On Religion

What is the “true religion”?  And out of humankind’s religious traditions, which religion or religions are “true”?  I was recently asked some questions like these.  Certainly different people will offer different answers to these questions.  Some will say my religion is the only true religion so all other religions are false.  Others will say no religion is a true religion because all religions are false.  Still others, like myself, will offer another answer.  So what I have to share is my perspective on these questions, which may have its controversies.  Since we are dealing with very rich subjects, first I will present some relevant definitions and then explore some additional notes and implications on what is the true religion.

Definitions of “religion,” “true,” and “God”

Let’s begin with sorting out some relevant definitions.  First of all, what is “religion”?  For better or for worse, there is no simple answer to this question.  Even religious scholars acknowledge that “religion” is notoriously difficult to comprehensively define.  So my definitions here are not intended to be comprehensive.  The following is simply intended to provide some modest definition of the nature and purpose of religion.

Bearing that in mind, different people will once again claim religion is different things.  Some say religion is about theological doctrines pertaining to God and sin and the afterlife.  So a person is religious if he or she accepts a religion’s theology.  Others say religion is about doing rituals, prayer, worship, so participating in a religious community’s practices makes someone religious.  Others say religion is about having a meaningful spiritual encounter with God, which means a person is religious if he or she has had some kind of mystical experience or awakening.  Yet others will say religion is about community, and so a person is religious by belonging to a religious group.  And still others will say religion is about being a good person, which means following a religion’s ethics makes an individual religious.

To some degree, all of these understandings can each be partially right.  But how can that be?  Ninian Smart proposed a useful model of religions as multidimensional cultures.  Smart claimed that historic religions tend to have the following interrelated dimensions, which include the 1) mythical, 2) ritual, 3) doctrinal, 4) experiential, 5) ethical/legal, 6) social/institutional, and 7) material.  What is relevant to see here is simply the multidimensional complexity of religious traditions.  Religions are partly complex cultural traditions.  So as much as some may try to reduce religion only to doctrine, or only to ethics, or only to rituals, or only to some other single dimension, it cannot be.  Because religion is broadly concerned with a whole way of life that permeates and encompasses the individual and the collective, as well as the public and the private spheres of human activity across time.  This always needs to be kept in mind with religion.

In addition to religion being a complex cultural way of life, knowing some of the origins of the word also gives some insight into the purpose of religion.  The word partly comes from the ancient Latin word religare, which means “to bind.”  What this word implies is a relational bond or between one thing and another, or one person and another.  Accordingly, one helpful way of understanding the nature and purpose of “religion” is that religion is concerned with a person’s relationships with self, others, nature, and most importantly God.  In human life these relationships exist in an overlapping, interrelated, dynamic equilibrium, each mutually influencing one another.

We often think of religion as a static noun.  But in this respect, which is one of the most important respects, I would propose it is more appropriate to understand religion as an active, dynamic verb.  So “religion” may be partly defined as an active way of life that is concerned with bettering one’s relationships with self, others, nature, and God.  It is this active, instinctive concern that has partly given rise to the many complex religious cultures of humankind, which each in similar yet diverse ways address our intrinsic human desire to know and improve our place in the context of life’s relationships.

Now what does it mean for a religion to be “true”?  The concept of what is “true” is likewise surprisingly rich.  So here we will only explore some relevant considerations.  Certainly what is “true” can be defined as what is “in accordance with fact or reality.”  This is generally the understanding modern people assume of what’s true, and this sense certainly has some relevance to the task of determining what is the true religion, since religion’s often make truth-claims about the nature of reality.  This definition treats what is “true” as an adjective that can be applied to some noun.  But if “religion” is most importantly an active way of life—or again, more of a verb—than what is “true” needs to be understood as more of an adverb as it applies to religion in this sense.

If you look up “true” in dictionaries, you will find a variety of definitions.  One online source I looked at had more than 20 definitions listed, which speaks to the richness of the subject.  As indicated, understanding what is “true” as an adverb is arguably most important when coming to understand what is the true religion.  As an adverb, “true” can mean “straight” or “accurate” or “in alignment” or “without deviation.”  For example, in the context of building a house, one could say the frame of the house is true if it is built straight and in proper alignment.  Or in the context of shooting an arrow from a bow, one could say the shot is true if it travels straight and accurately towards its intended target without deviation.  The same could also be said for shooting a bullet from a gun.

