Religion, in whatever form, is about a particular idea of Ultimate Reality. Religious people gather in sacred places all around the world to worship their understanding of Absolute Truth. It does not matter to any of them that the Absolute is depicted in contradictory and competing ways by other groups that are similarly gathered. It is said that just as light is reflected in a thousand different facets of a single diamond, so the Absolute is reflected in the eyes, and ways, of those who worship the Absolute. We hear: “There are many paths, but one journey.” And: “There are many trails up the mountain, but it is one mountain that they all traverse.” The one thing that all religions agree on is the idea of One Absolute Unchanging Eternal Truth. Ultimate Reality is ONE. We are all finding our way to The One, and we all will be incorporated into The Great Oneness, out of which we come and to which we return.
Well. It’s an interesting theory. But, how do we know? Who says so? What makes us think there is “one mountain”? Why do we say (again and again), “Many paths, one journey”? For all we know, there are many paths, many journeys. We say things we would like to be so, but we have no way of knowing if the things we say are, in fact, so. In the end, we just have to “take it on faith,” don’t we? And, whenever we are asked, or told, to “Take something on faith,” it means that we are being asked, or told, to take someone else’s word for it. We are being asked, or told, to believe something that someone else thinks is so. We “take it on faith,” because there is no way of knowing if it is so, and we don’t want to worry about it any longer.
Of course, there is the claim of Enlightenment, or Special Revelation, wherein certain individuals are said to have seen into the heart of Ultimate Reality, embraced the Oneness of which they speak, and have remained with us to tell us how it is. Never mind that their versions of the Absolute are all different. It’s back to the diamond metaphor and the fact that Ultimate Reality is too much to be contained in one—or even two—descriptions, or explanations. In the end, we have to “take it on faith” that the claims of the Enlightened Ones are accurate depictions of Ultimate Truth—and believe as we are told.
Deciding whom we are going to believe isn’t much different from deciding what we are going to believe. But what does it matter? If “all roads lead to Rome,” and “all paths lead to the top of the mountain,” then why bother with which road, or path, to choose? One is as good as another—the only thing that is important is that we are on some way, some journey, working some practice, some program. If we are faithful to the path we profess, we’ll all “get there,” so, what’s the problem with knowing who, or what, to believe? One person’s guess is as good as another’s, so you go your way, and I’ll go mine, and if you get there before me, save me a place, because we’ll all arrive eventually.
And so it is that Absolute Truth is a very relative thing.
We are free to make up our own minds about God—or we are bound to, required to, forced to by the nature and circumstances of our lives. We have to tell ourselves something about Ultimate Reality. We have no choice in the matter. As compensation for being in this position, we have a number of options from which to choose. We can tell ourselves anything we can talk ourselves into believing, and say that we are “taking it on faith.”
Trip back with me through time, observing all the religions, and the spin-offs of religions, and the private, personal formulations about God that have been produced, cultivated, developed and passed along by our ancestors. What makes them think that what they think is so? How do they know? Who says so?
Sometimes it is a life experience that convinces the people to think what they think. We have to understand, as well as we are able, why things happen as they do, and what we can do to take advantage of the power at work controlling our lives. We tell ourselves stories about our experience in order to structure our experience, as a way of ordering our experience, and making sense of it—and exploiting it in the service of our own ends.
We cannot survive in a nonsensical universe. A high priority of life is to find the order, to impose it if we have to, because we cannot live without it. We have to find the patterns, and make things meaningful, and say what’s what. Life depends upon it. When something happens, we tell ourselves something about what happens to give it shape, form, and purpose. We recover miraculously from an illness—we find an oasis just as we were on the point of death—we escape from Egypt, and are delivered from the company of soldiers that Pharaoh sent to track us down and bring us back. We talk about everything happening for a reason, see God’s purpose being worked out in our lives, and imagine the wonderful things God must have in mind for us, because, why else would God save us in this way—and wonder what we can do to guarantee God’s continued help in all of our undertakings.
Perhaps the transforming experience is a dream of particular clarity and deep emotional impact, or a vision—and where, exactly, does “vision” end and “hallucination” begin? Or, perhaps the transforming experience is the personal testimony of a very powerful and charismatic individual. Or, we may have an epileptic seizure, hear voices, and become, thereby, the voice of God for all those who witness the event without the knowledge required to understand what is happening.
