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Archive for July, 2009

A friend was telling me about Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” last night. I told him I’d heard the great reviews, but that I’d declined to read it because I didn’t need to be convinced of the argument for atheism. After all, the argument is pretty straightforward, not to mention irrefutable, at least by reason.

He went on to extoll the book’s great qualities, including Dawkins’s delicious writing style. That alone makes it a worthwhile read. Apparently it’s not quite the polemical tirade that one might expect. Instead it’s filled with humor, insight and unusual anecdotes. And I guess there’s a long discussion of how G.W. Bush invaded Iraq because God explicitly told him to do so.

I’m not about to challenge, deconstruct or otherwise analyze a book that I haven’t read, but I would like to take a moment to address this point (as it was explained to me) about G.W. and what his religious experience says about Christianity.

Of course, if a rational person hears this story of how Bush justified a war by the voices in his head, and they are told that this is what it means to believe in God, they should certainly not hesitate to join the atheist movement with all their heart and mind. A rational and thinking person, however, should stop and say, “no, that’s not religion.” No indeed, for that’s the most baseless corruption of religion ever made.

Religion ought to be an inner, personal experience, one in which the individual comes to terms with his conflicting aspects, his selfish impulses and virtuous conscience, and carefully manages to reconcile the two. God acts as the numinous arbiter that unites those opposites and brings the soul to peace.

When a politician points to God as his justification for leading a country into a preemptive war, we’re clearly dealing with something other than an inward, soul experience, a gross misappropriation of spirit. Religion as a collective force has caused a great deal of damage, consider the long litany of European wars, the Middle East, the witch burnings. But we should also bear in mind the capacity for organized religions to bring good through philanthropic efforts around the world. (And we need not compare the two lists, for that’s somewhat beside the point.)

There’s no reason for a thoughtful person to accept the truculent voice in G.W.’s head as the the supreme being in the universe, but that absolutely should not preclude the attentive mind from looking inward and reflecting upon his own soul. The great challenge is to follow this path of personal soul searching while still incorporating the collective, cultural function of religion, to provide some sort of ethical, social cohesion, without doing it in such a way that one viewpoint assumes the higher ground and forces its “morality” into the very personal lives of everyone else.

This is the challenge I put to you this week, to be critical enough to improve yourself, but tolerant enough to accept the ways of those who still have some catching up to do.

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The many faces of Truth

 

Surf through the channels of so-called news programs and web logs, peruse the bumper stickers on your daily commute, or spin the dial across the gamete of fuming radio personalities, and the grim reality becomes obvious. A culture war is rattling the foundations of our society, dividing hearts and minds, driving a wedge between friends and family. Worse than the saber rattling of Jesus versus Allah that’s turned southwest Asia into a political sandstorm, another force is parting us like the Red Sea. But neither paradigm holds water, for they’re two sides of the same coin.

No less than a clash of civilizations, the battle raging between religious fundamentalists and secular humanists threatens not just the stability of our world, but the destiny of our very souls. Positions on abortion, whether to allow prayer and evolution in schools, and the latest controversy surrounding same-sex marriage all reveal irreconcilable differences based on a gap in worldviews that seemingly cannot be bridged.

On one side stands a devoted fellowship of traditional Christians who trust the literal word of the Bible concerning the divine formation of the world, the certainty of man’s sin, and the necessity of his salvation through a single, solitary savior. And across the burning sea, a contingent of secular Darwinists sings its praises to the almighty wisdom of concrete materialism and the scientific method, rejecting the Holy Bible as a fabrication of ancient myth and mind control. Like rivaling siblings who would never admit to having anything in common, both parties are guilty of the same flawed, one-dimensional approach.

On the moral high ground, Bible scholars sift through the sands of Palestine and Mesopotamia in search of evidence to verify the walls of Jericho, the line of King Solomon, and the flood of Noah. Hard-line skeptics assume their intellectual superiority by casting stones and doubts on immaculate conception, a 6000-year-old planet created in six days, and Joshua’s stopping the sun in the sky. Scrambling for empirical proof to satisfy their belief systems, followers on both sides sink deeper into the quicksand of misunderstanding, and the fruits of spirituality slip ever further out of reach.

To pin one’s religious perspective on historical evidence, or to feel this religion somehow threatened or invalidated by certain advances in biology, geology and astronomy, reveals a pitiful paucity of soulful awareness. Such a misguided attempt to nourish the spirit amounts to the same naivety as discarding Hamlet because it contradicts the real history of Elsinore and the true lineage of Danish royalty. The layers of meaning and insight that grow richer with every subsequent reading have nothing whatsoever to do with a faithful representation of history; the remarkable portrayal of human nature speaks for itself, depicting the same conflicted nature that appears in every book of the Bible.

Imagine poring over the birth records in all the church basements of Skotoprigonyevsk and finding not a trace of any brothers named Ivan, Dmitri and Alexey Karamazov. Only a complete nudnik would resolve to reject Dostoyevsky’s great novel in its entirety. These three brothers do not belong to an obscure, unpronounceable village a hundred miles from St. Petersburg; they reside within us all. The intellect of Ivan, the sensuality of Dmitri, the spirituality of Alyosha: this trinity survives in every human soul.

Just like Hamlet, Moses, Job and Judas, even Harry Potter and Han Solo, these characters personify universal energies and carry a rich meaning that is figurative, not literal. Such a linear reading is about as satisfying as trying to eat a photograph of a sweet, juicy apple. Like a picture that holds a thousand words, these stories represent the great ineffable mysteries of human consciousness, issues so vast that they defy language. Imagine describing an apple to someone from another planet: a life-like illustration would be incredibly helpful, but hardly edible. And how many fruit lovers would bet their lives that their photo is the one true apple – not just a picture of it – and that all the rest are not only worthless but poisonous?

Obsessing over the concrete components of a theological narrative proves just as foolish, about as reasonable as raising Aesop’s grasshopper to a position of divinity because it possesses supernatural abilities– or worse, dismissing the fables and their morals altogether because you know that real insects don’t. Yet millions continue to rely on the folklore of a Neolithic tribe of desert nomads to explain the origins of the stars and planets and life on earth. And millions more ignore the timeless lessons of  the holy texts because they don’t correspond with geological and paleoanthropological records.

None of this calls for a crisis of faith; it simply demands a little more imagination, asking ourselves what lessons we can learn in the belly of the whale, or at the bottom of the trash compacter, challenging our Faustian egos with the wisdom and compassion of our own conscience. Scientific inquiry and pious devotion are not mutually exclusive polarities, but twin horses driving the chariot of human progress. When we see these stories for what they are, we see that we’re not so different after all, and finally we can stop condemning each other and start to examine the drama unfolding within.

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