As we would expect based on this understanding, in the Judeo-Christian traditions the ancient word for “sin” was originally an archery term that meant “to miss the mark.”  An archer would “sin” if his arrow deviated and hit anything other than its intended target, the bullseye.  Sin is therefore understood in terms of an activity in relationship to a targeted goal.  And in the context of religion, the ultimate target of our human pursuits is of course God.  This understanding of “sin” perfectly fits with the understanding outlined thus far of what it means for a religion to be “true.”  Sin is, by definition, both the direction and outcome of any action that is untrue in relation to its proper target.  Or put even more simply, sin is what is not true.

Human beings are always instinctively oriented towards actively pursuing some goal or end.  We humans are goal-directed creatures by nature.  Religion is likewise always concerned with understanding and ordering our proper goals and pursuits.  More specifically, a religion may be said to be “true” to the degree that it orients one towards self, others, nature, and God in a way that promote wellbeing and growth in each relationship across time.  Accordingly, religion is untrue to the degree it fails to do this or, even worse, actually misdirects and disorients its adherents in ways that create disordered, dysfunctional, “sinful” relationships.

All of this raises the additional question, what is “God”?  Out of the areas considered thus far, the notion of God or the Divine is perhaps the richest and hardest to comprehensively define.  The Divine is called many different things by many different people and religious traditions, such as God, Yahweh, Christ, Brahman, Allah, Tao, Nirvana, Satcitananda, etc, etc.  And then each tradition has its own rich traditions that offer further words and images and ideas for the Divine.  Islam has its “99 names of Allah,” just to give one example.  These understandings of the Divine certainly are not completely identical, which is to some degree unsurprising and even expected, if they are in fact variously oriented towards a truly transcendent and therefore ultimately unnamable form of truth, goodness, and being.  We should therefore expect the see some diversity surrounding the universal unity of humankind’s historic religions if this is the case.

Beginning with a modest definition of God is necessary since many religious and nonreligious people fight and divide over doctrinal minutia without noticing the basic concerns they broadly share in common.  We can become so focused on the details that we miss the big picture; so focused on the different details of different leaves of different branches that we miss the forest for the trees.  So what I would offer is more of a modest, minimalist (which is still quite significant) definition of “God” for our purposes here.  I would propose our understandings of God are roughly aiming towards the same target insofar as they identify the Divine with the highest, most perfect conceivable form of truth, goodness, and being, and therefore the highest end that human beings can possibly imagine and pursue.  So for the purpose of understanding what is the true religion, “God” may be modestly defined as the highest possible form of truth, good, and being a person can imagine and pursue.  And given that God transcends what we humans can completely understand, and given that we humans are self-transcending creatures that continually extend ourselves beyond what we currently understand, we should expect our understandings of God to evolve as we evolve in our ongoing pursuit of God.

With all of this in mind, I would broadly propose that the “true religion” is any way of life which promotes actively orienting oneself in relationship towards self, others, nature, and God in such a way supports harmony, alignment, and growth in each relationship simultaneously through human life across time.  True religion is therefore concerned with dynamically ordering and organizing one’s significant relationships under God for the sake of human flourishing, with God being modestly defined as the highest form of truth, good, and being a person can possibly pursue.  This understanding therefore sees the true religion primarily as a dynamic, growth-oriented activity in the context of our multiple, overlapping, interpenetrating, evolving human relationships.

Take a look at this image for a moment.  What do you see when you look at this picture?


Giusto de’ Menabuoi, Paradise (dome fresco) c. 1378 Fresco Baptistery, Padua

One thing I see is a bullseye, with everyone standing around side by side, all oriented and directed towards the same unifying end.  It is a picture of social relationships in the context of their common relationship to God in Christ, as understood in Christian tradition.  It is a picture of some of the ideal relational arrangements that should be shared between people and Christ, the highest known form of truth, good, and being for Christians.  Incidentally, Christ is also pictured at the highest point of this domed ceiling.  So individuals who stand and look upwards upon this magnificent work of art can be filled with a sense that they too are participating in the living reality of what is being pictured.   Indeed, none of the features of this artwork are arbitrary.

