One of the biggest issues most non-believers have with religious practice, in general, is how literally the stories are presented. The latest crop of worshipers, those going to a modern, non-denominational Christian church, don’t go quite as far as traditions of the past, but that influence is still strong.
I’ve touched on my interesting ride with religion and spirituality in the past and that I’ve recently landed at the feet of The Buddha. However, I’ve been trying to give Christianity another chance. Not from a believer’s point of view, but as a student. I have increasingly been confronted with the idea that each of our religious traditions are simply trying to answer the same question and if we take a step back from the literal “God in Human Form” label that is attributed to Jesus, for example, then we can fully appreciate the wisdom in Christian stories. Applied to our other traditions the pool of wisdom could grow even greater.
Personifying God feels good. Creating a God that allows us to not be afraid and to take comfort in someone or something that knows the answer and is watching out for us satiates our scared, primitive brains. Humans are tribal; we like strong leaders. God, in monotheistic traditions, fits that bill. He is our Father, our Guide, and our Leader. He is the creator of all existence and helps protect us from evil in the world. Part of that protection allows our tribal nature to really thrive and paints a nice border around those who are like us and those who are not; those who belong and those of us that are to be condemned.
Does a feel good belief structure represent quality or convenience? Are we better served shifting our perspective? What if we really broke it down to the awe that inspired our many religious traditions in the first place?
God is love. God is life. God is each living creature that crawls, swims, flies, or grows in a field.
There is a major adjustment in perception when God is viewed as an intangible force that can’t be fully understood or communicated with versus an individual to be worshipped. When you start looking at your friend, child, or co-worker as a manifestation of God just as much as you see God in your own reflection, your world view begins to change.
To sit with the idea that our religious traditions are born out of a need for comfort can obviously be…uncomfortable. Over time we’ve built a God that resembles us, instead of the other way around; tweaking and cherry picking the old texts to further our own comfort in what we say we believe. If we are honest with ourselves, would the original theme of Jesus’ teachings ever really bring him to the sort of behavior that we engage in today?
We have become lost in the idea that God is to be worshipped and served. We have become lost in the idea that if we behave and follow a certain set of rules that make God pleased with us, we will get eternal salvation. No matter the tradition, this ultimately fails each adherent. We are left with a points system that reinforces not only our own innate shortcomings, but that we are unable to achieve inner peace without the vicarious redemption offered through religious adherence.
The lack of faith in oneself creates a spiritual addict of sorts. Someone who can’t bring themselves to peace without a hit of the divine. And when you become reliant on the divine for the salvation of your eternal soul, you become quite obedient. At least in front of your fellow worshippers.
It was this asterisk of “follow the rules or burn forever” that sparked my distaste for organized religion as a young adult. This rejection of religion stayed with me for many years until I started poking around Buddhism.
Straight away I noticed that The Buddha presented his experience of enlightenment plainly and offered it as an option for others. While his message was similar to the lessons attributed to Jesus, there was a much stronger emphasis on the ability of the individual. The Buddha did not want you to think of him as a deity, nor were you to worship him. Just as he figured out inner peace through enlightenment, you could too. Or not. He said this without threatening that you would burn in hell for not following him, because at the end of the day Hell is a threat from a supposedly all-knowing creator that loves you unconditionally (a little of that distaste may still linger).
Let’s reframe things. What if we look at Jesus and Mohammed, not as literal manifestations of God, but as teachers? While not technically a religion in the same way as Christianity or Islam, Buddhism has references to similar themes of the supernatural. Let us also think of these references not as literal descriptions of other worldly beings, but as metaphor.
Describing your emotional state to another person is difficult and even if you share a similar reaction to the same experience, no two minds are alike. It simply cannot be put into words. I think our connection to each other and the Universe/life/love energy/etc. is the ultimate form of incommunicable emotion. We have no words to describe it because it can only be felt. Millennia of human groups and tribes and civilizations have tried repeatedly to put into words the wonder that is our experience in life, but what results is a tribal mess of Us versus Them.
What if many spiritual and religious texts use these types of metaphors because it is incredibly difficult to conceptualize what creating your personal hell or heaven feels like?
We endlessly fight and argue over who is right and who is wrong and who’s creation story is the closest to true while we let people die in our streets. We create laws that restrict personal freedoms and access to care while preaching divine adherence and abandon those who we claim to protect.
We don’t need to worship a deity. We need each other. Our faith is better served to ourselves and our neighbors. Our faith is in our ability to overcome the inevitable suffering that comes with being conscious beings. Our religious traditions have tried to help us by giving us broad and easily digestible stories and sets of rules to adhere to. They make us feel good when we can sit back and say, “It’s in God’s hands now”, but how good does it really feel? How much good can we do when we let go of the personal duties we have to ourselves and to our neighbors and hand them over to our unseen saviors?
Is there an actual afterlife where you burn in a lake of fire for eternity because you didn’t worship a specific deity? Probably not. Is there a way to become so miserable in your life that it feels like you’re in hell? Absolutely. We can use the lessons in our religious texts to face this personal hell head on and conquer it ourselves. Each one of us has that ability baked right in. No tithing needed.
Placing your faith in your own ability to confront life’s suffering and using the resulting inner peace to be an agent of good in the world means confronting the terrifying reality that we simply don’t know what happens when we die or even how we got here in the first place. Terrifying as it may be, it frees us up to accept everyone for who they are regardless of arbitrary rules or rituals.
Love wins in the end; love for ourselves and for one another. We’re all we have, let’s act like it.