2 weeks. Without water a person in the desert will die within a few hours. Yet when Davis came down to their camp, they immediately started a twig fire to brew them a cup of tea honoring the obligation to kill the last goat that keeps your children alive with its milk to feed the wandering stranger who comes into your camp at night. “This is the essence of Bedouin life, because you never know when you’ll be that stranger, cold and hungry coming out of the darkness in need of rescue.  And as I watched this young Mohamed pour me that first cup of tea after all we had heard about Islamic culture in the wake of 9/11, I thought to myself in 50 years or 40 years of doing this kind of travel and field work these are the moments that allow us all to hope.”

Is there a finer example of the Golden Rule than that? Is there a better example of connection, charity, empathy, and fellow feeling than that? Is this not the essence of religion? Or do you think the essence is belief?

Judaism: Wisdom of the Old Testament Prophets

I continue to search for the good in religion. I often criticize  religion , but I acknowledge there is a lot of good stuff there too. In fact in all the religions I have looked at there is good.

People brought up in Christian homes tend to downplay the importance of the Old Testament, and with it Judaism. Christians often see themselves as superior to the Jews, just like they do to all other religions. But is this disparagement fair? I would suggest it is not.

For example, Christians often say that the Jews believed in an “eye for an eye” while they went beyond that to “turning the other cheek.”  There are some statements in the New Testament that support that assertion. Yet there is also the clear fact that in the New Testament a God is described who would place non-believers into eternal torment. That goes way beyond an eye for an eye, but in the wrong direction. That is not turning the other cheek, which we are told to do. That is revenge, an entirely ugly emotion, of the worst kind. In fact think about revenge that goes on forever!

It is rarely a wise approach to evaluate any religion by statements made by its competitors or critics. It is much wiser to look at the religion first hand or at least listen to what sympathizers say.

The Mosaic phrase “an eye for an eye” first appears in the Old Testament in Exodus 21 where it is promptly followed by the statement, “If he knocks out his servant’s or his maid’s tooth, he shall let him go free for the tooth’s sake.”  That is an odd statement, but at least it demonstrates that the Law of Moses never just applied the principle of an eye for an eye  mechanically. The emphasis is on the spirit of the provision, namely that the law does not respect persons. By that is meant that all are treated equally. An eye of one is worth the eye of another. No more no less. All people are equal before the law, kings and paupers. That is not a bad principle, and tempers the more harsh sounding an eye for an eye. Of course, in ancient times, limiting the avenger to an eye for an eye rather than a life for an eye was already a huge improvement over  common punishments.

I also really like the statement in Leviticus 24, “You shall have one law for the stranger and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”  Equality again is the rule and it is a fundamentally important law right to this day, enshrined as it is in our Canadian constitution.

In practice of course, Christians have been no better than adherents to other religions in denouncing revenge and retaliation. Look at the tortures inflicted on heretics during the Inquisition for example. An eye for an eye would have been an enormous improvement.

Nietzsche, for example, who is often criticized by Christians, and others, had a much better approach. He said the noble person was the one who was freed from revenge. He had his Zarathustra say, “that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hopes.”

In the Old Testament there is actually strong evidence of the importance of a keen social conscience. This sets apart the Old Testament from the sacred writings of many other religious texts. In fact the social conscience  is implicit from a belief in God according to the Old Testament.

In Leviticus it says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” That is pretty good moral advice. In fact, I would suggest as good as such advice ever gets. Of course all the Old Testament  requirements are not equally sound. That passage is immediately followed by one that you shall not let your cattle breed with another kind or sow your field with two different kinds of seeds. Why is that important? So admittedly, I pick and choose. I do that with all religions. It is my belief that we have to exercise our critical thinking.

But there are lots of good things too in the Old Testament. Leviticus 33 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Once again profound. this is just another version of the Golden Rule.  I think t shows how religion is what connects us to each other, not what divides us. If it divides us, it is not religion. That is my fundamental principle.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the prophet Malachi asks a profound question: “Have we not all one father?  Has not one God created us?  Why then are we faithless to one another?” (2:10) Or consider Job who asks, “If I have rejected the right of my manservant or my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God rises up?  When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (31:13-15) Once again the Old Testament prophets understood as their followers often did not, that we are all kin. We are all one. and we should treat each other accordingly.