Some notes and implications on the “true religion”

Now let’s further explore some notes and implications of this understanding of the true religion, in no particular order.  One thing that needs to be noted in relation to all of this is that every person and humanmade tradition is imperfect and therefore imperfectly related to self, others, nature, and God through time.  The human desire to know and live in truth, goodness, and fullness of life is a profoundly basic instinct.  This basic desire may certainly become obstructed or corrupted by other desires that can misdirect a person towards various ends of misery and ruin.  But everyone nevertheless has some intrinsic sense of what is true and good and ultimately desirable, as faint as it may be, which they imperfectly act on.  So I am imperfectly oriented towards my relationships with myself, others, nature, and God.  You are imperfectly oriented towards your relationships with yourself, others, nature, and God.  We all are and so are all our religions.

Second, this definition of the “true religion” transcends typical interreligious and nonreligious dividing lines.  This “true religion” cannot be restricted or confined to the boundaries of one particular historic tradition.  By this understanding, it would be possible, as far as I can tell, for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be more or less imperectfly oriented towards pursuing the highest possible form of truth, good, and life that continually exceeds their current understandings.  And, likewise, it would be possible for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be oriented towards some lesser, non-transcendent end that may be functionally worshipped in such a way that continually reinforces their current understandings, which will sooner or later end in ruin and extinction if it goes unchanged.

So this understanding of what it means to practice the “true religion” means, ironically enough, that a true religious practitioner cannot be identified simply by the religious or nonreligious label they may outwardly identify with.  That’s just too superficial.  Notice also this understanding does not require accepting what would typically be thought of as supernatural beliefs or claims.  I believe it is possible for a self-described atheist to be more or less as imperfectly oriented towards their relationships with self, others, nature, and the highest form of good they can conceive of as a religious person may be.  I’m sure some atheists are doing better in these regards than I am.

Third, this understanding means religion is not simply a matter of accepting a certain set of abstract ideas, despite how much some overly doctrinaire religious people may make it out to be.  Religion is, again, a whole way of life in relation to an ultimately desirable end.  And the degree to which a religious way of life is “true” is the degree to which it is aiming towards God.  Religion is not just about sorting out the right theology in your head.

Fourth, when religions are viewed as entire ways of life directed towards personal, social, natural, and spiritual growth in relation to God, transcendent truth, goodness, and being, the criteria for evaluating what is a “true religion” partly becomes the degree to which a religious way of life supports holy and healthy living in each of these relationships.  Likewise, the degree to which any religious way of life fails to do this or does the opposite, it is “untrue” by definition.  And since every humanmade religious tradition and movement is imperfect, each contain elements that are true and elements that are untrue, which is one reason why religions, like people, should be subject to continual reform and development as they relate to self, others, nature, and God.

The measure of the true religion is, in the final analysis, more practical over theoretical, more pragmatic than speculative, more outcome-oriented than dogma-oriented.  Theory, dogma, ritual, and tradition have their place.  But in the true religion, theory always is meant to apply to practice in ways that enhance wellbeing and growth.  Otherwise theory is useless, if not damnable.  For the religiously doctrinaire person who hates their neighbour is worse than the apparently nonreligious atheist who loves their neighbour.  Indeed, the end of theology isn’t more theology, nor ritual more ritual, nor law more law, nor culture more culture.  The proper end of all religious activities whether theology, ritual, law, or culture is more truth and goodness that leads to transformed living and human flourishing.

The only place where the word “religion” is used in the New Testament scriptures of the Christian tradition is in the following passage.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  This speaks to true religion’s concern with bettering one’s social relationship, as well as keeping oneself pure by being well oriented towards self and God.

And fifth, any religion that is ultimately concerned with preserving its own cultural traditions above all else—instead of evolving in pursuit of transcendent truth, goodness, and being—is not a “true religion” in this most important respect.  Judeo-Christian tradition would say religion has become an idol in this case.  For any way of life that is oriented towards anything less than God is engaged in idolatry.  Idolatry involves deifying and worshipfully relating to some non-transcendent object, whether material or mental, as if it were God when it is, in fact, not God.

