I have an uneasy history with organized religion, but I never had any trouble keeping up a fine relationship with the Divine. I feel like I know God and we work on the same team; but church… I find the institution disturbing. It seems far less interested in the Divine than it is in getting the people to come to the store pay their dues and conform to a narrow agenda.
Christianity had 33,820 denominations with 3,445,000 congregations or churches composed of 1,888 million affiliated Christians. Yet it all seems like so many hamburger stands – each one has the same ingredients – meat, bun, cheese – and each one tries to convince you that theirs is the best of all.
It is impossible for me to imagine that Christians are the sole bearers of truth or that God would lie to all the Chinese, Muslims, Shinto-ists, etc. My mother’s father was a Roman Catholic, even an altar boy, but he became a Presbyterian because a kindly minister taught him English and business math and he was grateful – and realized the difference. That kind of retail caring for people I can understand. When preachers demonize the other church across the street, saying they are wrong and heathens, I get up and go.
I was raised in the Presbyterian Church down the street from our home. It seems the choice was more about location, than about any philosophical or ecclesiastical issues. The church was close and had Boy Scouts and a confirmation class – so that is where we went. I hated the services – it always seemed that people were reading from the menu. They would recite the Apostle’s Creed with as much enthusiasm as reading a can of dog food.
In the Penn Charter School, I was exposed to the Quakers and immediately felt an affinity for their philosophy. The essence of God is within you and it expresses itself in different ways for different people and in different settings. I drew two important lessons from the Quakers: Since the essence of God is within each of us, then warfare is wrong because you would be killing the essence of God in others. Since all of us have God within, then discrimination on the basis of gender or race is an insult to the Divine. Hence we shall all be treated as equals.
Studying anthropology and traveling the world opened my eyes to see that each religion in each place was tailor-fit to their eco-system and local needs. I cherish Shinto because it seems to address the environment and the divinity. I came to appreciate Islam and its image of heaven with flowing rivers – so appropriate in a desert environment. In fact, I came to see that God is invented in each culture as a unique expression of that culture’s time and place. The admonitions of the elders are reduced to aphorisms that can easily be taught to the children.
Santa Claus is an interesting case. If Santa didn’t exist, parents would invent him. He is such a useful fellow for enforcing good behavior and such a good training tool to prepare people for a lifetime of belief in God. Santa Claus is God with training wheels. They share many features… both are invisible, both work miracles in no time, both have a posse of elves or angels to do the hand’s-on work; God keeps track of every sin, while Santa keeps track of who’s naughty or nice. If you are good, you get rewards and if you are bad you get punished. The only really big difference is that children stop believing in Santa when they discover it is a ruse constructed by adults. But with God, no one admits the ruse. It is the same ruse but we are unwilling to admit it.
All human progress is characterized by the slow but steady loss of the human ego in the explanation of how things are. Copernicus got our ego out of the center of the universe. Air travel got God out of the clouds. Our egocentric view of the world makes the sun and the moon equals until the astronomers figure out that we got that all wrong. Our ego is still in the way of seeing that we are the descendents of a long line of mutations that were subject to natural selection and resulted in us… with all our flaws and wonders. Most of this progress is about reducing the role of God in everything. When we were ignorant, we explained everything with God. As we learned, the role of God was shifted to the remaining mysteries.
Now I find God in the sunset.
I find God in my actions in the world.
I don’t believe in a God who made all things – just the way they are.
I don’t believe in a personal God who watches over each little thing.
I can’t imagine a God who would create 800 million separate species of beetles or the human appendix or the pain of childbirth. I can wrap my mind around those arising via evolution rather than divine creation.
My God is the creator of the underlying scheme of the universe: gravity, magnetism, natural selection, teleology, laws of form, laws of scale, laws of math, and laws of nature….
A God who can invent Natural Selection is indeed a wonder to behold.
So we made our own successes and our own messes.
We are ultimately responsible for the way we manage the universe.
We are not masters of the universe.
My God cares more about what you are doing on Monday morning than what you are doing on Sunday morning. So I work for the Divine at work, not at church.
The best book I ever read on religion is the “Book of Q” which is a rendition of the words spoken by Jesus, stripped of all the stories about his comings and goings. There is no dogma about miracles or who was his father. All the legends and additions are removed and all you read are the words that the man said (or probably said…). It is a most engaging book, rich with divine inspiration and devoid of the theological issues of a man who is a God. Isn’t it ironic that we rejected the Greek “myths” yet the same stories are all woven through the Christ story? We giggle at Zeus coming to earth to father children, but treat Christ’s divine birth as a serious topic. The “Book of Q” is wonderful reading. Like a conversation with a sage.
I wrote this “Sage and Seeker” dialog when I was in College:
Seeker: Do you believe in God?
Sage: No. I don’t believe. I KNOW God and I have no use for belief.
Seeker: Is God present in the world?
Sage: God is in me. God is in you. God is in everything and everyone in the universe. Present all the time without beginning or end.
Seeker: Did God make the Universe?
Sage: God is not a maker or a creator or a thing nor male nor female, but God is in the order of the world. God is in the way of the world. Like the laws of the universe. God is in gravity and attraction and natural selection.
Seeker: Do you believe in Jesus?
Sage: Kristos, Krishna, Christ … all one. But God has no name and no need for one.
Seeker: What about other religions?
Sage: Moses, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha … all seekers of God, each with a truncated view of the whole. God spoke to each in his own way as appropriate for their people.
Seeker: But what about the Son of God?
Sage: Of my God we are all sons and daughters. Of my God there are no favorites
Seeker: But what about his book?
Sage: None of the books are “HIS” books, my God inspired lots of books, each in the language of the people. Each book is about their lives and their needs. Each book is an incomplete view of the whole.
Seeker: Aren’t some people his chosen people?
Sage: That is very egotistical; to want to be special before your God. My God has no chosen people, no special rights to distribute the right word, and no right to make others “wrong”. My God has no earthly enemies, no people upon whom war is made in God’s name, no heathens to be tormented in God’s name. No one dies for my God.
Seeker: Where do we go when we die?
Sage: We go where there is no certainty except that it is as elegant a part of life as life itself.
Seeker: Do you talk to God?
Sage: Yes, all the time. While washing dishes or watching the sunset or listening to a bird or sitting on the toilet. It is all divine time to talk to God.
Seeker: Does God talk to me?
Sage: Yes. In everything you do.
Seeker: What about in dreams?
Sage: Yes and in a dream, God makes stories about me and life and the whole.
Seeker: Can I have your God?
Sage: You already do.