AREN'T we the offspring of tool-making hunter-gatherers wholly at ease with the idea of slaughtering other creatures for their own survival? Have we done more than simply industrialise and commercialise those activities? Isn’t the blood-letter one of us? We know that bad stuff happens. So, while it’s one thing to become aware of realities far greater than oneself, it’s a different thing to live comfortably with that realisation.
Unless we’re prepared to live always on tenterhooks, or skim by life in mists of existential denial, we have to find some way of trusting the mystery of which we’re such an intrinsic part.
On foundations of their awareness of things beyond mortal comprehension, our ancestors built superstructures of thought and insight that complemented and facilitated their day-to-day lives. They learned to make survival a shared concern. Their constructions may have helped to make warfare one of humanity’s earliest collective activities, but they were not careless or capricious. To their slow drawing-together and passing-on there was a painstaking care.
As the tales of one generation were passed on to the next, and the next, the good sense of experience must have become an organising theme, each generation’s insight enhancing the experience and insights of the past. In an oral tradition, stories get edited and gathered into each other as myths, and form themselves into a body of cultural wisdom.
Hero-figures emerge, values coalesce, ideals become explicit… myths intertwine to become a body of thought we can identify as an enduring, composite truth and the culture itself becomes, more than a collective narrative, an identity: a resource to empower descendants in their struggles with the world. The stupid stuff, for the most part, gets left behind. Symbols, metaphors, imagery and poetry give some elasticity to ideas that otherwise would be too rigidly or narrowly understood.
From early days, those hunter-gatherers seem to have been less than wholly at ease with the idea of slaughtering other creatures to consume as food. And many hunting and gathering societies have been known to surround their harvesting of animals, including birds and fish, with ritual and a sense of obligation to somehow counter the abstract imbalances they sense in the taking of life and set some bounds around the necessary act of killing.
This, it seems to me, has to lie at the heart of the ways of thinking that have come to be called “religion”: a primal need of the human consciousness to maintain a balance. Losing it can destabilise the intersecting dynamic and static realities that keep us alive. In the same way as a single broken thread can lead to the disintegration of a piece of fabric, so the heedless breaking of a single thread within the integrated natural processes that sustain us may lead to catastrophe.
The idea of a “god” or “gods” having the power to over-ride the damage we do, or punish us if we do it again, cannot have been the silliest way to face the abyss of mystery that envelops every experience we try to fully understand. Ultimately, a religion gives us a way, not only to make survival a collective concern, but also to make it a transcendent universal aspiration and a path to redemption. And there are dangers to that.
In even in the most literal of ways, it’s reasonable to think of the “religion” having been informed by interactions with, and instruction by, the “mystery”… thousands upon thousands of years of mystery. But, while a religion is formed and propagated collectively, it can only be deeply experienced individually. It’s not like joining a club; nor does it appropriately involve the regimentation of inquiry and supposition. It has to be more personal than that.
But there’s a strong impulse to back away from the abyss itself and, instead, turn a religion’s olden founders and exemplars into talismans to cling to, seeing them as more than what they were, and so lose a sense of the corporate shaping of the “belief” system.
So “Christians” sometimes adopt Jesus as a fetishist’s totem —a lucky charm — to be worshipped superstitiously… despite the Gospels as having consistently portrayed Jesus as pointing beyond himself, to “God”: to the mystery. Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, 500 years previously, did the same. “Islam” means “surrender: not to Muhammad, but to Allah the Merciful… to the compassionate mystery. Judaism talks to Yahweh, the “I Am”, the mystery of existence, but interposes the ancient books and falls into the anachronistic superstitions of Zionism, locating a “Holy Land” as a particular place crucial to its divinely ordained destiny… when the whole Earth is necessarily “holy”. All of these reductions of mystery to the level of garden furniture need to be recognised for what they are, or religions face meltdowns of their own making. And that would see their slowly, painstakingly acquired reservoirs of wisdom run to waste.
The mystery is absolute. The purpose of a religion is to give us healthy ways to live well within the mystery; a healthy religion does not focus on death and what might happen afterwards — no-one can possibly know the other side of death, but no-one should be incited to fear it. A healthy religion helps us to focus on life and gather our capacities to live it well. A religious “truth” can only mean that people have found it be “true” — in the way that a chart or compass bearing is “true”: a religious “truth” can never be more than a touchstone or a pointer; if it becomes an anchor, it is no longer true.
A religion that makes greater claims either imagines a very little “god” that’s itself subject to the greater mystery, or it is obliterating its own only reason for existence: there can be no one, single, “true” religion until there’s no longer a mystery. When there’s no mystery, there’ll be no need for religion. The first sign that a religion is running amok is when it forgets this.