Any way of life, whether outwardly religious or nonreligious, is ultimately destined for ruin and extinction if it is oriented towards some non-transcendent end, whatever it may be.  For idolatry is a way of life that has a limit, a ceiling, a boundary that will sooner or later rigidly restrict it from evolving beyond its set capacity.  This is why when religious cultures are treated as ends in themselves, they eventually become rigid, restrictive, regressive, and resistant to change.  Only a way of life that is oriented towards a truly transcendent end is ultimately worthy of human devotion and glorifying to God.

This speaks to religion’s need to promote a proper relationship with religion itself, for religion is not religion’s end, but at best religious traditions can be supportive means for pursuing God in the context of human life.  Any religion that exists for its own self-preservation, or any religion that restricts the pursuit of God, is not a true religion.  Some Buddhists say religion, at its best, is like a finger pointing at the moon.  This is exactly right.

One of the most urgent tasks of true religion today is to establish good relationships with people of other religions or no religion.  A great deal of interreligious conflict is motivated by forms of tribal arrogance and pride backed by a false sense that one’s own religion is absolutely true to the exclusion of all other religions.  Perhaps if we formed better relationships with those outside of our own religion, we could further discover the real meaning of true religion, which transcends and unifies us across lesser tribal differences.


On Religion

Fundamentalists are those who become extremely overconfident in the truthfulness of their radically oversimplified views of life.  A fundamentalist is someone who is totally sure he or she knows exactly what’s going on in human existence.  This typically includes knowing what we’re all here for, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil, where good and evil come from, and what precisely needs to be done to rid the world of evil and establish a good and just society.  Their knowledge is held with extreme confidence that leaves no room for any real openness, questions, inquiry, or uncertainty.  Their underlying motive is not so much authentic faith or hope as it is a dogged desperation to defend a total lifesystem they’ve become excessively and exclusively invested in.  Like a gambler who’s bet too much, now they’re all in.  So uncertainty becomes anathema.  Doubt becomes sin.  A psychoemotional upside of fundamentalism is that fundamentalists don’t need to honestly face the existential discomforts of living with uncertainties.  They can rest easy because they have all the answers.  The appeal of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

As far as I can tell, fundamentalists and ideologues both share the same tendencies towards becoming overconfident in oversimplifications.  They are different labels for representing what seems to be essentially the same thing.  Both tend to arrogantly and uncritically dismiss the views of others before giving them an honest hearing, let alone thoughtful consideration.  Presently it is common for some to react to the inadequacies of one fundamentalism by creating or allying with a different fundamentalism.  This drives a great deal of our culture wars, whether their garbs are religious, scientific, political, social, economic, or some combination thereof.  An individual raised in a fundamentalist religious community may react to his upbringing by embracing some simplistic secular fundamentalism with the same level of overconfidence and zeal he previously possessed.  This is just one possible conversion story in one possible context.  It could just as easily be told in the other direction or in a different setting.  The point is simply that sometimes individuals trade one fundamentalism for another fundamentalism, instead of moving beyond the narrow norms and mindsets that characterize fundamentalism itself.  It is also a mistake to see the fundamentalist impulse described here as strictly a religious phenomenon.  It is a human phenomenon.

I wonder if fundamentalism is a developmental stage in the process of growing up, like adolescence.  I wonder if it is a stage that ideally should be journeyed through and beyond.  I wonder if fundamentalism is a stage that some unfortunately get stuck in.  An individual’s psychology and knowledge develops from simplicity to ever-greater complexity in the journey from infancy to adulthood.  It is common for individuals to experience crises at major transitions of development that challenge established knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles.  These destabilizing, decentering experiences cause us to rethink and reform.  This reforming process can be so scary and discomforting that some choose to avoid it.  Growth would cause too much upheaval.  So they remain desperately attached to whatever knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles they have already formed as a result.  This is sad whenever it occurs for many reasons.  Such individuals have put a ceiling on their development.  Their past development has become an anchor to their future development.  If fundamentalism is indeed a common developmental stage then a lifelong fundamentalist would have a similar problem as an adult who never moves beyond her teenage psychology: arrested development.