At any rate, something happens, and we tell ourselves something about what happens to explain it, to place it in a context that will produce a response from us that will be to our advantage over time. All religion is self-serving. No matter what we give up in the name of religion—and we have given up our first-born sons, and our virgin daughters—it is always an investment that we expect will pay huge dividends in this life, and result in the accumulation of glory beyond conception in the life to come.
All theology is a collection of stories and explanations that we have told ourselves about our experience. Something happens, and we drape it with meaning and purpose by imagining why, and how, and for what. We may adjust the explanation over time to take into account the questions and contradictions it encounters, but at some point, it may achieve the status of Gospel Truth, become sacrosanct, and exist beyond all scrutiny and doubt. The ground of all religious belief is our experience, and what we have told ourselves about our experience to make sense of it—and to position ourselves to take advantage of it. The advantage may come to a larger group, and not to any individual within the group, but we don’t believe anything that isn’t self-serving on some level. We don’t believe anything that doesn’t have the potential of making us (or those like us) better off for believing it. There is always a payoff involved—usually heaven when we die—in what we believe. There is no religion in which advantage does not accrue to believers for believing.
The self-serving nature of religion is the first thing to keep in mind about religion, the second is that we are the ultimate authority determining what we believe. Take any statement of faith, for example, the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Ask about it, “Who says so?” and you’re likely get the answer, “The Bible says so!” Ask of that answer, “Who says that what the Bible says is so?” and you’re likely to get the answer, “God! The Lord God Almighty says that what the Bible says is so! The Bible is the Holy Word of the Living God!” Ask of that answer, “Who says that the Bible is the Holy Word of the Living God?” and, you will probably get the circuitous response, “The Bible says so!” whereupon you’ll just have to walk away because the person you are talking to cannot see the illogic of saying the Bible is so because the Bible says so.
But, if you are talking to someone who says something on the order of “All of Christendom says so! All believers of every age say that the Bible is the Holy Word of the Living God!” you are onto something, and can ask, “Who says that all of Christendom knows what it is talking about?” If you follow out this process of questioning the answers, you will finally get to the place where the other person has to say, “It is so because I say so!” And, there you are. We believe whatever we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing. We believe because we say so.
Look at it another way. Position yourself mid-point between me and, say, John Calvin. I picked John Calvin because he and I are in the same religious tradition (The Reformed Faith), and are in 100% disagreement regarding the tenets of that tradition. Now, you stand your ground and let us start talking about any topic you choose. I’m going to say one thing and John Calvin is going to say something quite different, and vice versa. Who are you going to believe? How are you going to decide whom to side with? How do you know which of us is right, or if neither of us are? You are going to “take it on faith” that you know what you are doing when you say “Yes,” to one of us and “No,” to the other of us—or “No,” to both of us. You are going to do what makes sense to you in light of your own experience and thoughts on the matter. You are your own authority regarding how to know what to believe, as are we all.
If we are willing to keep walking around what makes sense to us, looking it over, reflecting on it, examining it, poking it, prodding it, digging through it, holding it up to the light, and thinking about what we think after we have thought about it, we will become increasingly aware of inconsistencies, incongruities and incompatibilities. One thing will contradict another. The practice of “taking things on faith” came into vogue to relieve us of the trouble of squaring mutually exclusive beliefs, e.g., “God is Love, and is going to send you straight to hell if you don’t believe it!”
At some point in this process, we will have to ask, “How can ‘this,’ which makes sense to us, square with ‘that,’ which also makes sense to us?” Something will have to go in order for things to fit better together. Original Sin, for instance, has to go to make room for what we know about the evolution of the species. There was never a time of innocence and purity. There was never a time before things were as they are. There was nothing like Paradise. There was no Fall. There was no Before and After. What we think in one place doesn’t mesh with what we think in another place. We have to throw out some things we think in order to make room for others. What goes? What stays? Who says? We do! On the basis of what? Our. Own. Personal. Authority.
Here, we are at the place of breakthrough, transformation, insight, enlightenment and growth. We are at the place of what Thomas Kunn, and ten million others after him, called a “paradigm shift.” Things change when we become aware of our inconsistencies, incongruities and incompatibilities—and take the personal responsibility of deciding for ourselves how we will sort things out and put things together.
This is the first step of the Spiritual Journey, recognizing our place in our own life, and knowing that it is up to us to find our way through the maize of options, alternatives, opportunities and possibilities that open—and close—for us throughout our life. How well we do that tells the tale—and it will help to have A Handbook for the Journey!