Monday, April 20, 2015

The Mystery

This post is reprinted from one of my previous blogging projects. Some recent events within my home inspired me to share it again here. While the ideas I discuss in it continue to evolve with experience and time, it is still very much in alignment with my current beliefs. I share it to inspire thoughtful contemplation. Enjoy!

I grew up in a home populated by people who felt like closeted agnostics. Being Southerners in United States, claiming belief in a Christian God was almost taken as a given, and my family was no different. However, the terms by which we defined our God always struck me as rather flexible. They came initially from the Bible; however, the Good Book was, for us, more fluid than fixed.

Specifically, I remember my Precious Moments Bible with lite pink paper, faintly perfumed pages and illustrations inspired by the distinctly wide-eyed Precious Moments figurines. I thought it was an exquisitely beautiful thing for a child to own. Even though I eventually recognized it as a marketing tool, I treasured it. Rather than striking me as abhorrent that a company would co-opt religion, I instead saw religion as the conscious creation of my culture and identified with it as such.

As I aged, my Bibles changed. One translation gave way to another until eventually I’d read a couple versions of the whole thing. I felt as though Christianity led me deeply within itself in order to lead me out again. My one take away was my general impression of the Gospels. In an essay I wrote a couple years back, I summarized it like this: Regardless of our origins or our future, we have God’s Holy Spirit inside us. Therefore, by knowing ourselves, we will always find God, whomever and whatever God may be.

I suppose I took it for granted that knowing God authentically on whatever terms revealed themselves to me was more important than obeying God according to terms outlined lifetimes before. As Carl Sagan says,”Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?”

I come down on the side of the scientists, and this revelation (made glaringly apparent to me as I’ve aged) makes me re-think my previous tendency to elevate spirituality above religion. To better understand what I mean, consider these explanations courtesy of Wikipedia:

A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.


There is no single, widely-agreed definition of spirituality.Social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for the sacred, for that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration, “a transcendent dimension within human experience…discovered in moments in which the individual questions the meaning of personal existence and attempts to place the self within a broader ontological context.”

In other words, religion establishes a destination and provides a pathway for getting there. Spirituality says you will find the destination and pathway yourself.

In my youth, the latter “pathless path” seemed to be the superior option. While religions interested me, I worried about the dangers of “herd thinking” and was content to take ownership of my own beliefs. However, time has revealed that an “anything goes,” “be your own leader” approach can, in some individuals, give rise to a tremendous attitude of superiority and self righteousness trumping that of any thoughtless crowd. This considered, religion’s social nature may function to hold some congregation members in check from going rogue. After all, peer pressure can be positive too!

What strikes me now is the shared way that both religion and spirituality fall short: They claim that the greatest answers to life’s questions are clearly identifiable (either by others or by oneself) and that these answers typically lie somewhere outside of one’s daily, mundane life. Even though my open-minded study of my family’s religion led me to the conclusion that “by knowing ourselves, we will always find God, whomever and whatever God may be,” I severely limited my view by thinking of “ourselves” as individual personalities. I think it would be both more accurate and fruitful to see “ourselves” as meaning something more akin to “our reality.” According to this interpretation, all life experience reveals God in some way–even if it turns out that all God really amounts to being is a collective extension of ourselves, the whole of humanity which is greater than the sum of its parts. In my opinion, there is insurmountable beauty in this notion. It places our greatest faith in each other.

In any case, imagine if religion advocated for viewing life experience as a laboratory within which natural laws, moral tendencies and cultures are seen as a lens for understanding our place within the world not as the pinnacle of our existence in and of themselves. We could then stop using fixed notions of God to navigate life and begin navigating life as a means of encountering God.

Personally, nothing strikes me deeper than agnostic wonder. It is not based on the denial of anything but rather on the acceptance that, within reality as we believe we know it, there is always the potential for more.

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