On Religion

Everything and everyone in human life has a shadow side.  Our tendency is to ignore and deny our shadows.  It can be uncomfortable acknowledging darkness wherever it may lurk, let alone attempting to address it.  Willful ignorance has its appeal.  Our treatment of religion is one huge exception to this.  It has become popular to reduce religion only to its shadow and selectively shine a light only on the worst horrors of religious history.  To many these days religion is all evil, and perhaps even the source of all evil. History shows religion does have a long and dark shadow, no question about that.  So there’s plenty to draw from. Portraying religion as only evil requires presenting an extremely imbalanced story though, which can only lead to further misconceptions and mistakes.

It can be psychologically tempting to blame all of our shadows on religion and assume that everything else would be just peachy apart from its existence.  Life becomes simple.  Thine enemy is known.  We can form a mental map of where the shadows are that helps us sleep at night.  Willfully ignoring and displacing some of our shadows doesn’t make their presence magically disappear though.  We’re still discomforted by some mysterious sense and feel compelled to blame the darkness—vague and obscure and dissociated as it is—on something or someone.  Groupthink develops as people rally together reinforcing common enemies and illusions.  Habitually blaming some simplistic external target can become a convenient strategy for eluding any personal responsibility for the shadows too.  Hence “religion” become just such a target for most if not all of the blame.

Every single human affair inevitably has its shadow side, from religion to politics to economics to business to science to education to healthcare to medicine to families to relationships to sex, and the list goes on and on.  To not see this is to have partial vision. Every human endeavour inevitably has the potential to cause good or evil, because every human being carries both light and darkness, as well as some degree of power to choose their own motives, actions, and ends.  Seeing our shadows doesn’t have to be bleak either, as some might cry out with cynicism.  At first it can be startling and uncomfortable.  But it’s also realistic.  We need to see our shadows if we truly desire to see all of what is real. And we need sober optimism, clear vision, and perseverance in the face of reality.  For some this begins with developing a clearer and more balanced view of religion.


On Religion

Religion is what we make of it.  Religious traditions, broadly speaking, are not all bad, nor are they all good.  Those who reduce religion to being either all bad or all good make the mistake of thinking in all-or-nothing terms.  Only a partial picture can result from all-or-nothing thinking, which means either the bad caused by religion becomes ignored or the good caused by religion becomes ignored, both potentially leading to serious misconceptions about religion in general.  Blaming religion for evil in the world is also a misguided commonplace.  Religion, in and of itself, is somewhat like a tool.  Take a hammer, for instance.  A hammer can be used to build a shelter that keeps someone safe and warm or it can be used to murder someone and cause great harm.  But a hammer itself is not inherently good or bad.  Blaming the hammer for any evils caused by it wouldn’t make sense either.  Ethics enters the picture depending upon how and for what purpose some person makes use of the hammer.  So it is with religion.

At their worst, religious traditions are entirely humanmade creations that are used for oppressive purposes.  At their best, religious traditions are co-creations of humans working in partnership with Divine Inspiration, always and necessarily, which are used to support and enhance human spiritual flourishing.  Either way, people always have a part in making religion.  This fairly obvious observation shouldn’t be a threat to Christians either, though some might perceive it to be.  It really is only a threat to the notion that my religion somehow dropped down to earth from heaven as it were.  But the whole narrative movement of the biblical story surrounds God’s desire to live in loving partnership with human beings, which is mostly powerfully displayed in the climactic event of the Incarnation of God.  The God of Judeo-Christianity wants to live and work with people in history, even when it comes to developing religious traditions.  This God is willing to get involved in the messy and changing particularities of human life, meeting us wherever we’re at, for the sake of supporting us in moving forward towards a better future.  And human life and culture are full of particularities, which means that every humanmade religious tradition will be enculturated necessarily, with no exceptions.  So as time passes and cultures evolve, religions will always need reforming.  For what may have once been very relatable and helpful for one group in one culture in one time can become alien and perplexing to another.  But at their best, our religious traditions contain timeless wisdom and truths that simply need repackaging, not reforming.