At the age of about 14, I was taken to a Billy Graham rally: it made me think of black and white newsreels of Hitler rallies and street mobs. I recoiled from his manner, his message and his rhetoric, and from religion. What I’d seen was controlling and manipulative, sinister, ugly and bombastic. So, by my 15th birthday, I was a confirmed atheist. That I got bullied for it at the “Christian” boarding school I was sent to pretty much confirmed me in my view that Christians and Nazis were cut from the same unpleasant cloth.
Like most atheists of my acquaintance, I simply saw no need to suppose a god exists… certainly not that loathsome, uniquely male, arbitrary and violent “God” that got off on the blood sacrifice of “his” own “son” and turned a blind eye to atrocity while, at the same time, stooping to answer the prayers of “good” people for parking places. “His” kind of “heaven” would be my kind of hell.
No-one showed me any good reason to ensnare my intellect or my experience in the dictates of texts that had been misconstrued, diluted, misrepresented, exploited and perverted by 2,000 years of centralisation, imperialism, anti-intellectualism, crusading, sectarianism, misogyny, warring, witch burnings, persecution, slave trading, genocide, ethnocide… the “charge sheet” is far too long to repeat here. Atheism held exciting challenges to think critically for myself, to enter into experience, to open to feelings, to be open-minded and curious… to make the most of my capacities and my freedom.
But at last it sunk in: I one day recognised the impossibility of unravelling all the mysteries of existence* using a merely human mind, certainly not with mine, and the impossibility of proving a negative. I saw that my proselytising atheism was not just conceited and contradictory… it was also stupid. So I stopped declaring it. Instead, I went looking.
The Christian narrative, if it’s taken as an example, has been muddied by omission, addition and mutation, translation and interpretation issues and trivial confusions, but it also is distanced from us by all of the “stuff” that teems in our consciousness today that was not teeming in the consciousness of its founders.
Many Christians seem to have approached the complexities by making the bits they like tiny enough to fit into some cramped “Sunday” corner of their consciousness, like an preserved anatomical specimen in a medical museum’s vault… to be taken down and peered at briefly from time to time — but never is the jar opened. As a society, we’ve learned to compartmentalise consciousness and avoid difficult paths of thought. So we’re encouraged to see religious teaching as more “stuff” to stuff into over-stuffed minds and lives… where the wisdom of it is soon extinguished.
Cultural change is bound to throw a religion into a spin, and the responses of Christian churches to modernism and postmodernism have been surprising for their incompetence: untenable attempts to assert the factual historicity of all of its sacred literature; attempts to de-mystify teachings about the mystery; efforts to trivialise the issue of faith by turning it all into matters of “morality”. But, while so much has been done to obscure the core values of Christianity and its wisdom, it has yet to extinguish them.
Religion is far from being the cause of all of the world’s problems, as some like to allege. Rather, it’s sometimes their best chance of a resolution. Greed, one comes to see, is vastly more ruinous than religion — and religions have too often been subverted to political and economic adventures driven by greed.
Political hegemony is far more destructive than religion; militarism and ethnic conceit are incomparably uglier… governments have always perpetrated far more serious harm to humanity than religions, not least by promoting their interests in the name of a religion.
But religions are not alone. Ill-motivated and damaging projects have been launched under all varieties of lying banners of convenience: from “freedom” to “manifest destiny”, “peace” to “democracy”, “empire”, “civilisation as we know it” to “the people”… anything to incite a mob. Hitler’s concentration camp guards didn’t have “Gott Mit Uns” on their belt buckles because were answering calls to a religious vocation.
The point to which we’re inevitably returned is our own unique, personal consciousness.
And that is what gives us each a personal mountain to climb and a personal mountain from which to gaze on beauty, on life, on wonderment… on expanses of extraordinary, teeming diversity.
From our own mountaintop, we need only to muster the courage to leap, to fly, to venture, to live. Personally, I’ve found that Jesus’ purported core teachings to be helpfully “true” for this quest: the loving and forgiving, trusting the mystery, being unafraid, seeking wisdom and “truth”, and refraining from greed, judgement and vengeance… even to the extent of trying to put this “way”, “truth” and “life” in mind whenever I eat and drink.
These tips all disencumber us. There’s nothing like grudges, revenge-seeking, chasing after money, risk aversion or picking apart the actions of other people to seize us with immobility.
And I do hear an echo of the far, far older, primal call for balance. Balance is perhaps what we most deeply need if we’re to live well.
This is where wisdom traditions and religions can help us, not by prescribing a journey but by giving us the confidence and courage to undertake one… even a companion or two for encouragement along the way.
Our lives may be short, but there’s plenty of living to be done.
* see ‘Making Connections’ click here... Making Connections