Angels’ songs

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the issue of harmony, in particular what might be called spiritual harmony. Strictly speaking this is a different matter than that of connection, which I blogged about this fall, but they are somewhat related. In particular I believe that both are included in the proper task of religion in general. As part of my little Christmas present to the virtual world for this year then, I offer here my personal considerations of what sorts of spiritual harmony are important to life as we know it, together with some thoughts on the pros and cons of religious means of attempting to achieve such harmony.

It’s sort of in style these days to refer to oneself as “spiritual but not religious”. In other words such a person acknowledges that there is “something out there,” and that contact with that “something” is a significant part of life, but as they see it religions as organized systems for arranging such contact just aren’t worth the hassle they cause. In one sense that is a very noble thought, and easy to sympathize with; in another sense it can be rather superficial and naïve. It is one thing to doubt the details of particular understandings of that “something” that the prophets and gurus of various traditions have promoted; it is another thing to say that understandings of the transcendental which have provided peace, purpose and a sense of belonging to literally hundreds of generations already have nothing to teach us. Of course these religions can’t all be right, and of course they all have been used in horrific ways over the centuries, but if they weren’t actually providing some value we wouldn’t have them still. Those who have predicted the demise of religion have thus been continuously mistaken about the matter.

In many ways religions are like languages: they give us a conceptual framework for relating to a particular level of experience. Just as the limits of the vocabulary in some particular language can blind us to the fine details of the human experience that the language in question has no words for, so the limitations of particular religious perspectives sometimes blind us to aspects of the transcendental––the truth “out there”––that don’t fit into it the traditional myths, dogmas and commandments that the religion in question has to offer. Yet even so, just as one is able to perceive the world more fully by conceptualizing it in terms of a primitive language than by trying to conceptualize it with no language at all; I believe that any religious perspective that enables people to consider non-material, inter-personal and existential realities, and moral issues––especially when this consideration can be carried out in an open and systematic manner––is healthier than no religious perspective at all. Carrying that analogy a step further, I believe that when one is able use more than one language to think about the world in, and when one confronts the challenges of translating profound theoretical concepts between very different languages, one comes to realize something about a how far one’s reality has been determined by one’s native language, and one begins to overcome such limitations. Likewise when one dares to look beyond the strict limitations of a fundamentalist perspective in one’s own religion, and when one dares to consider the ways in which other religions address similar issues of justice, mercy, love and purpose in life, one’s spiritual perspective becomes far richer as a result. I remain first and foremost an English-speaker, and my spiritual perspective continue to be based on Protestant Christianity more than any other tradition, but I’ve come to realize that the world as we know it can be described as well or in some cases even better in other languages; and I’ve also come to realize that my own way of “doing religion” is not the only way in which God is able to speak to people.

Just as I cannot entirely step outside of the biases that are inherent to the English language in writing this, I cannot entirely step outside of my moderately secularized Protestant Christian perspective in considering the purpose of religion in general. Nevertheless, just as I hope that this text will be relatively easily translatable into most Indo-European languages at least, I also hope to speak of what religion has to offer in such a way that those of other religious persuasions can relate to what I have to say, and maybe even some non-believers as well.

To start with, pretty much every religion involves a dimension of harmony with nature. In Christianity, and the rest of the Abrahamic tradition, this is referred to as Creation Theology. The basic concept is that the earth belongs to God; God made it for us and we should be respectful of his handiwork. In other religions this takes the form of taboos against things that upset the balance of nature, or concepts of spiritual forces within nature that can only be harnessed through careful interaction with nature. Sometimes these teachings take the form of very abstract rules that once upon a time helped mankind get along better with nature, but which now continue on as a tradition with no obvious meaning.

Needless to say, if we entirely destroy nature, nothing else we do will make any difference, because we just plain won’t survive. Any religious principle which motivates people to act in responsible harmony with nature would thus be a good thing. It would be fair to state, however, that when it comes to the practical task of protecting nature we are far better off trusting in biological, geological and chemical research to determine what the risks are and what we should do about them, and then to turn to our religions for motivational reinforcement, rather than taking our religions as the basic starting point for what we must do in terms of environmental protection. If beyond that we want to follow particular religiously based agricultural, hunting, dietary or animal husbandry laws that can also have a positive influence on the environment… why not? I can imagine a number of arguments fundamentalists might have against this point, but I believe there is probably something close enough to consensus among my readers here where I can let it stand at that for the time being.

After the matter of finding harmony with one’s environment, the next issue for religions to address is that of harmony with one’s own nature. It could justifiably be argued that religious perspectives on what makes people tick are in many cases just as functionally reliable as many “scientific” theories of psychology. The processes of establishing a trustworthy perspective on basic human needs––as well as determining what is best and most important about each of us as people, and what we most need to control about ourselves to avoid self-destructing––are all things that are subjects of disagreement between different schools of psychology and different religions, and different schools of thought within different religions. And nowhere is this diversity factor more evident than within Protestant Christianity. But the fact that other religious groups have more uniform perspectives on such questions does not mean that they are necessarily more accurate. Many of the greatest crises of faith that religious people face, in fact, have to do with the descriptions of how people are supposed to work within the teachings of their religions not matching up to personal experiences. How honestly these crises of faith can publicly be acknowledged varies greatly from religion to religion and culture to culture, but people of all faiths have such crises, and they are always worth dealing with honestly.