On Religion

What would you say if someone were to tell you that they think science is dangerous and worthless because of all the destruction that has been caused by it?  Because we got things like the atom bomb thanks to advancements in science.  What would you say if someone were to tell you that they despise science entirely because of the evils that were caused through research and testing in eugenics?

Speaking for myself, I would want to say a couple of things.  Hating everything to do with science for these reasons requires a lot of sloppy all-or-nothing thinking.  This is pretty plain.  I mean, sure, scientific knowledge and progress has been used to cause some immense harm over history.  But it has also been the source of amazing progresses in medicine, in technology, in our understanding of the natural world, among other things.  Another important nuance that should be thrown into the mix is that pseudoscience is possible and real.  Eugenics is widely considered to have been pseudoscientific work because its main principles were not well supported by empirical evidence.  And yet it flourished for a time.

I think most would readily see the holes in this sort of blanket attack on science.  Yet the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking can be frequently found in contemporary polemics against religion.  Many anti-relgion critics will attack religion, wholesale, with the most shockingly narrow tunnel vision in some instances.  Either because of intention or ignorance (it’s impossible for me to know which, but I’m not sure which is worse), many polemicists narrowly restrict their focus to the dark side of religious history, firing fury and vitriol at outrageously selective targets.  Now don’t get me wrong: an honest, thorough reading of history shows that every major religious tradition has blood on its hands.  And this is a sobering reality that deserves to be faced by everyone with a religious commitment.  But, when we pull the camera back for a panoramic view of human history, one thing that becomes painfully obvious is it’s possible to use almost anything—from religion to politics to science to business to technology to friendship to sex—for good or for evil.  We’d be terribly negligent to not recognize this.  Accordingly, we’d be terribly negligent to not recognize and respect the many ways that religion has motivated people to actively work for good and human flourishing throughout history.

There is another necessary nuance that is often absent from the attacks of anti-religion polemicists.  Just as science can be co-opted by pseudoscience, religion can be co-opted by pseudoreligious motives and ends.  And yes, I know, different people will have different opinions about what true religion really is—we live in a world where there isn’t complete, unanimous consensus about what the truest religion is within the community of those who identify as ‘religious’ (and the same goes for science, though many wish to ignore it).  Just as the work of eugenicists gained influence for a time because it was validated with the powerful brand name of ‘science,’ people have committed atrocities ‘in the name of God’ by backing their violent interests with some stamp-of-religious-approval.

Carefully comparing the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s followers with the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s founder is crucial when it comes to wading through the messy matters of separating religion from pseudoreligion.  For instance, if the founder taught love and a follower is teaching hate, or if the founder taught peace and a follower is teaching violence, then there’s good reason to think that there’s something fishy going on.  In other words, there’s good reason to hold out the possibility that the follower’s religion is not the same as the founder’s religion; that the follower has used the founder’s ‘brand’ to back their own pseudoreligious aspirations.  Sometimes these sort of inconsistencies are painfully apparent.  Sometimes serious study is needed to see them.  Either way, this work is essential and worthwhile if we are to take religion seriously.


On Religion

God is not religion.  This notion is obvious to most.  Yet God’s being (his ontological reality) is frequently conflated with religious traditions (our systems of rules, rituals, and dogmas).  But this thinking leads to a host of misunderstandings.  Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, work with me for a bit for the sake of speculation: if we assume there is a God, isn’t his self-existence different than our religious traditions?  Isn’t the phenomena of religion our human reaction to the phenomena of God and the supernatural?

Confusing God and religion is like confusing actual people and events with the newspapers that cover them.  It’s like confusing celebrities with the work of the paparazzi and the worship of their fans.  It’s like confusing nature with the work of biologists.  Now, obviously these are analogies, and they’ll become bizarre if pressed too far.  But the point is, the reality of an object of study is different from the act, work, and traditions that emerge from studying, itself.

Many distinguish between religion and spirituality because they do not think they need a particular religious tradition, with it’s particular systems and labels, to mediate their connection with God; they think they can have a real, unmediated spiritual connection with God apart from adhering to a specific tradition.  I think there’s some truth to this.  In a similar way, a person does not need to be a professional scientist to observe and experience nature.  They do not need to be abreast with all the academic literature, they do not need a PhD in biology, in order to observe and encounter a natural reality which scientists have extensively studied and documented.  I can admire, touch, and breathe in the beautiful reality of a flower without being a Floriculturist.  And so, if God is not religion, then I think it’s conceivable—at the very least—that his presence could be experienced inside and outside of the boundaries of particular religious traditions.