The Old Testament prophets relentlessly stressed the importance of social justice. They were not concerned with rituals. Their criticism was fundamentally moral.

Those Old Testament prophets are not often give credit for their wisdom. I really like what Micah said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8) I don’t know that morality ever gets more simple or more profound than this! Justice, mercy, and humility is what is demanded of us.

Isaiah another of those prophets also advocated for justice instead of ceremony said this:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord.  I have had enough of burnt offerings…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

That is what the God of Old Testament said when he said to his people, “You shall be holy.” (Leviticus 19:2.) Or when he said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19:6)

There is a lot to be said for the Old Testament.

 

“Hoorah for our Side”/”No monopoly on the route to the divine”

Cultural Relativism: There are many paths to enlightenment

Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s most preeminent anthropologist, has spent years living with and working with indigenous people around the world. This has made him a tireless advocate of understanding traditional cultures around the world. He gave a great talk that was broadcast on CBC’s radio show Ideas. You can  probably hear his entire talk on their archive.

Davis also asserted that anthropology, his field of study, is important. It is important today because “anthropology is the antidote to Trump.” Trump of course is the equally tireless advocate for the doctrine of American triumphalism and superiority over all other cultures. In Trump’s world America is the best of everything. At least it would be if only Americans more uniformly listened to him. Ruth Benedict said that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

As we live in a globalized multi-cultural world “anthropology has never been more important.” Trump of course would never concede that. But that does not make it any less true. America is not the be all and end all. America is one voice among many. We should listen to morevoices. We should listen to many voices.

According to Davis this multi-ethnic world is  “where connectivity is bringing us together into a single human family.” At least if people like Trump are not able to separate us. He wants to deny this connectivity, this solidarity. Too many people fail to see the connections as they look at the differences. People like Trump see “theirpeople” with whatever label you want to use, separate and apart, and superior, from the others.

Davis finds proof for this connectivity in genetics. This is what he said

“Within our lifetimes genetics has shown that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum, race is a fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65 or 75,000 years ago and embarked on this journey that carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world…By definition every culture shares the same genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old 19thcentury idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized in the Strand of London has been absolutely ridiculed by modern science and shown to be an artifact of the 19thcentury, no more relevant to our lives today than the old idea of clergymen that the world was only 6,000 years old.”

 

Davis finds important corroboration of the fundamental insight of anthropology, which is cultural relativism, from the relatively recent science of genetics.  As Davis said, “It is genetics that allows anthropologists to say without doubt that every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.”

Davis eloquently points out that this concept has never been more important than today with the astonishing rise of nativism, nationalism and the worst forms of tribalism.  These nationalistic views are held not just by Trump, but millions of his supporters, and by many dictators and demagogues around the world, and their millions of supporters. Each of these leaders is constantly shouting “hurrah for our side” in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield.

Darwin: The Greatest Religious Thinker?

 

Charles Darwin is reviled by many evangelical Christians. Some of them have suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a godless philosophy that removes the sacred from the world.  I disagree. Not only that, I turn this around 180º. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of great and profound beauty.  In fact, I think it is profoundly religious.

To Darwin, all life is one. All organisms are different branches of the same tree of life. This is a deeply marvellous idea that all of lifeincluding human life, is united on this planet.  There is solidarity to all of life.  I do not find this notion anti-religious.  In fact I would say this goes back to the original root of the word religion from its Indio origin, which was ‘connection.’  This is the original meaning of “religious”.  In fact I would go so far as to say that any so-called religion, which leads to separation of humans from each other, or from all of life, is deeply un-religious.

Typically fundamentalists around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, try from time to time to usurp the meaning of religious to their own narrow purposes. When they try to expropriate the meaning of the world “religious” for their own restrictive and exclusive purposes they ought to be resisted strongly.

