Friday, March 25, 2011

Choosing Religion

We all make choices that reflect what we have faith in. We borrow and lend in faith. We plan our futures in faith that important things will remain predictable. We have faith that 2+2 will always equal 4 and that things we drop will never go up instead of down.

And then there are more ephemeral beliefs such as faith in the basic goodness of others or that it is right to treat others as you would want to be treated. It is by no means necessary to hold religious beliefs to create a belief system consisting of faith statements whether organized or disjointed. So some of us will attempt to organize our beliefs in line with traditions that we receive, while others will attempt to create systems ex nihilo, and indeed, some will not care about order and simply live by the beliefs they find necessary.

I've gotten to the point in my life where I am much more interested in learning from others about how and why their beliefs matter than trying to convince others that my beliefs are superior. That may be surprising, coming as it does from a religious professional. I have chosen religion because I find it easier to hone my own beliefs by comparing and contrasting them to the collective wisdom of centuries of tradition. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in the evolution of belief. The gift of tradition is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel. I also don't have to take it on as a burden. Rather, it is a tool that I can use to shape the particular beliefs that will get me through my journey.

I am a theist because my personal experience requires it. I spent time trying to deny the existence of God. I found a frightening empty place within my being when I did that. I know that there is a God...and that is about the total extent of what I can say with certainty. I also admit that it is my reality, your mileage may vary. Still, given the profound nature of my own experience, I believe that this power that I name God exists apart from me and therefore is real for everyone. Unfortunately, religion has done a lot to give God a bad name, so I don't blame people for rejecting what they think they are supposed to call God. I much prefer the wisdom of the twelve-step programs that insist that recovery necessitates the belief in a higher power, whatever that means for the individual. At its best, religion is about getting us out of ourselves and into community. That is also religion at its core.

It is also clear that we are beings that rely on ritual. We all do repetitive acts that connect us with others and place us in a historical context. Whether it is blowing out candles on a birthday cake or taking a bit of bread and grape juice on a Sunday in a church, we value ritual. Different religions provide different rituals, I'm not going to suggest that some are superior to others. But again, my personal decision is to practice Christianity, not because it is the only path to truth, but because it is the one that I know best. It simply seems foolish to pursue another path when this one is so ingrained in me. That is why I feel so sorry for those who reject religion because they have been damaged by it. Theirs is a longer path because they must do so much work on their own. Where I am comfortable using religious language to describe my spirituality, they must create new language and understandably hear my language in the context of their pain.

Still, I desire to be in community with all who seek to apply belief to living, because that should always be our aim in life. I admit that religious institutions have too often worked more to preserve their existence than to be relevant change agents for the betterment of the world. That in itself is a decent argument for atheism. But in the end, I am sure that those of us who take time to ponder how to live ethical lives can gain strength in being in conversation and community. Knowing that I can never fully describe the being I call God since God is necessarily greater than my limited ability to comprehend, I am content to say simply that God is love. Logically then, love is God. Isn't that a simple enough place for us to begin our conversation? And, yes, it is also mind-blowing when you stop to consider it.


Bworl said...

I'm very much in tune with most of what you have shared here Ian. As I have aged, I have mellowed. There are times, many in fact, when I question whether that mellowing is insight gained from experience and reflection, or just laziness.

I try to think of spirituality in terms of faith rather than religion, and this is perhaps just an issue of semantics within me. Religion carries conotations of procedure, a system, and rules. On the other hand, faith is, for me, the culmination of how God has revealed himself to me through the years. Where religion always seemed to point me to a building, faith always seems to point me to a person.

I suspect that we are not like-minded in all issues of faith, but that's ok. While I agree that God is far too vast for us to really fully understand, I'm not quite ready to end the effort. What does strike a strong chord in me is that, despite differing opinions in specific matters of life, the true calling card of one devoted to the ways of God should be love and compassion over all.

There is far too little of that in our world.

Our perspective is far too often skewed by our focus on the life that we are living. But really, how could it be otherwise. It is all that we can touch, see, and feel. Yet in our striving to embrace the eternal, we experience glimpses of a departure from the bounds of the physical world that I believe help us to grasp at least a little piece of Him who called us.

DavidJSpuria said...

Our perspective is far too often skewed by our focus on the life that we are living. But really, how could it be otherwise - Bworl...

That is a brilliant and simple observation. I think the problem with the word 'religion' is it's often associated with an empty ritualistic faith. That is why many evangelicals have smartly (without adequate theology) been able to coin the phrase..."a personal relationship with Jesus". That is attractive to people. They want to believe God is active and real and concerned for their well being. Religion to me implies a set of things you do to act faithful. But those things without a proper motivation aren't always godly or divine in nature.

More and more I see the Gospels as action steps and not belief inducers. The actions elevate our faith out of mundane ritual into something tangible. When you serve those in need you emulate Christ in way that's hard to replicate even in the most well meaning ritual. People who serve are demonstrating true religion. The bible can aid in that service if we take it's positive claims seriously and not obsess over the theological minutia.