Now here’s where this gets complicated: even though God is not religion, I would not suggest that religious traditions and their particular rules, rituals, and dogmas are useless junk that we can toss aside now that we’ve discovered how to have an unmediated, spiritual connection with God.  This strikes me as the height of anti-historical arrogance.  Plus religious traditions are complex and diverse, so assuming they are all good or all bad is careless, all-or-nothing thinking.  Much could be said about this, but suffice to say that traditions should be studied more thoroughly and thoughtfully than they often are.

Distinguishing the phenomenon God from the phenomena of religion is also important because religion is not all good.  On the contrary, religious traditions and movements are a mix of good things, bad things, and downright ugly things.  And it’s common for people to blame God for all of the terrible shit that’s been caused by religious zealots ‘in the name of God.’  But it’s crucial that we take some responsibility, that admit our ownership over our ideas and actions—we need to own our part in religion and not just sluff it all off onto God if it’s ugly.

But back to my main idea: I bet we’d agree that nature is not biology.  That celebrities are not the tabloids.  That you are not the sum total of what your friends or enemies think about you.  In the same way, God is God and religion is a reaction to God.  Confusing the phenomenon of God with the phenomena of religion leads to fuzzy thinking.  And confusing religion with spirituality can lead to sloppy misunderstandings.


On Religion

My opinions about religions offend everyone.  Well, I’m exaggerating.  Let me be more specific: my opinions about the relationship between different religious traditions tend to unsettle the majority of people, both religious and nonreligious, that I chat with.

One type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant similarities; that there are real areas of overlap that should be acknowledged and affirmed.  Often I’m immediately thought to be an uncritical religious pluralist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially the same, and that they are equally effective paths to reaching the divine.  I’m given the impression that I must be the sort of person that thoughtlessly equates Pentecostalism with Buddhism, and Catholicism with Satanism.  What I need is a healthy helping of the rule of non-contradiction, of course.

Another type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant differences; that there are real points of distinction should be acknowledged and affirmed.  I’m immediately thought to be an ignorant fundamentalist, a narrow-minded exclusivist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially different—at least different from the tradition that I have embraced!  I must think that people who follow my religion have exclusive access to God’s presence, and everyone else is totally isolated and disconnected from God.  My views may even be potentially dangerous since such religious exclusivism can create serious conflict.

Neither of these partisan pigeonholes come remotely close to representing my opinions about the relationship between religions.  This is because I think there are significant similarities and significant differences among the major religious traditions.  This doesn’t strike me as a novel or inconsistent opinion to hold, yet it does nonetheless confound many of people that I delve into the matter with on frequent occasion.  Affirming both seems to me to be the most honest, sensible thing to do though.  Sure, it’s general affirmation that can be detailed in various ways (and something I intend to explore further in future reflections).  But it’s an important truth to begin with that avoids overly simplified extremes.

Unfortunately, like many controversial issues these days, most opinions concerning the relationship between religions have become extremely polarized.  Discussions have consequently become extremely heated, that is if they are not shutdown before they begin.  And for myself, occupying a position between the poles means that I’m treated with suspicion at best or contempt at worst by people from both sides.

We are collectively more aware of our plurality now in the 21st century.  We are aware that we will encounter people who have embraced different religions and people who have not embraced any religion in our increasingly diverse communities.  Personally, I think our diversity is a good thing, something that can be a source of enrichment instead of division if we allow it to be.  My main hope is that the divide between the so-called ‘pluralists’ and ‘exclusivists’ will shrink in the years to come.  I hope that conversations on the matter will increasingly press further and expand beyond the two partisan positions that commonly dominate the field of discussion.  Hopefully the polarized, often heated treatment of the matter is just a growing pain in a process that will lead to more nuanced, respectful dialogue.  May we all have the courage to converse with each other out of an attitude of genuine curiosity and acceptance, knowing that accepting one another need not require us to always agree with one another.