Considering one particular set of scriptures or another to be our maker’s instruction manual for how to operate human life can be comforting in some circumstances, and utterly destructive for particular individuals in others. Here too, troubling as it might be for those who are most comfortable having absolute standards to appeal to, and as valuable as these scriptures can be in so many other respects, I would recommend respectfully considering the possibility that any holy book contains its own human elements, relative to the culture(s) in which it was written, and thus it might be prone to some inaccuracies about the fine details and practical recommendations which would lead to healthy personal adjustment and self-fulfillment in our own day and age.

The next dimension of harmony that religions in general attempt to promote is that within our own local communities. How must one behave in order to be a proper neighbor?  What responsibilities does each of us have as believers when we see a person in need? What sort of care is the community supposed to offer to strangers and passers-by? What does it mean in practice to treat each other decently? In some regards this class of religious teachings too often leads people to look at what the see as the absolute negative prohibitions (“NEVER let a woman…”) and not nearly often enough to look at the basic kindness that most of the great religious teachers taught their followers to prioritize. This has led to believers acting like obnoxious idiots rather than compassionate spiritual individuals, and it has led to unbelievers throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, when it comes to the great moral teachings of the religions we follow. My recommendation: those of us who are religious believers in particular should keep our priorities straight. We should not “strain at the gnats” of social prohibitions or required forms of punishment from millennia ago, while “swallowing whole camels” in terms of allowing ourselves to hate those who we see as different from ourselves. We should encourage those of all religions to follow the highest principles of respect for one’s neighbor, in the broadest sense of the word, which are included in their own moral codes.

After this, virtually all religions include a dimension of harmony within one’s tribe or nation. This part, while having its own pragmatic value, is often not so noble. Often this includes language akin to “One nation, under God, indivisible…” which is then taken to mean that the way to have a strong country is to enforce religious homogeneity within its boarders. There are endless numbers of variations on this theme, often depending on how far the theocracy project had progressed at the time of the death(s) of the founders of the religion in question, or the writers of its scriptures. At the time of the closing of the Christian canon of scripture, the followers of Jesus’ teachings were a relatively tiny persecuted minority group within a vast empire, thus the New Testament has little to say about how a Christian state should be run; but that didn’t stop the nations of medieval Europe from believing that they had a divine mandate to kill off those who didn’t share their beliefs about how God wanted things. This took the form of Crusades, pogroms and inquisitions that, Christians today varyingly admit were an embarrassment to their faith and apologize for, or try to excuse as just reactions to the stresses of the era. Islam, of all younger faith traditions, had developed the greatest level of religious control over the state at the time of the death of their Prophet, so the fact that there are more political directives and requirements for religious uniformity within their own lands is easily explainable in human historical terms. Many Muslims find such speculation about human causes for the writings in the Qur’an to be blasphemous and offensive, but there really are those who are brave enough to entertain such questions. Other religions tend to be far more open about the issue of the political ambitions of their faith and the basic morality of freedom of religion within any modern nation as a basic human right.

My recommendation for relating to the theocratic teachings within various religions––and to strictly anti-religious autocratic ideologies within secularist societies––is to apply the same principle as for communal justice: Focus on those aspects of the political teaching which genuinely lend themselves to compassionate spirituality. Don’t assume that you know enough about God’s will (or social scientific principles) to claim justification for killing of those who disagree with your pet prohibitions and claims to exclusive rights to ideological acceptability. I would find it easy to respect those of any religion who can follow such a principle, and very difficult to respect those of any religion (or lack thereof) who try to violently force their beliefs onto others so as to achieve ideological homogeneity. The mark of a strong nation is not that everyone has the exact same beliefs, but that everyone has a strong enough respect for their neighbors that no religious or ideological differences need to be considered a threat to others.

After that we find the general teaching in major religions to seek harmony with one’s brothers and sisters in faith. While this solidarity among believers can have its ugly side in terms of allowing for the killing and enslavement of non-believers in some ancient traditions; when practiced in sincerity it must be said to serve as a positive overall purpose. Adventists from anywhere in the world can turn to fellow Adventists in any corner of the globe for fellowship, assistance and practical support; reaching across racial, political and economic divisions between them. Many other religious groups aspire to and even practice the same high standard of care for their own, and once such empathetic practices get started they can easily spread beyond the limits of one’s religion as well.

But beyond all this, the obvious first purpose of any religion is to enable people to experience some sense of harmony with the Divine, the Eternal, the great First Cause… “God” by any other name. Obviously this purpose is inter-related with and has implications for all of the above, but that does not mean it can be reduced to such considerations. In fact one of the major challenges for any religion, as its surrounding culture changes from generation to generation, is to determine whether its teachings in relation to contact with the Divine can be considered as a separate matter from its teachings concerning gender roles or punishments for criminals, for instance. My perspective is to believe that it can be.

Given my own personal biases, I believe that the message that God is both just and compassionate––that God can remain perfect while still accepting imperfect people who call out for his mercy, and that God can give us strength beyond ourselves to share his mercy with others––reaches its greatest expression within Christianity, but I also recognize that other people get the same message from other religions and at this point I’m not inclined to tell God who He is and isn’t allowed to talk to, or what languages and religions He’s allowed to use in the process.

“…and on earth peace, good will toward men [and women].”

Merry Christmas, all.

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Filed under Holidays, Linguistics, Purpose, Religion

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