The most extreme versions of these religious beliefs have in the past turned to murderous doctrines.  Some famous examples include the Christian crusaders, Muslim terrorists, and Sikh assassins, to name only a few from a vast legion of candidates.  To these people I would suggest that as the button my wife Chris owned  said, ‘When religion turns to hate, it is no longer religion.’  Religion that does not help us to connect with others, or connect with the world, is no religion worth having. It is actually sacrilegious.

Darwin’s views in this sense are fundamentally religious.  In Darwin’s day the claim that humans and chimpanzees had a lot in common was a radical claim.  Remember there was no science of genetics or DNA at that time. Since then of course a lot of confirming evidence has been gathered.  First, there has been substantial fossil evidence which suggests that chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor as Darwin claimed, and as many have been loath to admit ever since.  Remember Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster in the movie about the travelling evangelical preacher who had a chimp on stage and said to the crowd, ‘this may be your uncle, but he sure ain’t mine.’

In the late twentieth century scientists started gathering convincing evidence from DNA, which has led to the same conclusion.  Scientists have found that all living things have DNA.  For example organisms as diverse as frogs, bacteria, and humans all have DNA and the DNA evidence has been used to show how close the various species are to each other.  The DNA of humans and chimps is very similar.  DNA sequences which are read letter by letter indicate that humans and chimpanzees are in fact a stunning 98% identical.  They are basically the same.  Cut from the same cloth.  Scientists in fact now generally believe that the DNA evidence indicates that humans and chimpanzees did in fact have a common ancestor only a few million years ago.  This is very recently on the evolutionary time scale.  This could be compared with humans and rats who also had a common ancestor, but this was more like 80 – 100 million years ago.  This shows that greater changes occur over a greater period of time, but also shows that even humans and rats, which do not feel much fellow feeling for each, once had a common ancestor.

There is even growing evidence that humans and chimpanzees think and act in similar ways.  This is further evidence of their commonality, or close relationship. Researchers have found that chimps can gain complex cognition and even have the ability to count.  They don’t learn to count in the wild, because it is not necessary for their survival, but they can learn to count.  Chimps can even grasp complex notions like the concept of zero. Such evidence too suggests that chimps have a great deal of commonality with humans.  Humans and chimps even share the same blood types.

Many scientists now believe that this evidence points to the fact that chimps and humans did in fact have common ancestor as Darwin suggested.

For some reason the line of development or evolution, which led to humans led to an explosive development of mental capacity.  Natural selection favoured the evolution of organisms that could communicate, manipulate symbols, and construct language.  These were obviously evolutionary advantages for this species.

Some see this view of Darwin’s as basically irreligious since it seems to remove the concept of a divine creator from the world.  It actually doesn’t. Darwin himself believed in God. However, this does not make these views irreligious.  As I have said, I think these views instead demonstrate a fine sense of true religion in its original Indio sense of connection.  Darwin himself said in his monumental Origin of the Species, “there is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the 6th law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”  Darwin did not remove God, but he did naturalize creation.

In my view the thought of Darwin is deeply religious.  Much more than the views of murderous fundamentalists or noisy evangelicals who so often seem to hog the stage.  Even though many people hold that Darwin removed God from science, he found an elemental connection between man and all living things.  I cannot think of anything more religious than that.  And that is what religion is ultimately about.  Connection.  It is not about what narrow beliefs one has about what to eat on what days, or whether the world was created exactly 4004 years ago.  No, religion is about a lot more important things than that, no matter what narrow-minded people think and preach.

Darwin’s view that we are all connected on the tree of life, is contrasted starkly by the views of Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of all religions, that they are superior to all others.  They want to be separate and apart from heathens, to say nothing of all life. They believe that they will go to everlasting pleasure in heaven while others will go to everlasting pain in hell. Such fanatics see an unbridgeable gap between them and other humans, to say nothing of them and other organisms. These are the most profoundly irreligious views imaginable.  Nothing could be more sacrilegious than that. I much prefer Darwin. In fact, I think he was one of the greatest of religious thinkers.